Detroit Stakes its Hopes for Renaissance on Transit, but it has Bigger Hurdles Ahead

» A rail system cannot solve city’s huge problems.

Detroit’s half-dead nature has captured the nation’s attention over the past year. Though the whole country continues to suffer from the recession, the emptying of Michigan’s largest city is notable to the degree that its fate seems practically irredeemable: Given its economic, social, and political position, how can the city survive?

Municipal leaders and pundits from around the country are convinced that a concerted planning effort and major investments could to free it from its doldrums. The plan that has commanded the most attention recently is a regional transportation project that would begin with a light rail line down Woodward Avenue and then extend into a triangular network of bus rapid transit corridors. These would converge on a new high-speed service with direct trains to Chicago.

In a series running tonight, PBS is promoting the decidedly optimistic view that Detroit would be able to capitalize massively on new transit and proceed to rebuild the city around regenerated corridors. Higher-density residential and commercial development would allow the city to reduce per capita spending on essential services like road maintenance and sewers, which require huge expenditures because of the sprawled and vacant condition of much of the city. Detroit would reconstruct itself based on a major piece of infrastructure.

But that vision, as promising as it may be to transit promoters, is no panacea; Detroit will continue to suffer from job and residential loss even with a rail line. The project will only fulfill its promise if the city receives far more investment from exterior sources and if it develops a strong vision for its future.

Transit and development

Much of the discussion about the potential for public transportation to spur Detroit’s renaissance is premised on the idea that well-designed transit can be an effective tool for encouraging development. This is one of the primary reasons why many cities push for light rail or streetcars instead of often-cheaper variants of bus rapid transit. It is assumed that the permanent investment made manifest in the construction of a rail line — the tracks aren’t going anywhere, while bus service could theoretically change routing at any moment — will persuade the private sector to invest in dense new residential and commercial developments around station zones.

And indeed, there is plenty of evidence that new rail lines in the United States have been fantastic mediums for growth, in inner cities and in suburban transit zones.

But that kind of new construction usually only comes when there is sufficient demand for transit-oriented lifestyles. And there will only be such a market when three provisions are met: land in the urban core and in transit corridors must be already relatively well-developed and with low vacancy rates; there must sufficient neighborhood amenities to which residents can walk (or at least the promise of them arriving); and transit must provide a reasonable commute to and from workplaces and destinations of metropolitan reach.

These conditions can be met by some sections of a transit line and not others.

Detroit, even after years of decline, has been able to maintain about 200,000 jobs in the downtown area, thanks to the presence of several large institutions like General Motors, Compuware, and Wayne State University and Medical Center. People living along the Woodward Avenue light rail line would have good access to a large jobs market within easy reach of transit. They would also have direct service to several of downtown’s entertainment districts.

But would there be a strong enough incentive for the construction of new multi-family residences and office buildings along the transit line for the project to have been worth the initial investment in terms of spin-off development? Developers typically have little profit motive in constructing medium-to-high density apartment complexes for people who are not members of the upper-middle or upper classes unless government or non-profit entities provide subsidies to house people of lesser means. That means there must be adequate wealth in the market to make dense urban neighborhoods possible.

But Detroit’s population, which is one of the poorest of any municipality in the country (50% of the city’s children live in poverty), hardly fits the mold developers hope to attract. Nor does the city have much money to spend on subsidizing affordable housing.

Evidence from many American cities that have built light rail suggest that while the transit mode can focus activity around stations in areas where there is a market, it is less productive in generating development in poor neighborhoods as a direct consequence of the lack of developer interest. In cities where demand for more urban living is less strong in general relative to the overall market, there will inevitably be less construction produced, and whole sections of disinterested neighborhoods will remain in their decrepit state, with or without rail transit.

Similarly, there is so much vacant land in Detroit (note the photograph above, just three blocks from the downtown core and one block from a proposed Woodward Avenue light rail station) that even people who do want to live in the urban center won’t have much of a motivation to inhabit high-density buildings. An estimated 40 of the city’s 139 square miles are empty — that’s more land than the entire city of Miami. This means land prices are incredibly cheap and it is often less expensive to build transit-unfriendly single family homes from scratch than to buy an apartment in a multi-story building, which is usually more expensive to build per unit than a suburban house because of the former’s more sturdy construction. Even if there is a market for dense living, most investment will occur in the city’s downtown, which has dozens of vacant high-rises waiting for renovations, not further out along Woodward Avenue.

High-density construction only makes sense to developers when land prices are high: there’s a reason one rarely sees an office tower in the middle of a corn field.

Detroit also suffers from a tremendous dearth of even the most basic neighborhood amenities. In 2003, the city of 900,000 inhabitants had only five grocery stores (none of which was owned by a major chain) with more than 20,000 square feet — the standard size of a modern supermarket. Based on its population, it could support 40, but no one’s building. How can people be expected to live a walking lifestyle when they have a difficult time buying food?

Who, exactly, will choose or be able to afford to live in the thousands of new apartments adjacent to light rail stations? Detroit fits only two of the three conditions absolutely necessary for developers to be attracted to constructing new buildings on a large scale.

Prerequisites for spending on rapid transit

The construction of dense urban developments and the creation of successful transit lines go hand-in-hand: one doesn’t work without the other. But some Detroit planners argue that the primary motivation in creating improved public transportation is to improve the mobility of the city’s car-less citizens, who make up one-third of the population. Quite ironic for the so-called Motor City.

This logic, in fact, is just as meaningful as a development-oriented one, because it serves the purpose of improving social equity. If people can’t get around very easily, their poverty will only be entrenched.

Yet if the primary goal of a transportation system is to serve the needs of the poor in a city like Detroit, light rail isn’t necessarily the right answer. There are some major advantages to trains, namely that they can operate in their own rights-of-way and that they can provide large transport capacity. Cities that are spending hundreds of millions of dollars in new transit should focus on their most dense, congested corridors.

It is undoubtedly true that Woodward Avenue is the region’s premier street, so it should be first in line in receiving light rail. It is also true that the 3.4-mile corridor from Hart Plaza to New Center proposed for the initial investment by private group M1-Rail is reasonably dense, though as shown in the image above, many lots just off the corridor are completely deserted. The proposed city-funded extension from New Center to Eight Mile, however, is entirely suburban in nature, with single-family homes and auto-oriented retail making up most of the landscape. It’s hard to see how this line would attract significant enough patronage to warrant a rail investment.

Meanwhile, if good transit is also reasonably fast compared to cars, the relative lack of traffic on Woodward and parallel highways even at rush hour suggests that buses operating in much cheaper segregated lanes could be just as quick as light rail. Congestion is the best way to encourage people of all income groups to jump onto transit, but Detroit has so many freeways in its urban core that the day when traffic becomes a problem may never come.

If the city’s goal if to relieve the commuting pain of car-less citizens, it could save a lot of money by spending on a larger number of bus corridors instead of one rail line — if capital funds could be transferred to operations, since most bus spending is in the latter category. If it did so, Detroit would have better access for a larger percentage of the city’s spread-out citizenry. This would be the most direct approach to achieving more equitable transportation for the city’s most impoverished.

Growth is necessary, not optional — but it’s only possible with a game plan

Nevertheless, the city’s leaders seem intent on investing in the light rail line, and you can’t blame them, since it will provide a signature symbol of the city’s efforts to resurrect itself. The project, however, will not be successful in attracting large number of patrons nor in spurring significant amounts of spin-off development unless the city stems the mass exodus that has been a fact of life for Motown since the 1950s.

The rail line, it should be emphasized, will not be the magic bullet that makes that possible.

Indeed, there are only two realistic ways to ensure satisfactory use of the transit line and spark affiliated surrounding development: Either there must be population and job growth city-wide, including in the transit zones, or there must be population and job growth in the transit zones, to the detriment of other areas of the city. Because of Detroit’s history, the lackluster state of the automobile industry, and little evidence of a significant nationwide interest in moving to Michigan, the former seems unlikely to pan out.

So the city must endeavor to encourage movement of citizens and businesses into the transit zone. If the city goes about following the status quo, it will build a little-used light rail line surrounded by a lot of vacant land, and foster only minor development. Artist collectives and urban farming will spring up, but these will be but minor counterpoints to a continued narrative of citywide decline. It’s hard to see how a transit system in this situation will provide the stimulus to reverse the city’s course.

On the other hand, Detroit could pursue a radical change of direction in which it closes off sections of the city to housing and compels to move into newly built housing along transit corridors and in the downtown core — basically, artificially altering the city limits to the exclusion of most of the city’s residents. This approach, which would require making it illegal to build or even live in many areas of the metropolis, would increase land prices substantially near transit stations. It would only be possible, however, with enormous subsidies from the state and federal governments to pay for the construction of tens of thousands of affordable housing units. People would have to be implored to stay in the city despite being kicked from their homes.

Because of the cost of such a strategy and the political infeasibility of shuttering whole neighborhoods, such focused growth seems unlikely to occur. But without a well-planned reconfiguration of the city’s built form, Detroit may have difficulty surviving.

Hope persists

Though Detroit is unlikely to advance a complete rethinking of the city’s workings, the cancer that plagues it is not yet irreversible. The municipality’s best hope is in employment growth: if it is able to attract thousands of new jobs downtown and along the light rail line, it could create a dense urban center strong enough to justify the investment in light rail and big enough to attract a growing residential population. These new jobs, of course, will only be made possible with huge government aid; the private sector is not exactly banging down the door of city hall, with companies continuing to eliminate jobs nationwide.

However unlikely any help from Lansing or Washington may be, Detroit’s future may well rest on it. A light rail line would then be little more than icing on the cake, a complement to government-sponsored job growth if things go well, or a last gasp if the city’s fate expires.

Image above: Intersection of John R and Alfred Streets, one block from Woodward Avenue, three blocks from downtown core, from Google Maps Streetview

20 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Andrew Lynch

    Yonah – I’m surprised you didn’t point out the most obvious solution for Detroit’s problems: Robocop.

    • Woody

      The most obvious solution is to end our Second Prohibition. Make marijuana legal. Save billions being wasted on the burgeoning incarceration industry. Expunge all records of arrests and convictions for possession, use, and sale of small amounts of marijuana because these records are used to deny loans and scholarships, disqualify applicants for many if not most jobs, and keep “them” in their place. This Prohibition isn’t working, so why do we keep doing the same thing over and over, failing and failing, and taking refuge in Hollywood fantasies instead of facing up to real world solutions?

  • Owing to my reading of Jane Jacobs, I have to be skeptical of the ability of any light rail to promote development. At most, it brings development to the city while exporting poverty to the areas away from light rail. Development consists of networks of small business, not of megaprojects.

  • Larry Littlefield

    How full are all those freeways in Detroit, given the loss of population and jobs there?

    My guess is many could be converted to busways with stations and local and express lanes — and the speed and capacity of a subway system — for not much money. Buses would be able to operate partially on the busways, and partially on local streets. Private, suburban and inter-city operators could use the express lanes direct to Downtown and other destinations.

  • Jason

    Yohan, I’m disappointed in the ignorance of Detroit that this post demonstrates.

    You seem to think that Detroit has went from being a prosperous city to the scene you show from streetsview in the last few years. The only thing that changed in the last few years is that the Detroit suburbs (and the state as a whole) have started to feel serious economic pain.

    The existence of vacant land is not the same thing as a lack of density. The City of Detroit is still more dense than many sunbelt cities that are successfully building rail transit. And while the inner city in metro Detroit is extremely impoverished, there has been significant growth in income, population, and education in the city center over the last decade.

    The plans for light rail or streetcars is not a “mega project” (to quote a previous comment). It is about creating functioning city of small businesses that can work together or support the larger institutions. The state of Michigan’s biggest export over the last decade or two has been young educated people who want to live in a city. There is a whole Michigan expat scene of 20-somethings in Chicago. The M1 plans are largely a recognition of the state’s failure to compete for this talent and an effort to start to.

    The City of Detroit’s biggest economic problem in my opinion is that too much economic activity leaves the city. Grocery stores, for instance…for a complex set of reasons, most city residents drive to the suburbs to get groceries if they can afford it. (BTW – one reason for the lack of grocery stores is an excellent farmers market.) Similarly, the people that work in knowledge industries in the city center have little ability to live, play, and shop near where they work without a car. Once you get in a car, it makes little difference to most people if they take a 10 minute trip on the freeway or a 5 minute trip on city streets. In short, building high quality transit in central Detroit is about allowing a certain type of lifestyle to happen in order to foster the growth in creative and knowledge industries.

    This transformation has been underway for probably a decade. The general economic issues may have slowed it somewhat, but they haven’t stopped it. It is not as Detroit it trying to respond to a recession by building transit, I believe the collapse of Ford and GM has furthered both transit and the desire to rebuild a city by making it apparent to everybody in the Detroit region that the previous path was not working.

    So while you are right in identifying some of the challenges that face the region, you are wrong to lump the city center (~5 sq miles) in with the rest of the inner city (~135 sq miles). The M1 project is not (only) about providing mobility to the transit dependent, it is about creating a business- and entrepreneur-friendly environment for knowledge industries, and the educated people that come with them. Other efforts to improve transit in the region are about improving general mobility and making the bus systems more efficient, but you don’t discuss them much.

    • Jason –

      Thanks for the comment. I’m sorry that you felt this post was ignorant of Detroit — but I don’t believe I indicated anywhere here that the city’s current condition is a new thing. Indeed, I noted that Detroit’s problems have been serious since the 1950s.

      It is true that Detroit is denser than many Sunbelt cities where transit has recently been built, but I haven’t been circumspect on The Transport Politic in criticizing projects elsewhere for the same reasons.

      But oft-repeated statement that city center Detroit is very different than the city as a whole in terms of density is pretty inaccurate.

      For one, the area through which the M1-Rail Line will run has a huge mix of density, with some areas with high population concentration (at the university and west of Grand Circus) and other areas, especially east of the line, with incredibly low density, such as shown in the image above. Check out this map that I made for graphic representation of that fact (based on Census 2000).

      Second, the high densities similar to those around Woodward Avenue in downtown are found throughout many parts of the city, as shown here. (Looking at the city as whole, Detroit’s inner ring is in fact the most vacated area of the city.) This is one reason I emphasized that if the goal of this program were to increase mobility, more bus service throughout the city would be the primary goal. The triangle system currently envisioned, with just two improved bus lines through Detroit (on Woodward and Gratiot) wouldn’t go far in that direction at all.

      But most relevant for the success of the rail line, is the fact that a primary difference between Detroit and other cities pushing rail is that the city will have a much more difficult time attracting new residences and jobs into dense development around transit stations because (a) there is a large amount of vacant land everywhere in the city, lowering land prices and disincentivizing multi-story construction; (b) there is a general decrease in job numbers across the Detroit region to a level far beyond national averages; (c) the existing population lacks the wealth to support large increases in development; and (d) the city has had a remarkably difficult time attracting retail business that supports walkers.

      You could argue that the light rail line will change things, but my main point here was that there are other steps that Detroit could take that would make the project far more effective: namely, by concentrating existing residential and commercial along the transit line. That won’t come naturally, as the city remains hugely sprawled out. Nor would it be easily funded. Nor is it politically envisionable.

      Rail is simply not the all-purpose development tool that works in every city and place it’s implemented! You need a strong foundation of density, jobs, and public wealth for a city’s rejuvenation to occur.

      • Jason

        I’m sorry I was harsh. Maybe the tone wasn’t deserved.

        First, a little bit more background about myself, so you know where I’m coming from. I lived in Detroit during 2005 and 2006 after spending the previous two years in Ann Arbor at grad school (and spending a lot of time visiting, especially while completing our capstone project “On Target: A Housing Strategy for Detroit On Target: A Housing Strategy for Detroit”). I first lived here (487 West Alexandrine, the 3 story with the blue dormer):

        http://www.bing.com/maps/explore/#/3h46zohg2crthxgl

        Across the street is a fraternity house, and the block had a number of properties in various states of redevelopment. The building next door was owned by the developers of this project one block west:

        http://www.midtowndetroitlofts.com/springfield.htm

        I then briefly lived here:

        http://www.loftplace.com/01/johnrapartments/index.php

        before moving following my wife’s carrier to a different state. I tell you this so that it is clear that I’m giving you not only the perspective of professional and academic transportation planner, but also somebody with lots of boots on the ground experience as a resident.

        That map you linked to (which I hadn’t seen on this blog) is fundamentally flawed because the 2000 census was taken before most of the residential development in the area happened.

        For a bit of background about what has happened in Detroit since 2000, go here:

        http://detroitmidtown.com/05/develop.php?msub=5

        For a more up to date article, read this:
        http://detnews.com/article/20100125/METRO/1250372/-1/ARCHIVE/Detroit-s-Midtown-district-is-on-a-roll

        I highly recommend skimming through the large PDF of the 2004 Free Press series (on 1st link). Also look through the various subsections on the right. Note that this organization does not consider Downtown (south of I-75) or New Center (North of I-94) to be part of its service area. You won’t find much information about these areas on their site. Much of what you read on the UCCA’s site is about proposed projects, because the nature of the business, the current short-term financial and housing markets, many of them are somewhat stalled, but few people who know anything about the city think progress is going to revert.

        The picture that you put at the top of the post that apparently “proves” that nobody wants to live there in fact show the opposite if you know the area. (Remember that I lived less than a block from that location.) In the early part of the last decade, there was a huge effort in the Brush Park area to demolish old structures, refurbish others, and build new housing. During that time, new basic infrastructure (streets, sidewalks, etc) was installed. The buildings on the left side of the street in that picture, among others, were stabilized so they could be rebuilt later. About 700′ from that spot, this is what the neighborhood looks like:

        http://tinyurl.com/yaabapm

        This vacant land is ready for construction. I think the existence of vacant land 5 miles away in the other part of the city has little bearing on the demand for this land, especially if transit links its to the job and entertainment centers nearby. Currently, you are right, there is little reason to build here. Most residents are going to own cars and drive them to work. The 53-Woodward bus is crowded and experiences significant bunching; distances are too far to walk for most people. That is exactly the reason that the city needs to build this system.

        The other aspect of that map that is fundamentally flawed is that it only shows residential density. Job density is something that is impossible to map using census data at that level. Many of the census blocks shown on that map are almost completely filled with non-residential institutions (the core of WSU or the hospital). It is almost true that central Detroit is not much more population dense than many other parts of the city, but it is much more job (and education) dense.

        There are a number of large companies and institutions in Central Detroit, but there is also a movement towards fostering a more entrepreneurial, small business economy. One of the places that is happening pretty successfully is in Techtown (I hate that name, but the organization is doing great work.)

        http://techtownwsu.org/

        Right now, a worker for Walker-Miller Energy Services ( a Techtown energy startup) might want to live in Central Detroit. But without a quality transit system, the person is still likely to need a car to get to work. Once they know they need to get in a car every day, driving a few extra miles to Ferndale or Royal Oak might make a lot of sense. But if they can leave their car most days and take light rail, the corner of John R and Alfred starts to look much more attractive.

        Similarly, if I want to start a biotech startup, such as Asterand (a Techtown biotech), I can look all over the metro region, and because I have to use cars to do everything, all locations are pretty much equal. Southfield might be a good location, since it is at a major freeway junction, but traffic can be rough, so maybe Novi is a better choice.

        But if I my employees can use a quality transit system to meet with doctors at the nearby hospitals, or researchers at the nearby university, or bankers in the nearby financial district, then maybe central Detroit starts to look more attractive than other possible locations.

        So in closing, I’m puzzled that you think that Detroit needs to concentrate jobs and housing around transit, but you write that creating the transit is a mistake. Nobody in Detroit thinks they are going to revitalize the entire city of almost 140 square miles by building transit everywhere. There has been a lot of movement towards a shrinking-cities model of consolidating density in the last few years. But this light rail project is necessary to have an economically functioning city center and it is required if the sort of consolidation you claim is necessary is to be executed.

      • Matt

        Yonah & Jason,

        I am another former graduate of Ann Arbor (TCAUP) and a veteran of transit planning in Detroit (I worked for the MPO, SEMCOG, and helped to develop the SpeedLink BRT plan as well as the still official regional transit plan c.1999). I lived in Cass Corridor (mid town Detroit).

        I have to agree with Yonah’s overall assessment of the challenges surrounding this project. The City faces profound economic challenges, as well as political and social problems. I also agree that no one single project, including LRT, is likely to make a dent in those problems as they are not fundamentally transportation related. How will LRT improve the schools? The illiteracy rate? Crime? Racial divisions?

        One element that no one has discussed, either on the PBS doc or in any new story I can find, is whether the proposed LRT will replace all bus service along lower Woodward, forcing transfers on the large transit dependent population.

        Also, who is paying to operate and maintain this line? If it’s the City, then DDOT’s overall bus service will have to be reduced, again, to accomodate the LRT operating budget. If existing bus users are harmed in the name of ill-conceived “progress”, this project may end up in the same category as urban renewal.

      • Woody

        But Matt — It costs less to operate Light Rail than running buses. One driver on a train that carries as many passengers as two or three buses, electric power instead of diesel, train cars outlast buses, rail doesn’t wear as fast as pavement, etc. Once you get past the higher capital cost, on the Woodward Avenue line to be paid mostly by foundations and the feds, the new trains will save money. That actually should allow some improvement in the existing transit network, shifting some current buses from Woodward to other routes and hiring more drivers with the money saved on LRT.

        I’m hopeful that the new train could even help the racial divisions, because the Woodward line will be something everyone can be proud of. (Nobody much is ever proud of a bus, even a whole new bus route.) The LRT will make a symbolic statement that Detroit and its residents are not being abandoned. The mostly black poor of the city have got little thrill from earlier symbolic structures. They can’t afford tickets to the baseball and football games at the downtown stadiums. The Renaissance Center, now the GM headquarters, might as well as had a sign reading “No ni@@ers allowed”, it was so fortress-like and intimidating. I’ve never visited the casinos, but I expect that the sagging pants guys would never make it past Security, no matter how much money was in their pockets. The restoration of the Fox Theater, the renewal and expansion of the Detroit Institute of Fine Arts, not really for the poor. Yet anybody and everybody will be able to board the new trains and feel good about their city.

        I also expect the trains will attract a significant number of tourists — students from Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and Lansing, day-trippers from the burbs, out-of-towners and Canadians. People who fear to drive in — make a wrong turn and you’ll get car-jacked, raped, and murdered, or worse! — will feel secure taking the train between the city’s major attractions. If most of these visitors are less affected by the “Alabama North” mentality that Mr Jennings reports far below, even that change of mood could help racial relations.

        In much the same way, I expect that LRT will make Wayne State a tolerable choice for segment of prospective students (and their parents) who would not consider the city today.

        Finally, designating one corridor as a special place can let other good things happen there. I could imagine Meijer’s being pressured to open a store, or Target, locating near a transit stop. Hauling the groceries and stuff home on a train then will seem doable for many prospective residents. One destination retailer can attract other specialty stores, the way a department store anchors a mall. This one change by itself would increase tax revenue, bring back jobs from suburban retailers, make one-car households more possible, and help to fill the loft and apartments in those renovated and to-be-renovated old office buildings downtown.

        Because so many of the potential benefits the Woodward Avenue line are soft and unmeasurable, it seems appropriate for philanthropists to be doing the heavy lifting. But I don’t have reason to oppose the new train line. I applaud it.

  • Joby

    as you can see below, Detroit is way more spread out than either Manhattan, Boston or San Francisco. It occupies an area larger than the three combined, and yet has a population of less than 1 million.
    http://mapscroll.blogspot.com/2009/06/shrinking-of-detroit.html
    Cities don’t last forever, they are organic things and cities and towns have disappeared in the past. Economic reasons are the main reason Detroit is disappearing. While Detroit might be shrinking there’s absolutely no reason that it should die.
    I remember reading a proposal that said the best thing to do is to retrench, move people into to two to three “urban villages” which surround a “city center”, connect them with a great new transit system, and a connected parks system (which lets face it given Detroits problems would be a park system on a map, but that could and likely would drive nearby development).
    With the remainder of the land, the city could allow it a much more rural existence with “urban farming”. It also allows the city to stop providing services like snow removal, road maintenance, fire, police, etc to roads that will be de-mapped. This allows tremendous cost savings, and allows dense vibrant neighborhoods to develop in the urban core and villages. This would attract those supermarket chains as well as the developers who would be interested in building the office towers.
    Once all that is re-jiggered, you can talk about slowly and over time re-growing the city. But if its the same old mess then I don’t see Detroit surviving.

  • Ocean Railroader

    The idea of closing off land to people who are already living there sounds like a bad idea in that it make them feel like it’s a war on them. The idea of closing off land to people in a poor area to raise land prices will help speed up the people moving out of the city.

  • Joby

    I disagree. Most people when they are offered better houses and services in another area of the city, they might not be thrilled however they will generally be OK with moving.
    Detroit is being depopulated. Land is already “closed off to people” as it is vacant home after vacant lot. The way this depopulation is happening is adversely affecting the city coffers (because it costs more to provide services over such a vast empty area) as well the residents who pay more in taxes to get worse services.
    What essentially this plan said is that the city would essentially make a strategic retreat so that they could survive. If Detroit doesn’t make some hard decisions, and soon, then the poor residents will get poorer and Detroit itself will eventually become a 21st century version of one of those old-west ghost towns and no one will live there.
    The land that would be “closed off” could become farms, where people could work, or parks where people could play.
    Flint, MI has made headlines with very similar plans, so I don’t think this is anything new per-say however its the only workable plan I’ve heard thus far.

  • Joby

    the study i was referencing, “Leaner, Greener Detroit” can be found here –
    http://www.aia.org/aiaucmp/groups/aia/documents/pdf/aiab080216.pdf

  • Nathanael

    Detroit needs to follow the “Youngstown plan”, which is also the Flint plan — rip out city services from outlying areas with high vacancy and poor-quality/poor-condition structures. That means removing roads, sewer, and water, along with electricity.

    This cuts costs a lot while creating farmland.

    In this sort of massive urban planning redesign… well, I’m not sure it’s possible to get it passed politically. But in this sort of redesign people would move to the corridor which retained services.

  • Norman Brown

    Are there any other cities that have as much of a “doughnut” pattern of development? And, is the hole in the doughnut growing larger?

  • It’s important to consider in this case the role of funding backers. Places like the Kresge Foundation are getting involved in Detroit’s future in ways that I don’t see in other city revitalization efforts. Could philanthropic organizations make the difference between Detroit’s success and failure? I don’t think so, but it’s important to recognize their role here.

    In a viewing of the PBS documentary held at the University of Michigan, Prof. Robert Fishman told the audience to be aware of the role of philanthropy in getting the M1 project to this point, even if that didn’t show up in the doc itself.

  • samuel augustus jennings

    My family moved to Detroit during the Great Black Migration after World War II and I lived in the Motor City during the 1950’s when streetcars ran up and down Woodward Avenue and Sanders served the best hot fudge sundae in the world. We often slept under blankets on Belle Isle on hot summer nights because no one had air-condtion in those days…and it was very safe and clean. Blacks had previously been barred from Belle Isle and amusement parks. Race riots raged in the Motor city during the 1930’s and 40’s.

    White auto workers simply did not want to share good paying “white” factory jobs nor did they want to live next door to African Americans. Detroit and surrounding suburbs were Alabama North.

    “Don’t get caught in Dearborn after dark!!!”

    Violence erupted and homes were burned whenever African Americans moved into white neighborhoods. Racism as much as economics killed the Motor City. I graduated from Nolan Junior High in 1959 when it was less than 10%black…now it is all-black!

    Most of all I miss Hudson’s and the Michigan Central Railway cathedral…and the newstand at Grand Circus Park where I used to steal the little male physique pocketbooks, but these comments confirm that nothing can be done to resurrect the Motor City, an urban tragedy.

  • robert

    Wow.. impressive stuff.. as an european it is hard to believe this can happen to a city. Anyway I wonder how all this empty space doesnt cater to young people around the nation, specially artists, musicians and alike- it would be a luxury here to be able to live few streets from downtown while having space and little neighbours to make noise.

  • matthew

    Have you ever taken the Woodward Bus??? It takes about an hour to go from Downtown to Royal Oak… which is 13 miles. An hour to go 13 miles. An hour to go 13 miles. Let me repeat an hour to go 13 miles. More buses is not the solution to get people out of cars an onto transit. I’m sorry but a light rail train will speed up service on this route.

    Detroit has made great progress in the last 15 years in the downtown core. I’m amazed. This light rail project should be built… has to be built. Getting people out of cars and onto transit needs to be done.

    Hopefully Detroit after it builds this… will built transit to Detroit Metro airport to Downtown… (along Michigan Ave.) that bus route takes approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes. Then it needs to build going outward to Grosse Point… make the city walkable… and with timely transit… people will move… development will happen.

  • Justin

    Actually the way a problem like this is solved is thinking out side the box.
    First let me tell you this-I live in LA and it sucks in a thousand ways.
    A national program that would give any U.S Citizen a housing voucher regardless of income for up to $800 per month for 8 years and would only be redeemable in certain citys like Detroit and for Detroit up to 3 million of these would be allowed would spur mass redevelopment, benefit the little people, small and big business, the enviornment etc.
    Congress gave billions to Wallsteet and what did we get?
    This plan that I have would definately be a starting point to a tangible way to build up the economy and create vast business oportunities for many.
    On the other hane we can just keep on relying on stimulis programs and the big banks and you know the rest of the story.
    Why are we as a nation relying on the very same people and firms that destroyed our entire economy in the first place to save us?

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