Cynthia Breischâ€™s Belle Isle family picnic day turned into a bit of a debacle on a recent Sunday in late July. Reisch knew there was a risk that the Department of Natural Resources would temporarily close the island to vehicle traffic due to overcrowding, so she sent her oldest daughter and some of her friends to Belle Isle beach in the morning to act as a family scout. The rest of her family planned to meet up at the beach in the afternoon.
Unfortunately, their well-laid plan was foiled when the island abruptly closed as family members were still arriving.
Itâ€™s a regular occurrence on scorching summer weekends and a source of frustration for Detroiters — not only do the closures waylay plans, but thereâ€™s been no way for visitors to know in advance. Well, until now, thanks to a new text service from the DNR.
Breischâ€™s youngest daughter arrived on the island shortly before 3 p.m. and was one of the last cars admitted. She and Breischâ€™s grandkids circled the island, becoming locked in traffic near the beach, and never found a parking place. Meanwhile, Breischâ€™s son and granddaughter arrived at Belle Isle too late, discovering the closure right before Breisch and her husband arrived.
Seven family members ended up having a picnic in the backyard of her oldest daughterâ€™s house in West Village while their host was picnicking at the Belle Isle beach.
â€œThank goodness for cell phones!â€ Breisch wrote in an email. â€œThe public needs some way to learn when Belle Isle is closed because it has reached its maximum occupancy for the day, other than discovering it upon arrival.â€
We brought this suggestion to Scott Pratt, chief of southern field operations for the DNRâ€™s Parks & Recreation Division, who told us that the DNR launched a text service just last week that enables users to opt into a system that will send notifications about Belle Isle closures. You can access it by texting â€œGEMâ€ to the number 80888.
We at Detour (and our partners at Planet Detroit) havenâ€™t yet had an opportunity to test how well the system works, but will monitor and tweet out any closures. Follow us on Twitter: @Detour_Detroit + @planetdetroit.
Reducing the Belle Isle bottleneckâ€¦ with a trolley?
Pratt also let us know about some additional measures the DNR is taking to reduce closures due to traffic congestion.
The main contributor to congestion, according to Pratt, is that most visitors make a beeline for the beach on the islandâ€™s northeast side, creating a bottleneck in that area. New routing signage installed in the past several weeks directs people to the Canadian side of the island in the hopes that more folks will decide to stop and enjoy what that side of the island has to offer.
â€œWhat we’re trying to do is get people to the outer rim of the island, to let people see that the Canadian side of Belle Isle is beautiful, there are tons of places to have a picnic and hang out, and tons of parking spaces,â€ he said.
According to Pratt, these measures have seen some success. â€œWe have noticed less and less closures, so we’re hoping the trend continues, and we continue just to keep on improving,â€ he said. He did not have data on exactly how many times the park has instituted closures this summer.
According to Pratt, approximately 3,500 parking spaces exist on the island, but on average only 2,200 are typically available. Right now, 80 spots are out of commission near the beach because the lot is under construction. The paddock area adjacent to Scott Fountain represents another 600 spots currently unavailable because the lot is closed. Other spots are unavailable intermittently due to construction, and of course, during the Grand Prix event and weeks of prep and teardown.
Pratt is hoping to hire parking attendants to open the paddock area and better manage the beach parking lot this year. At the beach lot, attendants would close the lot once parking is complete to reduce congestion.
The DNR is also undertaking a broader mobility study to look at ways to improve access and reduce closures due to congestion. (When the island is closed to car traffic, buses, walkers and bikers are still allowed to enter.) According to Pratt, that work will go out to bid this fall and likely start next year with public input. Initial ideas include a trolley and providing loading/unloading zones at picnic shelters with parking in the paddock area near Scott Fountain.
According to Pratt, Belle Isle is one of the most-visited state parks in the country.
â€œFor being a park that brings in about 5 million people a year, a closure here or there is not bad, but we’re trying to make it not as often,â€ Pratt said.
Breisch had never before been turned away from Belle Isle. Her family on both of her parentsâ€™ sides has lived in the Detroit area â€˜since its beginning,â€™â€ she wrote. â€œSo being on Belle Isle has always been a part of my life and continues to be an important activity place for all of our family.â€
She wishes the text service had been available on the Sunday of her familyâ€™s ill-fated picnic.
â€œ[It would] have saved us time in deciding earlier to change to plan B.â€
This report comes thanks to a tip from a Detour reader — tweet us or tag us on IG to share your Belle Isle pics, your experience using the new notification system or any other burning Detroit questions!