» 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.
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