In Focus: In Between Transit, The Dequindre Cut

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September 11th, 2009 by Sarah Szurpicki (Great Lakes Urban Exchange - GLUE)

The rails-to-trails concept isn’t new.  Neither is urban greenspace.  Bike lanes have been paved before.  And yet, to a Detroiter, the opening of the Dequindre Cut this May felt almost revolutionary.

The Dequindre Cut is one mile of paved bike and walking lanes, with an adjacent greensward that could, in the future, be used for light rail–and currently functions as a picnic spot–which run from Lafayette to one of Detroit’s greatest community assets, Eastern Market.  It’s a “cut” because it’s set about 25 feet below-surface of roads and sidewalks, like an open-air subway for foot and bike traffic, in the footprint of the former Grand Trunk rail line.  Entrance and exit ramps about every 1/2-mile make the Cut accessible.

On a walk there last week (during which my audio recorder failed me, so I sadly can’t bring you a podcast) with Tom Woiwode, the Director of the GreenWays Initiative of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan and one of the major forces behind the building of the Dequindre Cut, and Sue Weckerle, a Program Associate in the Foundation’s Program group, we noted a few families, several people on bikes, and at least one motorized mobility assistive device.  (In Detroit, you’ll often see those devices in the middle of a busy road, because the condition of the sidewalks doesn’t allow passage.)  It was a warm, sunny day, and the landscaping, still-fresh lane paint, and signage made the Cut extremely welcoming.

The city purchased the land in the ’90s with plans to use it as, essentially, a driveway to a casino planned for the riverfront.  The brilliant idea to use the riverfront for casinos was thankfully scrapped, and the possibility begin to gather in several minds that this overgrown, neglected, and dangerous pathway could be transformed.  Funding from multiple government sources–including out of the transportation enhancement pool of MDOT’s ISTEA funding–was matched by the Community Foundation; overall, $3.4 million was required to lay the pavement, clear the brush, deal with a mystery sewer system, shore up the retaining walls, and, perhaps most importantly, provide the few little “extras” that really make the Dequindre Cut work.  Street lighting, benches, and emergency phone boxes (like those you see on college campuses), along with the frequently-mowed lawn, are what make the Cut inviting.

The GreenWays Initiative and its many partners, including the City and the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, say that the current Cut is just the beginning.  The mile between the south end of the Cut now and the Riverwalk will hopefully be connected by an extension of the Cut, and talks continue with the private property owner just north of the existing Cut.  But on an even larger scale, they envision a city in which all of our existing greenways are interconnected, and they are developing piece-by-piece a plan for construction of linkages between Detroit’s current parks: from Gabriel Park in the east, to Belle Isle and the Riverwalk, to the Dequindre Cut, to the planned “Midtown Loop,” and beyond.

Tom emphasized that, to him, bike lanes are important–but not in and of themselves, so much as potential triggers to a culture change.  The “greenways” are about inspiring “green WAYS” of living. They are also about the development of a community asset that Detroiters can be proud of and can communally use and celebrate; walking the Cut, you’re likely to receive twice as many smiles and “hellos” from strangers than you will on the sidewalk above (unscientific estimate).

The creation of the Cut involved overcoming several obstacles (like the mystery sewer system mentioned above).  Tom and Sue attribute its success to the dedication of all the involved parties, who met monthly and sometimes bi-weekly over a period of years to hone the plan and gather resources.  The maintenance and expansion of greenways in Detroit is similarly reliant on a series of collaborations.  One small example: the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy is charged with the ongoing maintenance of the Dequindre Cut.  Graffiti that has been preserved on the abutments within the Cut gives a nod to its history and Detroit’s graffiti culture.  But the more sun-exposed graffiti is already starting to flake, and the Conservancy having to vet new graffiti art for family-friendliness probably seems a little counter-cultural to the graffiti counter-culture.  A partnership in the works with an arts organization might circumvent the challenge.

The Dequindre Cut alone is not going to get Detroiters to sell their cars, and its success can’t be measured in miles of pavement laid.  Over time, what I’ll be watching for, with optimism, are answers to questions like: Are new small businesses popping up on the corners with Cut entrance ramps?  Is there less car congestion at Eastern Market on Saturday mornings?  Have obesity levels in the neighborhoods surrounding the Cut decreased?  Will people in those neighborhood start biking to work?  Are those neighborhoods seeing populations increase?  Do their residents feel prouder of their homes, and more warmly towards their neighborhoods?

I ask those questions because I believe that new greenways, especially those with a commitment to the maintenance that keeps them safe and welcoming, can have economic, health, and community benefits–and hope that the Dequindre Cut serves as a tipping point for those transformations in Detroit.

Thanks again to Tom and Sue for spending some time sharing their work and their passion with me.

This post is a part of our September series on “In Between Transit,” car-lite solutions in cities where far-reaching public transit is still some ways off. 

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