By Andrew Keast and Jan Worth-Nelson
If anybody provides evidence that Flint might be transforming itself – from the wheels up — into a bicycle-friendly culture, it’s Danny Moilanen, 28, owner of Vehicle City Tacos and a self-described “social cycler.”
In 2012, he and a few of his friends created the Thursday Night Party Ride, an easygoing summertime tour through Flint. It starts at 9 p.m. and pauses every 15 minutes or so for socializing in open spaces such as the parking lot at Kearsley Park or the ramp at Mott Community College.
While the ride is far more calm than its name might suggest, and a few of the riders are well into middle age, a raucous touch is added by rock music from the riders’ portable devices, and the tour often ends at local bars such as Soggy Bottom.
The tours began, Moilanen explains, with friends “who simply wanted to see the city by bicycle and hang out.” But more serious concerns also emerged: he and his friend actually want to change the transportation culture of Flint.
“The idea was that we could improve bicycling culture in Flint,” Moilanen says, “by simply getting more bikes on the road. With more bikes on the road, it starts to become a visible presence, and that’s the basis of any important social movement.”
He said he and his friends aim to show that cycling is “a fun, realistic, reliable, healthier option for ourselves and the planet.”
But he’s also interested in how particular problems might be attacked through biking, which is, as he puts it, “a necessary form of transportation for many people who don’t have access to a car – that’s a significant number of people in this city.”
Bothered by when local institutions cut public transportation programs while expecting people to hold down a job, Moilanen said he believes “bikes can possibly play some role in addressing some of these deeply systemic problems our city faces.”
Moilanen also is behind Social Cycling Flint, whose members use Facebook to share relevant information, and it was Moilanen, working with the owners of Krystal Jo’s Diner, who organized a recent Flint Bike Swap.
At that event, local mechanics provided free service and repairs, and bikes and parts were available for free or at minimal prices. Every one of the 39 kids who attended went home with a free bicycle, he said.
Moilanen’s programs are just one spoke of several bike-promoting efforts in town.
Another is the Friends of the Flint River Trail, who have successfully advocated and raised funds for bicycle lanes and are crucially involved in maintenance and expansion of a growing system of paved pathways throughout the area.
The Friends sponsor The Flint River Trail Ride rides every Sunday from early May through the end of October.
The Flint River Trail ride, which leaves at 2 p.m. from the site of the old Farmers’ Market on East Boulevard Drive, usually draws between 30 and 60 participants and covers 12 to 13 miles, takes about two hours, and never covers the same route two weeks in a row.
The ride attracts cyclists of all ages, according to ride coordinators.
Frankie Thompson, for example, a Flint River ride regular, is in her sixties and determined to keep in shape. She says she participates for the exercise, but also values the camaraderie within the group.
“The people out here are very friendly,” she said on one of the last rides of the season. “They give you tips; they’ll help you with your bike. She refers to the ride as “a wonderful experience” and recommends it to “anybody who just started riding.”
Joining her on the ride were Ben Pauli, 30, and Vivian Kao, 32. Recent arrivals to Flint for faculty positions at Kettering University, Pauli and Kao bought a house in the College Cultural neighborhood and were eager to see what the community had to offer.
So they tried one of the Sunday Flint River Trail rides, pulling their three-year-old son Julian along in a cart.
Kao, who describes herself as “not a bike rider at all, actually – still learning how to ride, how to get on and off the bike and how to shift gears and things like that,” found the ride manageable.
“Of the tour, which carried riders to Bluebell Beach and back, through both open and wooded areas, she said, “We enjoyed seeing parts of the city that we usually don’t get to see.”
Pauli, whose love of mountain biking was interrupted by nine years “very immersed in academia,” said he really liked the pace of the ride.
“It was not too intense, and yet you do feel that you’ve had a workout,” he said.
Officials at UM – Flint have played a recent role in facilitating bike culture in town as well. For the past four years, students have had access to the school’s “Maize Bikes,” a fleet of 14 bicycles donated to the university. They can be rented out for $2 an hour.
In addition, the university shuttle around campus is fitted out with bicycle racks and air pumps have been attached to bike racks on campus,. Bike lanes have been recently marked on campus roadways and signs indicating that UM – Flint as “bicycle friendly” have been installed at key entrance points.
Moilanen points out that riders around town can get free mechanical help and learn basic skills from bike experts at Flint Steam Works, a workshop open every Tuesday and Thursday from 6 to 9 p.m. at Red Ink Flint, 124 W. First St.
“We need to do more” Moilanen said, “but we’re getting there.”
The Sunday Ride and the Party Ride both are suspended for the winter, but are expected to resume next spring. More information about the Friends of the Flint River Trail, Flint Steam Works, the Thursday Night Party Ride, the Flint Bike Swap and Social Cycling Flint can be found online. For further details about programs at UM – Flint, visit www.umflint.edu/reccenter/walking-and-biking or call the university Recreation Center at (810)762-3441.
Staff writer Andrew Keast can be reached at email@example.com. Jan Worth-Nelson, East Village Magazine editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.