OPINION: Could Belle Isle go car-free once a month?

On Memorial Day, a 12-year-old girl died, and her 14-year-old sister was severely injured when a driver jumped a curb, drove across the beach, and fled the island. Just weeks before that, a 15-year-old crashed into three other cars while traveling at 90 miles per hour on the island. 

In light of these recent incidents, some advocates suggested banning cars from the park, but the DNR says that’s not going to happen

What if, instead of a full ban, Belle Isle was only car-free for one day a month?

The idea behind a car-free day is twofold. The first is that people could enjoy the full extent of the island safely, free from the disturbance, pollution and danger of cars.  Belle Isle has historically been a place of respite from the stress of city life, but sharing the island with cars does little to quell that stress while on foot or bicycle.  

Recently, BridgeDetroit reporter Malachi Barrett discovered that between 2015-2020 there were 105 crashes involving 254 people. Of those, 25 resulted in injury, 15 were hit-and-runs, nine involved drinking, seven bicyclists were hit, one pedestrian was hit, and one incident was fatal. There have been two more fatalities since 2020. 

The second idea is to increase awareness of alternative methods to reach the park. Improving alternative transportation on Belle Isle is essential for several reasons. Owning and insuring a vehicle is cost-prohibitive for many Detroit residents – about a third of Detroit residents don’t have access to a car.

And for the past few summers and already this year, Michigan State Police closes the entrance to Belle Isle multiple times during weekends when it reaches vehicle capacity, limiting accessibility to the island. Closing the park to cars without improved transportation options is a matter of equitable access to Detroit’s largest park.

According to the Michigan DNR, Belle Isle is Michigan’s most popular state-run park, drawing 5.6 million visitors in 2021 alone. That number is determined by a car counter which factors in an average of 3.7 people per car. However, bus riders, cyclists, and pedestrians are not counted, so we don’t know how many arrive sans car. 

Just how many cars does it take to shut down the park entrance? Last summer, the Michigan State Police told me via Twitter that the number was 1,800. A recent Bridge Detroit article had that number at 3,500 – likely from additional parking spaces added to the 10-acre concrete paddock, a remnant from the departing Detroit Grand Prix.

And although the DNR plans to start a circulator trolley late this June – a significant step toward improving alternative transportation islands on the island –  it won’t solve traffic congestion getting on and off the island. Additional on-island parking spots will worsen traffic and could increase the risk of crashes and injuries.

But it would be well worth the sacrifice of denying cars for one day.

Obviously, it couldn’t be on the weekend. Those are the busiest days on the island, and there are far too many family get-togethers and cookouts that require vehicles to move all the supplies and people. It would have to be mid-week when fewer people visit. 

Once a month is an excellent place to start because, to my knowledge, this has never been done on Belle Isle and would require some coordination to pull off. 

Of course, you can’t just shut the gates to a park that most reach by car and expect it will be a success or feel inclusive. It would require coordination between the DNR, the city of Detroit, the Department of Transportation, and local bicycle clubs. 

But it could work. People could park on one of the more than 65,000 downtown parking spaces and take the #9-Jefferson bus, which frequently stops at the park entrance. From there, the new DNR shuttle could pick up people at the foot of the bridge, leaving the other four lanes for people to walk or bike across. The shuttle could use the interior roads to help people reach popular destinations, leaving the outer drive car-free. And the #12-Conant bus, which runs from State Fair through Hamtramck, would be allowed on the island. It only runs once an hour, so using one lane wouldn’t interfere too much but would keep transit access available. Using these existing resources would incur no extra cost. 

And MoGo, Detroit’s bike share provider, would also be a great resource to add to the island on both sides of the bridge, especially as the riverwalk extension reaches the bridge. These resources would be great alternatives to getting to the park by car.

The idea of removing cars from Belle Isle is not new. In 1976 famed landscape architect Dan Kiley was hired to develop a schematic design for Belle Isle. His plan called for a ban on automobiles –  which caused enormous public opposition – so he suggested the idea of a gradual phasing out of cars by introducing alternative transportation options, including bus, water taxis, and ferries. A similar approach would be needed to make the island car-free, even for just one day a month. 

Other cities are having success with car bans in public spaces. During the COVID-19 shutdowns of 2020 and 2021, several cities like Boston, New York, and Denver closed major parks to cars and opened streets to people seven days per week to get out safely and enjoy the outdoors. Many of these experiments were so successful that some have become permanent. San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, which has had car-free Sundays for 55 years, saw an increase of 36% more visitors after closing JFK Drive seven days per week.  

Detroit didn’t close any roads during COVID but has experience doing so through an event called Open Streets Detroit, during which people could walk and bike on Michigan Ave & Vernor Hwy between Beacon Park and Southwest Detroit. This active approach to opening streets could be the key to making a possible car-free day on Belle Isle. 

The biggest challenge to open streets here is that, unlike other city parks, Belle Isle is an island – with only one way on and off: the five-lane MacArthur Bridge. All the parking is on the island, so closing off access from the mainland would exclude many visitors. 

Bringing back the water ferry service and increasing bus frequency on the weekend are two simple ideas that could connect visitors to the 65,000 parking spaces downtown. These alternatives would also be helpful on regular days too.

Support for open streets concepts isn’t always popular, though. As I researched other cities that closed park streets to cars, particularly in Denver, residents who responded to a survey responded that banning cars felt “exclusionary, elitist, or discriminatory,”, especially to people who don’t live nearby or have disabilities. 

Historically, city elites and politicians have made the decisions about Belle Isle and often still are, but more public input is being encouraged. I, too, am an outsider, a white man from the suburbs, trying to suggest an idea that would affect city residents. City resident input is crucial to any future decisions about Belle Isle.

So far, the Detroit residents I reached out to support the idea. Fitzgerald neighborhood resident l’Sha Schultz-Spradlin told me, “I think it’s a great idea. Especially with the tragedy on Belle Isle with the two little girls getting run over on a busy weekend. One day during the week is a great way to ease into having as few cars as possible but provide adequate transportation to the park that day.” 

And Aliqae Geraci, a resident of LaSalle Gardens neighborhood, told me, “I am a resident of Detroit city that supports this proposal in addition to improved safety conditions on the island such as guard railings on the road area by the beach and any other gathering spaces.” 

So what do you think about the idea? If you support it, sign our petition.

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