I hate cars.
I’m all too aware that I’m in the minority with that sentiment, and that generally speaking, people love their cars. And I know cars have a major role to play in America’s transportation system. I can accept that. Still – speaking only for myself here – if I could go the rest of my life without ever owning or driving a car again, and still be able to fully participate in society, I would gladly do it.
One of the little ironies of my attitude toward cars is that I come from Detroit, the car capital of the world. Or at least, it was when I was born. These days the big three are a lot smaller than they used to be, but I think that even if the city doesn’t dominate the auto industry the way it used to, from a cultural standpoint, it’s still synonymous with cars.
Which makes sense, because when you look at the history, it’s clear that Detroit was built by the car, not the other way around. Slate recently posted an explanation of how Detroit became the Motor City in the first place. When economic geographers try to explain why cities are established where they are, and why they grow and thrive there, they tend to look at factors like access to raw materials, proximity to markets, proximity to transportation, and the availability of an appropriate workforce. As Slate pointed out, Detroit had easy access to timber and iron ore and was located along major water and rail transportation routes. But the same could be said for Milwaukee, Buffalo, Toledo, Cleveland, or Chicago, and none of them became the Motor City. The reason Detroit did is that Henry Ford lived there, which is one of those factors that geographers and economists have a hard time accounting for, because they’re essentially random.
When Ford founded his company in 1903, Detroit had a population of about 300,000. Less than 50 years later, that number was almost 2 million. Many of those 2 million were displaced African Americans who had come up from Mississippi and Georgia to find work in the auto plants.
And now, over a hundred years later, the car is killing the place.
When I said earlier that Detroit was built by the car, that’s only half the story. It was also built for the car.
Detroit is the poster child for low-density urban sprawl. With nice, wide roads and endless parking, Detroit has physically changed itself over the years to accommodate the needs of the vehicles it produces. But since that’s where my early growing-up years were spent, it all seemed completely normal and natural to me; I never really gave it a second thought. It wasn’t until well into adulthood that I figured out that the kind of built environment that dominates Detroit was neither a) inevitable or b) inherently desirable or superior to anything else. But now I know better. I know that real urban density offers advantages that sprawl does not. And a lot of other people are coming to that same conclusion.
The entire metro Detroit region is having a lot of difficulty attracting educated, creative talent from the outside. What firms in the area are finding is that it isn’t Detroit’s, um, gritty reputation that’s scaring people off. No, it’s the sprawl. (And really, do read that link.) The inconvenience and ugliness of it all is preventing – or at the very least noticeably hindering – the city’s rebirth.
I don’t mean to suggest that the entire city has its head in the sand about this. For example, the mayor’s office got behind an effort to encourage urban biking in Detroit last year; Detroit seems like a city with a lot of potential to build and expand a cycling infrastructure, with its flat terrain and wide roads. And until late last year, there was a strong push to build a light rail system running along Woodward Avenue between downtown and 8 Mile Road, the city’s northern boundary. Unfortunately, that project lost its federal backing and has now been repurposed as a bus rapid transit route instead. True, it’s better than nothing, but worse than what could have been.
But neither urban biking nor BRT will change the physical characteristics of Detroit’s built environment in the short term. The silver lining is that with large sections of the city emptying out as rapidly as they have been, it may be possible over the next several years to radically redesign the city to accommodate transit, cycling and walkability.