Michigan Transportation Odyssey 2014: Slow Roll Offers Lesson On Community

Editor's note: This is part two in a series on the 2014 Michigan Transportation Odyssey, a yearly trip sponsored by the Transportation for Michigan (Trans4M) coalition to raise awareness about the state's transportation infrastructure.

The first event on this year's Odyssey wasn't so much a destination as a happening. It's called Slow Roll, an enormous Monday bike ride that by now is undoubtedly familiar to most folks in Southeast Michigan. Those who haven't ridden it probably have a friend who has or have most likely seen the news reports or the recent Apple iPad commercial.

The event began in 2010 as a small bike ride organized by Detroiters Jason Hall and Mike MacKool, two bicycle-loving entrepreneurs who also run an annual Detroit bike expo and festival.

Since these humble beginnings, Slow Roll has grown into the state's largest weekly bike ride, drawing thousands of riders from all over Southeast Michigan during the warmer months and inspiring spinoff rides in places as far flung as Cleveland, Sweden and Iraq. Hall and MacKool keep the ride going with support from a few sponsors and proceeds from merchandising sales.

On Monday, Oct. 6, several Odyssey participants showed up at Detroit's MotorCity Casino to get a first-hand taste of Slow Roll at a meetup before the official Odyssey launch that Tuesday.

The trip’s organizers wanted to begin the trip in Detroit, and for them Slow Roll represented an ideal starting point. Trans4M’s coordinator Laurel Burchfield tells Mode Shift that despite some of the significant challenges the city faces when it comes to providing accessible transportation options for all users, there are also exciting things afoot in the region that the coalition wanted to highlight.

Beginning the Odyssey with Slow Roll, she says, helped draw attention to “a people-oriented movement that celebrates Detroit and brings people together” and also gave participants a chance to join in on a really cool bike ride.

It was a little rainy that Monday, but folks still showed up for the ride. Laura Padalino works with PEAC, an Ypsilanti-based organization that teaches cycling skills to people with disabilities, was one of the Odyssey riders who came to the event.

Although she'd heard about Slow Roll before, this was her first actual ride.

"I had a lot fun," she tells Mode Shift. "It felt like I was on a parade, because every so often people would come out of their houses and cheer us on. Even drivers, they would shout out 'Slow Roll!'"

Padalino also noted the diversity of the ride, not just in terms of ethnicity, but in age, where folks came from and even their attire, with some people wearing bike gear and others decked out in high heels or cowboy boots.

The routes for Slow Roll change week-to-week. This particular ride spotlighted sites around the District Detroit, a sports and entertainment district that's now being developed to connect Detroit along Woodward Avenue between Downtown and Midtown. The project, which is linked to plans for a new Detroit Red Wings sports arena complex, has drawn both praise and criticism from local commentators.

Although numbers were a little subdued that evening due to intermittent rain, Slow Roll has had record-setting attendance this past season. Co-founder Jason Hall tells Mode Shift the ride topped out at about 1,700 people in 2013, but after all the attention from their iPad commercial, individual rides have been attracting around 4,000 people this year. What’s more, all the love Slow Roll is getting is lifting up the broader southeast Michigan cycling scene.

“Certainly it's made that community bigger,” Hall says.

"Every shop owner that we deal with, they all thank me because we sell product for them,” he adds. “I've also had other bike organizers come to me: ‘How the hell do you guys do this?’ It’s opening up the dialogue between me and other organizers. I can guarantee it’s made an impact.”

This transformative energy is precisely what drew Michigan Transportation Odyssey organizers to Slow Roll. This year’s trip focused on innovation, thinking about transportation in a different way, says Trans4M’s Burchfield, making the bike ride a perfect fit.

“Cities around Michigan are embracing the bicycle, both as recreational use for the road and trails and as a means of commuting for those who need or choose another way to travel,” says Burchfield.

“Slow Roll and the people who make it happen epitomize this innovative way of creating new ways to get around while also exemplifying how a community can thrive if given the resources, tools, and drive to make new things happen.”

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