Detroit experienced a huge decline in population between 2000 and 2010, losing something like 20% of its residents and going from a city of nearly a million to a city of 713,000. So why do they need a highway system designed for a much bigger city?
Since its population peak in 1950, every single Census count has shown Detroit with fewer people than the last. The city lost nearly 300,000 people in the 1970s, which is larger in absolute terms than what happened in the 2000s, but smaller as a percentage – in 1970, Detroit still had 1.5 million residents, after all.
And of course, we all know the story of how this population loss neatly coincided with Detroit’s near-total disintegration as a viable city. Burned-out and boarded-up buildings. Near-empty neighborhoods. Utterly inadequate city services.
And yet, it still has this roadway infrastructure that is built to accommodate a much larger population.
Look at how all these major highways act to isolate downtown Detroit from the surrounding neighborhoods. Look how the up-and-coming Midtown area is cordoned off from the rest of the city by four large freeways.
The separating and isolating effect of large highways is well understood. They act as both physical and psychological barriers between neighborhoods, in effect cutting some sections of the city off from the rest. In some cases, a new highway can be a death sentence for an economically or socially marginal neighborhood that finds itself disconnected from the rest of the city.
It’s also well understood that demolishing highways can actually help revitalize cities and neighborhoods. For one thing, knocking down a freeway reconnects those isolated parts of town with the rest of the city. It’s happened in New York City, Boston and San Francisco, among other places. But there are other, indirect benefits as well. For example, highways discourage drivers from interacting with the neighborhoods they pass through. Highways also act as traffic conduits – without them, drivers would probably take more direct routes along existing surface streets instead, distributing the traffic more evenly throughout the city in the process.
Detroit has seen pockets of growth and revitalization over the last decade or so – the Midtown area is frequently cited as proof positive that Detroit really can be livable again. But there’s an extra wrinkle here: the West Side Elevated Highway, the JFK Expressway and the Embarcadero Freeway were all elevated highways. The Lodge, Chrysler and Fisher freeways that run alongside three of Midtown’s borders are not. They’re dug out of the ground, often running either at or slightly below the elevation of the surrounding surface grid.
I lived in the Boston area for a few years in the mid-1990s, and I got to watch the Big Dig – which would eventually include the demolition of the elevated JFK Expressway – from my office window for two of them. There was a network of tangled surface streets running below the highway. You could cross under it from the wharf area, where I worked, to the Financial District with relative ease. That’s not the case with these highways in Detroit. They can only be crossed on overpasses, which actually acts to intensify their isolating effect.
Boston couldn’t really function without some sort of highway artery running through downtown, so after they blew up the elevated expressway, they opened a tunnel that ran the same basic route. Rebuilding that highway underground was astoundingly expensive and took forever, but it seems to have done the trick.
Would Detroit need to go as far as Boston did, and perhaps turn these freeways into tunnels? I don’t think so. For one thing, Detroit now has half the population it did in 1970. The existing road network is designed to accommodate many more cars than currently use it. For another, it’s been a long time since downtown Detroit was the employment center of the region. Most jobs have relocated to the suburbs, which means that most suburban residents don’t actually use these freeways to come into downtown every morning. And those suburbanites who do commute into the city could use Cass, Woodward, Grand River or Gratiot.
But something would have to go in place of those highways – you can’t just demolish them and leave the scars there for everyone to look at every day. I think a “green belt” of small urban parks and well-maintained public space could be an appropriate way to go; of course, given Detroit’s enduring problems with public safety, making sure they don’t turn into magnets for street crime would be an issue and would probably require a certain level of buy-in from city hall.
Tearing up those freeways and reconnecting the surrounding neighborhoods to downtown and to each other could be just the shot in the arm for Detroit’s urban revitalization that the city has been waiting for. But if I’m being realistic, it doesn’t seem likely that the idea will ever get much traction. For one thing, the Michigan Department of Transportation has historically shown a marked preference for highway construction as the solution for pretty much any and every problem – in fact, MDOT is actually expanding I-94, the highway running along Midtown’s northern edge. For another, a proposed light rail system that could have provided an alternative to these highways was scaled back to a streetcar system that goes nowhere near even the inner ring suburbs like Ferndale – but now even those modest plans are in jeopardy.
What do you think? Should Detroit consider this idea?