Belle Isle
Michigan DNR officials are soliciting proposals from firms interested in conducting a study on multimodal transit options and traffic management for the congested Belle Isle park. (Photo: Cybelle Codish)

Water taxis and a mix of nonmotorized modes of transportation on Belle Isle are among the avenues state officials hope to explore to better manage traffic on the popular island park.

Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources is soliciting requests from contractors to conduct a “multimodal transportation, circulation and traffic management study” for the 982-acre island, a summer destination in Detroit that’s grown even busier during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The state wants to gather recommendations on visitor and vehicle capacity, ways to disperse vehicles throughout the park, wayfinding signage, traffic flow directions and lane markings as well as nonmotorized transportation options and sustainability. 

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“We’re not taking anything off the table for consultants to propose for improving the congestion situation,” said Amanda Treadwell, an urban field planner for the DNR. 

“Transit service around the park has been well received when that’s been done for individual events,” she said. “There might be future opportunities for alternative modes of transportation to the park that don’t include personal vehicles, like potentially a water taxi or other transit service between riverfront properties. We’re looking for consultants to provide intermediate short-term solutions, middle-of-the-road solutions and long-term solutions.”

Treadwell said consultants will be invited to tour the island this month and a selection will be made soon after. The goal is to have the study completed by September 2023. 

A presentation given to the Detroit City Council on Tuesday set the project budget at $850,000, equally split between the DNR, Michigan Department of Transportation, Belle Isle Conservancy and Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation.

The process will have opportunities for public feedback, including yet to be scheduled public meetings. 

“We’re looking at this as our initial master plan phase,” Treadwell said. “This will help as we move forward to look toward programming and development opportunities for other sites in the park.”

The broader planning study, which could result in changes to the island’s capacity limits and lane markings, is set to get underway as state officials plan to have several trolleys operating on the island this summer as one of several measures to better manage traffic congestion.

The DNR said it aims to prevent vehicle backups, minimize closures and increase the number of visitors without necessarily increasing the number of cars on the state-run island.

Belle Isle visits increased during the pandemic, jumping from 4 million in 2019 to 5.2 million in 2021. State parks officials anticipate this year will be among the busiest summers since the island became a state park in 2014. 

“As the weather has boomeranged to the positive, we’ve already had some pretty heavy crowds out there,” said Ron Olson, the DNR’s chief of parks and recreation. “We know the park is very popular and we’re not trying to keep people from going there. We’re just trying to manage it so they enjoy a safe atmosphere.”

Around 70% of all traffic on the island is snagged around its public beach, which poses a safety concern for families, added Treadwell. 

“That’s the priority – to ensure all the visitors are safe, and that’s really difficult to manage now with the way the traffic is all focused in that one spot,” she said. 

Beginning June 24, the trolleys are expected to travel between parking areas and key island attractions. Pickup and dropoff spots will include the Belle Isle Aquarium and Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservancy, public beach, playgrounds and other popular areas. The shuttle is expected to run from noon to 8 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. 

“Let’s say you want to go to the beach but all the parking spots are full, you could park further away and take the shuttle to where you want to go,” Olson noted. 

Improving parking and traffic congestion also could reduce police interactions on the island, state officials said. The DNR reported 30,533 total contacts between visitors and law enforcement last year, which led to 487 citations, mostly for traffic violations.

Wayfinding signs are being installed to help visitors navigate the island and find parking spots. Parking capacity on the island is around 3,500 spaces, but the lots that once served the now defunct zoo and former golf course are being restored to add more spaces, Olson said.

DNR officials said they are eyeing new uses for the former zoo and nine-hole golf course. The 200-acre golf course shut down in 2008 and will be returned to its natural habitat, while a larger planning process is in store for the 20-acre zoo, which has sat idle, behind closed fences, since 2002.

Students from Michigan State University have put together a study on potential uses for the zoo. The report will be released to the public later this month. Treadwell said community meetings will be held this summer to gather feedback.

“We wanted to use this opportunity with those students to begin the conversation with the community about how that space might best be reutilized for the future,” Treadwell said. “Obviously it will not be a zoo again. It’s a really significant part of the park and of course everyone’s interested in what’s going on behind the locked gates there.” 

Treadwell said there are more than 20 large structures in the old zoo area and that it is part of the island’s history. She said she hopes there’s opportunities to preserve elements of it. 

In other efforts to better track and manage crowds on the island, the DNR at the end of May is  installing a new traffic counter to give park staff a real-time accounting of how many vehicles are coming and going from the island. Right now, DNR staff have to manually check the number on the island’s counting device. This tool, DNR officials said, will allow staff to view traffic counts via mobile devices from anywhere on Belle Isle.

Scott Pratt, chief of southern field operations for the DNR, said the new traffic counter will be more accurate and will help staff reopen the park faster after it hits capacity.

Additionally, a text alert service is available to inform Detroiters of when the Douglas MacArthur Bridge is closed due to capacity limits. Text “GEM” to 80888 to subscribe.

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3 Comments

  1. They need a bridge reconfiguration which makes it safe and easy to bike across. Then they need to invest in DDOT to allow people to take the bus onto the island more conveniently and even park off island. Belle Isle is prettier without cars.

    1. Extend the bus route to other parts of the island, improve frequencies, and get as many cars off the island as we can, that’ll make the park a more pleasant and accessible place. Bringing in MORE cars, building MORE parking spaces, wasting effort and money on hokey “water taxi” schemes and a a trolley that doesn’t even go a mile is frankly just disgraceful mismanagement of one of the cities most prized resources. Belle Isle’s a park for cars more than it is for people, and its so disappointing that’s not getting seriously challenged.

  2. We once had alternative means of transportation on Belle Isle. Bicycle rentals and horse and carriage rides! Elimination of vehicle traffic will not work there as many island visitors bring large carloads of family and friends when visiting! Too costly to have to pay bus fares or trolley rides for many!

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