Decarbonizing the Detroit River: Navigating the links between transit and water with David Gifford

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As the U.N. published a climate report that warned against irreversible changes humans have made to global temperatures and weather patterns, I felt an increased sense of urgency about decarbonization and access to the Detroit River. 

So I spoke with public transit activist David Gifford, who does work and activism in Detroit’s public transit realm. In our conversation, Gifford offered me insights into the obstacles that the city transit system presents to residents as well as potential solutions, especially in terms of accessing the riverfront — and the links between investing in public transit, reducing carbon, and shoring up water quality.

Gifford’s fascination with and activism in transit began as a hobby he did for fun, but he tells me that after riding Detroit’s public transit a few times, “It’s not hard to see who rides transit and who needs it the most and realize, like, ‘Okay, this wasn’t just about fun anymore. This is about people’s lives and people that need to get around and just want to exist like we do to go to work and go to the store and everything else.’”

To that end, Gifford has written several guides to navigating the Detroit transit systems, which you can access at He also regularly updates a blog that covers everything from the history of Detroit’s trolley system to a recent article on how to solve Belle Isle’s overcrowding problem by optimizing the bus system.  

David Gifford catches a bus.

In order to understand how public transportation operates in Detroit today, you have to understand a bit about the city’s history. Luckily for me, Gifford is bursting with this knowledge. Originally, the main roads of Detroit stemmed primarily from the riverfront — a scene of commerce in early Detroit. 

“Detroit was such an industrial shipping hub that our whole riverfront was devoted to trains and boats and unloading and loading of cargo,” Gifford tells me. Docks at the end of Woodward provided launching points to Algonac, Toledo, and Boblo Island. Accessing the city’s shoreline was always somewhat difficult.

Nowadays, the RiverWalk and Belle Isle facilitate much of the interaction between Detroiters and the water. Gifford cites the RiverWalk as a major boost to the public’s increased access to the river, and he has his ear to the ground about projects that would further link non-automobile users to the shoreline. 

The Dequindre Cut, a greenway that bicyclists and walkers can get to via Jefferson, runs all the way to Atwater Street, where you can then walk your bike quite easily to the RiverWalk. Gifford also mentions that the Dennis Archer Greenway, which takes its name from a former mayor of Detroit, will connect Vernor Highway and the Dequindre Cut, thereby allowing freer access to the river for residents of the city who are northwest of the water.

But in a sprawling region, pushing back against investment in wider highways and redirecting that money to public transit and pedestrian-friendly paths around the city can be incredibly difficult. Cars cause pollution — carbon in the atmosphere as well as poisons that contaminate waterways.

It all comes back to the water, Gifford said. 

“Brake pads are made from anything from asbestos to ceramic and all kinds of different materials,” he explains. “And so every time a vehicle taps the brakes on the highway, that dust and the rubber debris goes into the air. When we have a big rain event, that gets washed right down the drain into our lakes and rivers.” 

Big rainstorms were certainly on my mind during our conversation. Several historic flooding events took place in Detroit before our chat, and the storms that followed only compounded unresolved infrastructure issues. This too, Gifford insists, is a matter that we need to think about alongside transit. For example, Gifford explains how large investments in further widening Detroit highways draw money away from issues like water quality and sewage. He offers up the widening of I-75 as a case study.

“What they’re doing is building a giant drain 100 feet down in the ground, fourteen feet in diameter, that’s going to go from just north of Eight Mile to Twelve Mile, and all that water that they’re going to receive from rain through there is going to get pumped up into the Red Run,” he said. The Red Run connects to the Clinton River, flowing into Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River. 

When that area floods, combined sewer overflows often pour into the Red Run Drain in Warren. This all adds up to a hazardous cocktail of bleached sewage, micro rubber, and brake pad debris.

“So all that partially treated sewage and all the road debris from the highway will get pumped out into Lake St. Clair and then float down to Belle Isle to where our drinking water is,” Gifford said.

If the current lack of investment in public transit in Metro Detroit literally poisons the water, what would come of reinvesting money in Detroit’s public transit? 

Gifford is, by no means, completely opposed to roads and cars. 

“I understand the value of roads. I’m not anti-car and anti-roads and highways,” he said. Rather, he points out, the lack of investment in public transit in Metro Detroit reveals underlying social inequalities that are literally built into the very fabric of the city–its roads, its transit system, its infrastructure. “When they are constantly expanding highways that largely benefit suburbanites, instead of investing in transit, that’s where I see a big inequality issue there.”

The connection between road (so to speak) and river might not be immediately apparent, but it is there. I can picture a future where projects such as the Iron Belle Trail (two trails for biking and hiking that will link Ironwood in the Upper Peninsula and Belle Isle), or the dormant proposal to introduce riverfront water taxis, heal the Detroit River and the community that has sprung up around it.


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