Urban Tribe - Ride with your kids in front.

Bikes don’t make the cut in PBS film ‘Beyond Motor City’

Posted by on July 1st, 2010 at 9:21 am

A scene from the film.
(Photos © J. Maus)

If aliens dropped into the free screening of PBS’s documentary Beyond Motor City at the Bagdad Theater Tuesday night, they would have gotten a crash course in America’s transportation history and the challenges we face as a nation to recover from our love affair with highways and automobiles.

Unfortunately, they would have also come away without knowledge of one of the most obvious solutions to that recovery — the bicycle.

The documentary, just one film in PBS’s ambitious and award-winning Blueprint America series, followed the rise and fall of Detroit from a transportation perspective yet it made no mention of how bicycling might figure into the ailing city’s future.

“Bicycles were pushed to the margins in this film for political reasons, which we can discuss later.”
— Aaron Woolf, director

Speaking before the film, director Aaron Woolf said Detroit, “Cast its lot with the automobile in a bad way” and said their commitment to cars didn’t pan out because they mistakenly “were looking into the future of a country that would be dominated by petroleum.”

Like many U.S. cities, Detroit developed rapidly during the first half of the last century due to improved access by waterways (Erie Canal), roads, trains and later streetcars. Then, car companies began to grow and their influence helped spur what the film referred to (rather innocently) as “the rise of the automobile.” (Several car companies were found guilty by the federal government for conspiring to dismantle streetcar systems in Detroit and many other cities — but the film did not mention that.)

This “rise” led to auto-centric planning and an urban landscape dominated by freeways and parking lots. To make room, planners displaced entire neighborhoods and razed hundreds of homes and buildings. In the film’s most powerful moment, a Detroit minister speaks fondly about the neighborhood he grew up in and how it completely vanished when a freeway was built nearby.

Director Aaron Woolf (R) during
the panel discussion.

According to the film, the city lost its vitality in large part because so much public space had been given to cars and public transit system was dismantled. This environment contributed to isolation and tensions that led to riots in 1967 that left 43 people dead and marked the beginning of a long period of urban decay.

In the film, Detroit — with a whopping 40% of its space lying fallow — is described as a “blank canvas” with the potential to retool and reinvent itself as a city of the future.

That future, as portrayed in the film, would be devoid of bikes and would instead be full of plug-in cars (the film felt like a commercial for Ford Motor Company in several segments) zooming to high-speed train stations and light rail lines criss-crossing the city.

Why would biking not even merit a mention in a film about the future of transportation in America?

After all, Detroit is relatively flat, has a network of paved, low-traffic (at least for now) roads — perfect conditions for bicycling to flourish. They’ve also got a burgeoning bike scene as evidenced by these photos and report on Streetsblog from a (successful and peaceful) Critical Mass ride just last week that had 375 riders. Not to mention, Detroit is home to the first paved road in the nation, a road that was paved by bike advocates as part of the ‘Good Roads’ movement at the turn of the 19th century.

The reason we didn’t see bikes in the film was surprising and should serve as a warning flare to bike advocates across the country.

During the Q & A session that followed the screening, director Woolf said, “Bicycles were pushed to the margins in this film for political reasons, which we can discuss later.”

After the panel, several people approached Woolf. He elaborated on his comment to say that he filmed a lot of biking segments but that he had a “hard time getting PBS to take bicycling as transportation seriously.”

I followed up with Woolf via email. He confirmed that he filmed, “a number of scenes that might have helped add a thread of biking to the overall narrative” including footage of Detroit’s bike collective “The Hub” and the opening of the Dequindre Cut greenway, but he didn’t put the blame on PBS producers like he had so clearly last night:

“I should take as much blame as anyone for the fact that we couldn’t get those scenes into the overall arc. Faced with a looming deadline and too much material, it was hard to integrate biking into the three hundred year transportation history the film attempts to survey – though this would have been my preference, as both an urban bicyclist and someone who elected to shoot those scenes in the first place.”

Whatever the reason, the absence of bicycling in Beyond Motor City is a shame. It’s a missed opportunity not just for people who care about the future of Detroit, but for every city where a break from our auto-centric past is imperative. PBS is backing a national screening tour of this film, and given the importance and relevance of this topic, it would have been an excellent educational vehicle for how bicycling infrastructure is the best investment cities can make.

For people that care about biking, this should serve as a a cautionary tale. It’s just the most recent sign that the political muscle behind light rail and streetcar infrastructure (and the funding that follows) is currently way ahead of bike infrastructure and there’s a real threat that biking will continue to be left on the cutting room floor unless that changes.

Special thanks to PSU’s Oregon Transportation Research and Education Consortium and local non-profit Architects Without Borders for hosting this free screening. Pretty neat to live in a town where a film like this draws a nearly sold-out crowd.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Thank you — Jonathan

  • Jammers July 1, 2010 at 9:45 am

    Interesting article!

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  • Lance P. July 1, 2010 at 9:49 am

    It is sad that bikes were left out. Most of Detroit’s demise started with the neighborhoods being ripped out for freeways, which are used solely by autos. Freeways everywhere. How would changing to electric vehicles change this? They are still autos, they still take up huge amounts of space to move and to store. This is a sad. It also seems odd that bikes were pushed out by PBS since there have been many stories on Oregon and cycling. I think this was a personal decision by Aaron Woolf. Hey has his own agenda. Maybe he has stock on the new electric vehicle released earlier this week???

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  • grannygear July 1, 2010 at 10:04 am

    oh johnny…
    a true -blue collar- job would do you some good.

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  • peejay July 1, 2010 at 10:06 am

    Divide and conquer. This is the autoists’ number one tool to maintain hegemony over our public roadways. Pit bike users against train passengers, bike users against people who walk, buses against streetcars, etc.

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  • Oliver July 1, 2010 at 10:09 am

    Given that the paved road system in this country begins and (possibly) ends with bicycles, it’s a disservice to everyone, especially the people of Detroit that it was left out for ‘political reasons’.

    Not surprised, except maybe that it’s a PBS joint.

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  • Jessica Roberts July 1, 2010 at 10:11 am

    Everywhere in the country, it’s hard to get cities to reduce car space and give it to bikes…yet here’s a city with far more street space than is needed. I see this as the *perfect* location for a radical reallocation of street space from cars and to people (on foot and on bike). What a shame they couldn’t bring themselves to envision transportation as being possible outside of a vehicle (car or train).

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  • Allan July 1, 2010 at 10:13 am

    Do you think that Bike Advocates are at a disadvantage because they aren’t asking for enough $$? It seems like people are willing to spend some $ to get a ton of government, whereas cycling advocates point to super-cheap improvements that could be made and get next to nothing. If it really would only cost 1 lane of urban freeway to build out the bike plan, why aren’t we doing it now? Its not like we don’t have enough money. If we were asking for 10x what we need, would we get the 1x?

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  • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) July 1, 2010 at 10:19 am


    i think bike advocates are a disadvantage for many many many reasons. one of them surely is that bikes are just too simple and unsexy to capture the imagination of both the public and politicians.

    obviously the “bikes are a cheap date” mantra is not the ideal message but i don’t think simply asking for more money would make bikes suddenly politically palatable.

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  • Dennis July 1, 2010 at 10:53 am

    Bicycles and rail can be a perfect compliment to each other. Join forces, integrate to create a true transportation system. Bicycles for short-haul (last mile), and electric rail for inter-urban, and inter-neighborhood methods. High-speed rail, for inter-regional transport. that’s the combination that brings fear to the petroleum companies.

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  • beth h July 1, 2010 at 11:07 am

    @Allan (#7):

    I’d add that I think bike advocates are at a disadvantage because many of them don’t HAVE money to begin with. Not everyone who chooses to ride a bike does so out of choice alone, but because it’s cheaper.

    Part of bicycles’ un-sexiness is rooted in the stigma of having been relegated to the poor who cannot afford other kinds of transportation, and various ethnic and social groups who do not want to ride bikes because they don’t want to be seen as poor. The car is still a symbol of having somehow arrived for many people in this country and this movie was clearly not going to address that reality.

    I have to say that I was more disappointed that the movie didn’t have much hope to offer at all, but focused on just how far gone Detroit was — racially, socially, economically and transportationally.

    The problem was made to feel so big that the solutions offered felt piecemeal and very, very small in comparison. Maybe that’s the reality, If so, perhaps the film shoud’ve spent more time at the end highlighiting solutions in other cities that DID work.

    I don’t think the film was as effective a piece of actual advocacy as it was simply an examination of the present reality.

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  • wsbob July 1, 2010 at 11:12 am

    “…After the panel, several people approached Woolf. He elaborated on his comment to say that he filmed a lot of biking segments but that he had a “hard time getting PBS to take bicycling as transportation seriously.” ” maus/bikeportland

    Disappointing, because I’m quite a fan of PBS.

    America/the U.S., loves the whole whizz-bang GM Motorama dream transportation landscape. Doesn’t matter if the cars are gasoline fueled, electric powered or nuclear fueled…on the road, they still take up the same amount of often excessive, unused space. Per person, a bike used for transportation takes far less.

    Any of you having taken time to check out topics in the forums might have noticed the ongoing decision as to whether to install striped bike lanes on one of Beaverton’s streets. A key point of opposition from some residents along the street in question, is their sense that loss of freedom to park on the street will adversely affect the market value of their houses.

    That seems somewhat ironic, considering that the removal of parked cars and effectively replacing them with an increase in bike traffic would seem likely to calm the streets motor vehicle use. Also, residents of this street would be provided with a ‘right outside the door’, direct and safe bike route to shops and mass transit, a mile or less away. I think for increasing numbers of people today, those things would signify not a decrease, but an increase in a residential property’s value.

    Generations of the U.S. have been raised and conditioned to think of the country as ‘Motor City’. It seems to be very difficult for many members of the public to escape that conditioning.

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  • El Biciclero July 1, 2010 at 11:15 am

    Freeways. Anything but.

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  • Ryan July 1, 2010 at 11:16 am

    The “solutions” presented in the film felt pretty bleak. There was little encouragement for regular citizens to take an active role in Detroit’s future. It was basically, “Wait for GM to perfect and mass produce electric vehicles; wait for the city to build light rail, etc.” It was a pity that active modes of transportation weren’t emphasized.

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  • are July 1, 2010 at 11:19 am

    the first clue that this film was going to disappoint came before the lights went down, when director woolf framed the discussion by saying that a century ago detroit actually did look to the future and saw a century of automobile dominance. a lot of footage given over to the high speed rail in spain, and the coming project in california, which has relatively little to do with local transportation — and there the emphasis was on how high speed rail was an engine for economic “development.” these two items taken together tell you that woolf and PBS and whoever are still stuck in the mindless consumerist idea of endless growth. to judge from the film alone, the big idea that is going to somehow resurrect detroit is three miles of light rail down one corridor. not.

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) July 1, 2010 at 11:22 am

      i wonder what would happen if a massive bike-sharing system was dropped into downtown Detroit. it’s too bad that the film couldn’t spend even a few minutes discussing an idea like that and instead spent a lot of time, as “are” wrote above, talking about interstate rail.

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  • SkidMark July 1, 2010 at 11:19 am

    Just curious….is it possible to be pro-bicycle without being anti-car? (and vice-versa?)

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  • bahueh July 1, 2010 at 11:31 am

    SkidMark…I’m pro-bicycle and not anti-car…so there you go. Its not us vs. them, man…..that’s myopic.

    I own a great car…drive it about 6-7000 miles /year…Mt. Hood, to bike races, and daily errands…right tool for the right job.

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  • peejay July 1, 2010 at 11:32 am

    El bicyclero:

    Perhaps freeways should be renamed someone-else-paysways.

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  • CaptainKarma July 1, 2010 at 11:54 am

    True, whilst PBS is head and shoulders above the regular vast wasteland of corporate media, they too, are in fact corporate players, taking lots of corporate money. Methinks that may play into what airs.

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  • Did I miss it? Again? July 1, 2010 at 11:54 am

    Having spent most of my life in the greater Detroit area, I feel very certain that cycling (as we currently know it) will never be a major mode of transortation there; not unless automobiles are either outlawed or become so expensive that only the rich can have them.

    Anyone that believes otherwise should go and spend two months there: August and February. Don’t treat it as a vacation, but rather as if you lived there. While there, take note of the following: the average commute distance (be it to work, school, or just for groceries), average family size and who employs most people.
    It’s very easy to sit across the country and not fully comprehend the real situation there.

    Perhaps with advances in electric assist and fully enclosed bikes, rebuilding of the suburbs and cities, changing the mentality of 95%+ of the population, and unlimited money resources, this all could change, but if you are going that far, why not an electric car and status (more or less) quo?

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  • wsbob July 1, 2010 at 11:55 am

    “Just curious….is it possible to be pro-bicycle without being anti-car? (and vice-versa?)” SkidMark #15

    Yes. I think last year, I put about 4500 miles on the pickup. I walk a fair bit and bike a fair bit, as time and distance allows. To me, people riding bikes mean more room on the road when I’m driving. Can’t beat the truck though (that’s what I call it) for a nice, warm, dry, comfortable drive with music and no wind noise.

    There are so many bad things about excessive use of motor vehicles for transportation. People are resigned to the idea though; the noise, the dirt, the loss of livability. For many of them, even if they wanted to walk or bike, any hope they have that their city’s design could allow that and still allow the economy to function and provide jobs, is feeble.

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  • are July 1, 2010 at 12:31 pm

    re comment 15, i am not anti-car, i am anti- the inappropriate use of the private automobile for every g*dd*mn two- (or five-) mile errand. by vice versa, do you mean, is it possible to be anti-bike without being pro-car? probably.

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  • sparewheel July 1, 2010 at 1:08 pm

    “i am not anti-car, i am anti- the inappropriate use of the private automobile for every g*dd*mn two- (or five-) mile errand.”

    exactly captures my feelings about the car vs bike debate. (my stay at home neighbor drives 3 blocks to pick up their coffee every morning.)

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  • Anonymous July 1, 2010 at 1:08 pm

    It’s not a surprise that PBS “left out” any mention of bikes. Similarly, their program about solutions to the healthcare crisis “left out” all mention of Single Payer!! Not politically feasible. What is feasible is what’s acceptable to their corporate masters. And what’s acceptable to them will not give us transportation–or healthcare–that really works for us or keeps us from making our cities, and out whole planet unaffordable. Sadly, if they ever were, PBS and NPR are no longer in any way useful alternatives to the more upfront corporate media.

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  • Hart July 1, 2010 at 2:56 pm

    PBS recently did a piece on Obama’s SCOTUS nominee Elena Kagan. Nowhere in the hour discussion was it mentioned that she had done work for Monsanto. Guess who underwrote that hour of programing for PBS? Yep. Monsanto.

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  • Tourbiker July 1, 2010 at 3:39 pm

    I would have to say I Agree With the Piece. Urban sprawl has led to much of Detroit having a “backward compatible” view of bike transportation.
    Many Other Cities are in the same boat.

    Without a Hybrid System of light rail & cycling, it simply takes too long for the average Dick/Jane to move to and from home.
    I would think that Light rail might be a stop-gap while the electric revolution gets a start.
    Even here in PDX we can’t seem to get Tri-met to consider a reasonable shuttle fare under sylvan hill for cyclists.

    Detroit’s WCSX radio “jocks” Deminski and Doyle even encourage lobbing debris@ riders.
    No wonder “motor city” is in Crisis.

    Detroit got caught with their pants around their ankles

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  • DP July 1, 2010 at 4:25 pm

    “I wonder what would happen if a massive bike-sharing system was dropped into downtown Detroit.”

    Jonathan I hate to tell you, but it would be vandalized, sold for scrap, thrown into the river or otherwise destroyed in a matter of days if not hours.

    That’s is how it is in Detroit, and that is why for years people have been getting out as quickly as they can. The schools fail, businesses fail, public transportation fails, the police and the government have all failed.

    Did I Miss It? Again? and Tourbiker hit the nail on the head, Detroit is far too large to cycle around in. If you’ve spent any time there you understand it takes a car and lots of time to get anywhere because the city sprawls for miles in every direction. Bicycles were not a consideration when the city was built, and they still are not.

    I love Detroit, it will always be my home, but every time I return to visit I see less and less hope for it…mad respect for the people keeping the faith and trying to improve the City.

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  • Hart July 1, 2010 at 4:40 pm

    “it would be vandalized, sold for scrap, thrown into the river or otherwise destroyed in a matter of days if not hours. That’s is how it is in Detroit, and that is why for years people have been getting out as quickly as they can”

    I could not disagree more. It was my home too, and the improvements I’ve seen in the last ten years are incredible. The amount of culture and sense of community have soared in Detroit. People are organizing, they’re restoring the city. It will never be what it was, and that’s the point. Detroit is finding it’s own solutions that accept the fact it’s a large city with a small population. As we saw in the film, outer areas of the city are being returned to farmland. There are already plans in the works for a massive system of bikeways that if built would put Portland to shame. This myth that bike-share systems will always be vandalized has been debunked over and over, and to say that Detroit is nothing but thieves and hopelessness is simply untrue.

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  • Detroiter July 1, 2010 at 6:01 pm

    The only reason a Detroit Bike-Share wouldn’t work is besides on days where there’s sporting events, or festivals downtown, I couldn’t see much ridership.

    Detroit has so much potential to become a great city. Sure, some people see no hope and might leave, but I know TONS of people who live in the city who see the potential of a new Detroit and they’re doing something about it.

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  • matt picio July 1, 2010 at 10:27 pm

    Lance (#2) – Sadly, bikes won’t change that, either. The damage to Detroit’s neighborhoods due to the Interstate Highway System being built was permanent. Regardless of what Detroit uses to get around, the city will and is rebuilding itself, and the ultimate form it takes with be a natural outgrowth of its current road network.

    Detroit, other than the damage done to its neighorhoods over the decades, is fundamentally unchanged from 100 years ago in terms of its road grid. The real issue is Detroit’s suburbs, which are rarely addressed and diametrically opposed to anything that jeapodizes the American Happy Motoring Paradise.

    Jessica (#6) – Except it isn’t needed. Detroit already has all the road infrastructure it needs, little traffic, and from a traffic perspective, mostly safe streets. It’s the suburbs that need the infrastructure. Detroit can’t envision bikes because people don’t want to ride in the rain, in the cold, or in snow, and many don’t feel safe biking on Detroit’s streets because of crime, not because of traffic. And the city has no money to fund new infrastructure – they can’t even maintain existing infrastructure.

    Jonathan (#16) – Unless a comprehensive plan was put in place to ensure the bikes were maintained, and the police kept an eye out for them, the system would be non-functional in 6-8 weeks.The remainder of the system would be dead by the end of the first winter. Solely my opinion, of course, but there you are. I’d love to see them prove me wrong.

    Hart (#28) – I have every bit of faith in Detroit’s citizens – they have made huge strides in the last 10 years, and I felt so welcome in the city I left 10 years ago. Such a fantastic place. I have no faith in the suburbs, however, nor in the political will of the City Council to properly fund a system to maintain it. The first time a chain breaks, or a wheel taco’s, that bike is out. After a single winter with salt on the chains, the whole system is out.

    A larger issue is getting people to “want” to bike. I suspect “Detroiter” (#29) is correct that ridership might be an issue.

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  • Hart July 2, 2010 at 1:34 am

    ” The first time a chain breaks, or a wheel taco’s, that bike is out. After a single winter with salt on the chains, the whole system is out.”

    I lived car-free and commuted by bike in Lansing, Michigan for four years before moving to Portland, and never had such problems. If Minneapolis can get rated the #1 cycling city in the nation, then there is no reason for Detroit not to invest in bike infrastructure. Have some vision.

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  • Peter Smith July 2, 2010 at 5:17 am

    the political muscle behind light rail and streetcar infrastructure (and the funding that follows) is currently way ahead of bike infrastructure

    i think this can be addressed by continued advocacy on our part, including and especially convincing our fellow ‘advocates’ that bikes are, in fact, real transportation. i expect the motorheads to disregard bikes, but the idea that bikes should be allowed onto major roadways is just not something that most bike ‘advocates’ buy into yet. we need to change that. bike boulevards and the like are great, and they’re essentially useless if we want to start seeing real shifts/gains in mode share. ask Berkeley how all of their bike boulevards are working out.

    the director guy spoke the truth the first time around — PBS cut his bike scenes. after letting the truth slip, he soon thereafter realized that Don “GM” Corleone and the head of PBS would not be pleased once they heard what he’d said, so he walked it back — so i agree with some previous commenters in this regard. He wants his movie to show, and he wants to have a roof over his head — can’t say I really blame the guy. happens all the time in all walks of life – not just PBS/filmmaking/etc.

    but we definitely don’t have to accept GM’s vision of the future. i’d like to, for instance, make ‘fantasy transportation maps’ part of our discussion — the same way some blogs do ‘fantasy transit maps’. Tom Vanderbilt gave the idea of bicycle highways more attention recently.

    and we should continue to look for institutional changes/solutions by, for instance, challenging illegitimate institutions (like corporations) by arguing for sunshine laws that apply to corporations just like they apply to governments (I’d sure like to have BP required by law to open up their books and strategy, reply to FOIA requests, etc.), and maintain, grow, and create new, more-democratic institutions that serve us instead of the rich — like BikePortland.org. Let’s do an annual fundraiser ride/whatever that nets at least $100,000, start a ‘building fund’ so we can buy a future, permanent home for BikePortland staff, start looking at creating universal healthcare, even if capped/limited to start, for everyone who pays into it (if we can support Better World for roadside bike assistance, why not a ‘Better Health’ for health care coverage?).

    i also don’t buy that GM wants, or is even willing to allow, rail to be put down in Detroit or anywhere else. they’ll continue to resist rail to the bitter end b/c it’s only a few rich people who control policy, not the folks who actually need jobs. that rail made it into some documentary is meaningless. GM/BP/Shell/TheCityFix/NBRTI/Tesla/Volvo/Ford will continue to push roads and cars and electric cars and buses – we won’t see any more rail or bike infrastructure if these folks have anything to say about it. i actually think the auto industry is more than a bit unnerved about bikes — they really don’t know what to do about them, or us. their ‘kitchen sink’ solution is BRT and electric cars, but they’re just buying time. every time they kill off more transit, more people are pushed onto bikes — it must be ‘driving’ them crazy. (zing!) 🙂 and hopefully soon there’s gonna be more and more people like me who push for allowing bikes on our most important corridors, and we’ll be saying, “We need to allow people to ride their bikes – in safety, comfort, with dignity intact.” — it’s a lose/lose/lose situation for the auto lobby right now, but we can’t get lazy. bikes. land use. dignified transit. simple.

    finally, we should continue to parrot the simple truth that Detroit should be in the business of building trains, not cars. there are a bunch of reasons why this is not given any serious attention in the mainstream media anymore — after a couple of very brief dalliances into that thought process by mainstream opinionists, but we shouldn’t give up on it — it’s so obviously the right thing to do for most Americans (if not the ‘right’ Americans).

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  • Todd Scott July 2, 2010 at 7:08 am

    I had the same concerns with this documentary when it aired in Detroit earlier this year. Bikes are sexy enough.

    We are looking at bike sharing systems for the city. They would be a effective way of connecting the neighborhoods and destinations to the planned light rail. The Minneapolis bike sharing model looks like a very good fit for Detroit. However, we’ve got enough on our plate right now, so we’re waiting for the rail to come closer to fruition.

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  • RWL1776 July 2, 2010 at 8:51 am

    ” anetwork of paved, low-traffic (at least for now) roads — perfect conditions for bicycling to flourish.”

    Where are these specific roads? Attention everyone who claims Detroit could be saved by bicycles: If you have never BEEN there or lived there, you have no idea how different the Metro Detroit area is compared to Portland. A “short” drive to a friends house can be as long a HALF HOUR on the highway. For example, to get to DTW, the Metro Detroit Airport, it is a one HOUR drive from Oakland County, at a non-rush hour time. You’d have to start riding your bike yesterday to make it to your flight today.

    Please take a long vacation there, then make an educated comment on the Metro Detroit area.

    The 1967 race riots were caused by a lack of public transportation? Give me a break.

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  • Kevin July 2, 2010 at 9:11 am

    I attended the screening on Tuesday night and was similarly disappointed. Bikes do appear to be an obvious, low barrier, part of the solution despite the exclusion from the film. I think it would be wise to enlist Jenny Leonard and the Bikes to Rwanda folks (but not sure they actually exist) to start sending containers of bikes to Detroit.

    Overall, the film was sub par. The footage from the Spanish rail junket suggests a ‘Jetsons’ high speed rail solution that will do little for average Detroiters. The M1 ‘train to nowhere’ campaign also promised limited efficacy (if it is ever built). Add to this the puppeted plug-in carshare program (with Ford product placement as Maus noted). The solutions, presented as they were with ‘feel good’ water color rendering, were insulting and made me nautious. Though no doubt well intentioned, Aaron Woolf fails to deliver anything but a great soundtrack and ‘Jet Packs’ with Beyond the Motor City.

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  • Todd Scott July 2, 2010 at 9:15 am


    The conversation and documentary focuses on the city of Detroit, not Metro Detroit or Oakland County. Nearly every arterial in the city of Detroit is low traffic and overbuilt for its cross section. It’s easier to list the short sections of city roads that are not bike friendly.

    And, DTW airport is a 2 hour bike ride from my house in Oakland County. Even still there’s no need to exaggerate if your point is most Detroit *suburbs* aren’t bike friendly — but the focus is on the city of Detroit.

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  • matt picio July 2, 2010 at 9:58 am

    Hart (#31) – That’s because you lived IN LANSING. I absolutely agree there is no reason for Detroit not to invest in a bike sharing system, but if the political will isn’t there to maintain it, then vandalism and Michigan weather will kill it. I have plenty of vision – but no confidence in the current political establishment. I have faith that Detroit’s citizens will gain control of their government, but I think it’ll take another 10-20 years before that process is complete.

    As for road infrastructure – Detroit doesn’t need it, but the suburbs need it DESPERATELY.

    Peter (#32) – Agreed. GM used to build trains until they spun off the Electo-Motive Division. Before the rise of the auto industry, Detroit had a very broad manufacturing base, with stovemaking as the largest segment. After 30 years of building cars, that was pretty much the orientation of the entire manufacturing base, and it hasn’t changed since.

    RWL1776 (#34) – I think the issue is talking about “Detroit” vs. talking about “Metro Detroit”. Detroit is doing great things, and has lots of low-traffic streets because it’s lost 60% of its WWII population and has a complete and efficient street grid. Moving around Detroit by bike is not a problem. Metro Detroit is another matter entirely. When I was back in Detroit this February, it took me an hour to drive from Utica to Metro Airport in Romulus to drop off the rental car. (My trip was unexpectedly extended, and I only had the car 2 days) It took 2.5 hours to return via SMART bus. (I still call it SEMTA).

    I agree, people need to visit Detroit to fully understand the issues. (also, to fully appreciate how good we have it here in Portland)

    Todd (#36) – Where in Oakland County? Metro is a 2 hour ride from lower Southfield, but a 5 hour ride from Leonard or Lake Orion. It’s a big county, and with traffic it can take some time to get out there from the big population centers like Troy, Auburn Hills and Rochester Hills.

    FYI, I lived in East Detroit (I still refuse to say “Eastpointe”), Utica, Sterling Heights and Madison Heights for 22 years before moving to Portland 10 years ago. There are lots of Metro Detroit expatriates living in the Pac NW. When I finally get out to Michigan in a non-winter month I’d love to ride with you – I need to stretch my legs on the bike in Detroit.

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  • craig July 2, 2010 at 10:10 am

    I was frightened by this film, and by Mr. Woolf’s responses about biking/walking. Elephant in the room? My friends, there was a supersized, yodeling, break-dancing, strobe-light-wearing with-its-hair-on-fire elephant in the Bagdad Theater that evening.

    Active transportation was not “pushed to the margins” in this film. It was totally absent. Not a single word or image about walking and biking. Mr Woolf’s remarks on not just disingenuous, they’re shame-faced spindoctoring.

    Given the national conversation, including federal initiatives, to finally push walking/biking to the surface of discussions about transportation strategy, the oversight in this film was not only disheartening for me personally–it is obscene, and reeks of intent.

    TRANSIT was the watchword–nay, the mantra–in this film, and in Mr. Woolf’s comments during the post-screening Q&A session. Transit, i.e. mechanized corporate people-moving. This serves, possibly intentionally, to direct the conversation continually toward transit-solutions, and away from the true community-impacting issue of TRANSPORTATION.

    *PORTION OF COMMENT DELETED*** and the iron horse you rode in on.

    The transportation problem is far too intertwined with our other critical national problems–medical and mental health, economic stability, environmental destruction, national security, enshrined corporate/government fleecing of the populace–for active transportation to be shunned in a documentary of this nature.

    I’ll buy lunch for a journalist who actually digs deeper into the strategists at PBS and the films funding sources to reveal why this clearly deliberate decision was made to exclude active transportation from a film made in 2009 about a city in crisis because of transportation–Detroit, the national emblem of our car-centric malady.

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  • Marcus Griffith July 2, 2010 at 10:41 am

    Leaving out a major and pivotal aspect of any documentary for “political reasons” means the so-called documentary is nothing more than history re-writing propaganda.

    Since the days of the “Good Road Movement”, bicycles have been a lasting and significant impact on America’s transportation system.

    A transportation documentary that doesn’t cover bicycles is like having a western medicine documentary that doesn’t mention hospitals.

    Congratulations are in order for Aaron Woolfe. Its nice to know self-serving interests will outlast any transportation era. I wonder, did his greed let him get a premium price or was his soul a blue-light special?

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  • Todd Scott July 2, 2010 at 10:45 am


    I work with the city everyday and the political will is there for bike sharing in Detroit — but it wasn’t there a couple years ago. There’s been a huge shift. Our health department is writing complete streets grants, our traffic engineers are buying bicycles for the office, and the head of planning is a long time cycling advocate.

    I live in Royal Oak and have biked to DTW a few times before. It’s remarkably easy except for the last mile.

    Email me if you want a Detroit bike tour the next time you’re in the city.

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  • Joe July 2, 2010 at 11:09 am

    Just like to say thank you Jonathan and all the bike portland team. bringing light to all the issues we have.. NOT EAZY WORK

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  • ambrown July 2, 2010 at 11:52 am

    I saw the film in Minneapolis two weeks ago. I think you make a very valid critique. However, it’s rare that a movie about transportation wonkery does such a great job situating the historical and political context of American urban development. I wanted to say that even with the lack of focus on the possibilities for the bicycle in 21st century cities, the fact that this movie managed to succinctly tie transportation to the history of inequity in the city is to be applauded. transportation geeks aren’t always the most socially-conscious, and seeing a movie that tried to tie together so many different urban themes into one place was really great.

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  • craig July 2, 2010 at 1:02 pm


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  • ambrown July 2, 2010 at 1:56 pm

    For instance:

    how many movies/documentaries that show fast, sexy HSR trains in Europe also focus on race riots?

    How many brochures about livable streets and Pearl District-esque condos couple it with video of a church-based local van helping serve the locals who are living carless in the expansive Detroit neighborhoods, not by choice?

    Now, I’m one of the first to declare that the federal and state DOTs need to step up their game in terms of providing funding for active transportation facilities and cut down on the excessive construction of freeways (living here in Minneapolis, I can assure you that the we’ve got our hands full already working on the maintenance of our roads and bridges). But because bicycle networks are primarily built by local actors in local cities, it would seem to me that a video focusing on national policy should be somewhat more-focused on the importance of provision for megaproject transit, like HSR, than on bicycle boulevards and the like. Make no mistake, while Detroit is the lens through which these policies are analyzed (and a very symbolic lens at that), the movie is about federal transportation policy and how it has historically affected our cities and communities. Perhaps the federal policy he should have been focusing on includes Dodd’s and Blumenauer’s provisional bills for livable streets, which have the capacity to reshape local communities thanks to federal grants and provisions. But still, a movie that is full of the technogeeky possibilities of trains that looks like a big advertisement for Siemens or whoever is manufacturing these new rail cars but still manages to explicitly make the link between transportation and equity or transportation and race, and adequately puts Detroit’s history under these lenses, deserves some significant praise. If you’re angry that the movie looked like an advertisement for Big-Infrastructure, well, lets just say, it could have been a lot worse.

    Maybe I’m trying too hard to stick up for the director, who, in my discussions with him after the film, really did seem to know a lot about bicycle transportation and the importance of its advocacy. But I think to swear off this entire film because it was more transit-heavy than bike-heavy is essentially throwing out the baby with the bathwater. I think the correct step to do (indeed, largely of what Mr. Maus has done) is to stand up and attempt to add our voice to this discussion and trumpet our own horn about what bicycles have the capacity to do in terms of revitalizing a city.

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  • ambrown July 2, 2010 at 2:01 pm

    and one more rhetorical question: how many articles about “bike-friendly cities” and “bikey-economies” include profiles of the grass-roots, social justice-based efforts of groups like N. Portland’s CCC, or that recent girl’s “donate-a-bike-to-africa” program?

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  • craig July 2, 2010 at 3:10 pm

    ambrown, those are excellent points.

    However, since you say the film, then you know that it wasn’t “more transit-heavy than bike-heavy” as you described; it was ALL about transit (wrt solutions) and it entirely left out biking and walking.

    This was not an oversight, or the result of time limitations, or of editorial balancing. It’s a slight.

    The film has value as a historical perspective of Detroit’s–and the nation’s–mistakes in staking all it’s dreams on cars. In that sense, the film was fine.

    But it’s a travesty as a survey of the entirety of transportation solutions than save a city like Detroit, and a society like the U.S. The film pretends to offer such a survey.

    By analyzing at length the efforts undertaken by California and Spain to move forward with transportation solutions, and by emphasizing the current struggle of local people to wrestle city government into resuscitating the near lifeless town, the film postures itself as an inquiry into how Detroit might fix itself.

    By focusing *only* on mechanized transit solutions, and ignoring entirely the role of active transportation, livable local neighborhoods, and other non-industrial strategies–which address not only problems with transportation and urban planning, but also health, local economy, oil-independence, etc. etc.–the film reveals itself to be a severely slanted commercial for just another version of transportation infrastructure built from US steel and running on a faithful and lucrative supply of non-human-generated energy.

    The director seemed nice. He seem earnest, and involved. He is a paid pawn.

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  • craig July 2, 2010 at 3:10 pm

    “saw”, not “say”–sorry

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  • Hart July 2, 2010 at 3:16 pm

    ” That’s because you lived IN LANSING”

    It’s an hour away with the same climate and the same amount of salt on the road. Bikes don’t fall apart in “one year” from riding on salted roads, that’s utterly absurd. And cycling in Detroit is far easier than Lansing.

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  • RWL1776 July 2, 2010 at 3:30 pm

    Matt Picio #37:

    “Moving around Detroit by bike is not a problem.”

    I DARE you to ride your bike from Jefferson Ave. to 8 Mile Rd. on Van Dyke Rd. Any white guy attempting to do so will either be held up, knocked down and/or have their fancy bike stolen at gunpoint. Even I know you are too smart to attempt that, or even suggest anyone visiting put their lives at risk trying to do so. The bad parts of Detroit are a hundred times worse than any ‘bad’ neighborhood here.

    I encourage EVERYONE reading this to go to YouTube, key in “A Tour of Detroit Ghettos”, and watch what it REALLY looks like, a war zone: Burnt down houses, vacant streets, abandondoned cars and BOATS, roaming dogs, empty factories with every window busted out. Then you will start to get the idea, “no way am I riding my bicycle there!”.

    Have a GREAT 4th of July, and remember to read the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights. And hang your US Flag with pride!

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  • Hart July 2, 2010 at 3:42 pm

    “Any white guy attempting to do so will either be held up, knocked down and/or have their fancy bike stolen at gunpoint.”

    Ah, so the problem is your fear of blacks, not actual cycling conditions. That’s so sad to hear.

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  • SkidMark July 2, 2010 at 4:50 pm

    RWL1776 never mentioned the ethnicity of any would be assailants.

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  • Hart July 2, 2010 at 4:52 pm

    “RWL1776 never mentioned the ethnicity of any would be assailants.”

    Detroit is 85% black. It’s pretty clear what ethnicity he is afraid of.

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  • Todd Scott July 2, 2010 at 7:13 pm

    Based on what you’ve posted, RWL, you’re absolutely out of touch with biking in the city of Detroit. Have you even ridden in Detroit within the past decade?

    I’ve ridden Van Dyke from Jefferson to 8 Mile on many occasions. Never had a single hint of an issue and I’m a skinny white guy on a fancy bike. In my decade of riding in Detroit, I’ve never had any issue like you described, even in the high crime areas of town, whereas threatened assault is common in the Detroit suburbs.

    Burned out houses, empty factories, abandoned cars don’t run bicyclists off the road like distracted or aggressive suburban drivers.

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  • Red Five July 2, 2010 at 7:50 pm

    If Portland’s bike community was more inclusive of people of color, this would not be an issue. For many minorities, riding a bike is something you do because it’s all you have. It’s not enjoyment. And many don’t understand the circus-like environment in Portland regarding bicycling which alienates them even more.

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  • Hart July 2, 2010 at 8:17 pm

    “And many don’t understand the circus-like environment in Portland regarding bicycling which alienates them even more.”

    Hot rod shows don’t turn off normal motorists from driving, do they? The notion that having a diverse cycling culture prevents new people from riding is unfounded.

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  • are July 5, 2010 at 10:25 am

    re comments 42 and 44, actually my impression was that race was hardly mentioned in the film, and the thirty seconds or so they gave to the riots made it seem like they just “happened” somehow, with no cause. the viewer’s impression of the event was filtered through exactly one white interviewee, who said “we saw smoke.” obviously the film cannot be everything at once, but spending half an hour on a high speed train in spain took time away from stuff that was central to the supposed subject.

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  • Ann July 5, 2010 at 6:58 pm

    Don’t forget about PBS’ show Roadtrip Nation, bastion of road-trip culture. I wonder how much recreational driving this show inspired.

    I personally don’t understand why anyone would elect to sit car for vast amounts of time for RECREATION. I get claustrophobic.

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  • Ann July 5, 2010 at 7:10 pm

    I was frightened by this film, and by Mr. Woolf’s responses about biking/walking. Elephant in the room? My friends, there was a supersized, yodeling, break-dancing, strobe-light-wearing with-its-hair-on-fire elephant in the Bagdad Theater that evening.”

    Hilarious, craig! Thank you for the laugh.

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