Exhausts chug thick smoke into the already smog-filled sky. Pick-up trucks stand on patrol in every driveway. Teenagers wait for their sweet sixteen that will put them behind the wheel even before they can buy cigarettes or drink in a bar.
For this is America. Creator of the great four wheeled machine, harbinger of modernity and home to the open road. Where the magnificent Ford Model T was conceived and mass production revolutionised industrial production.
And yet today Detroit is bleak. A testament to glorious days gone by, you do not have to look far to see the decline and decay that has reigned since manufacturing was no longer America’s unique preserve.
Globalisation has not been kind to Detroit. Back in 2010 it was described by The Guardian’s Julien Temple as a ‘full-frontal cultural car crash.’ He said of his first impressions: ‘the drive along eerily empty ghost freeways into the ruins of inner-city Detroit is an Alice-like journey into a severely dystopian future.’
The American devotion to their automobiles is long-entrenched. For magazine Scientific American this was no accident, and reflected a ‘serious push by the car industry to change people's psychology’. At the peak of its popularity, the car epitomised all it was to be American, with its place in rock ‘n’ roll culture and as a symbol of status and freedom further cementing its centrality. Even in 2016, The Atlantic laments the ‘unrivalled staying power for an industrial-age, pistons-and-brute-force machine in an era so dominated by silicon and software.’
Yet despite the longevity of the car in the American psyche, from the ashes of post-apocalyptic Detroit, a nascent movement of cycling can be seen peering its head above the tumbleweed.
Rarely has there been a tougher sell than that of selling cycling to a nation of petrol heads. Unlike their European brothers, the USA has staunchly resisted the appeal of cycling as a greener, healthier, cosmopolitan alternative to the gas-guzzling machine.
Last month The Guardian’s Nick Van Mead cycled through the now resurgent Detroit, exploring the growth of a cycling movement in the city as it seeks to make use of the vast empty spaces left unused by the exodus of its population.
The scheme is the brainchild of Detroit’s new director of planning, Maurice Cox, who plans to transform the city’s sprawling highways into boulevards complete with wider pavements, protected cycle lanes and more greenery.
It is expected that by the end of 2017, ‘Detroit will have 25 miles of new segregated cycle facilities.’ According to Van Mead, ‘advocates say this will catapult the city from 70th in the US rankings of protected lanes to a likely place in the top five, above Minneapolis and Portland.’
That this love affair with cycling is starting from a low base is evident. Yet events such as Detroit’s first ever ‘Open Streets’ day, that encourage the city’s residents to get out on bikes and cycle the four miles of roads closed off specifically for the event, are helping to spread enthusiasm for cycling as a viable alternative to the traditional reliance on cars.
For Mayor of the city Mike Duggan, cycling could well hold the key to Detroit’s future. He told Van Mead; ‘this younger generation grew up in the back of their parents’ cars being taken to school and to shops, and they don’t want that anymore. They want to walk and cycle […] we can offer young people bikeable and walkable neighbourhoods, and that’s at the heart of what we’re trying to do.’
Though its progress thus far may be small and incremental, that this transformation is taking place in the very birthplace of the car should bring a holistic sense of satisfaction to anyone who sees cycling as an alternative future of transport. Though the USA has a long way to go before it joins Europe and many other parts of the world in their love of cycling, Detroit could perhaps be the pioneer of regeneration and catharsis that this petrol head nation needs.
Huez has been closely following developments in American cycling culture. Last year we sent our own intrepid explorer to the Big Apple to discover or himself if New York City had finally embraced travel on two wheels. To find out more read our Huez* City Guides - New York
Words by Rebecca Stead