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December 4th, 2009
The Next American System
[OVERVIEW] The Next American System

Over the next 40 years, America’s population will grow by more than an estimated 130 million people. Most will settle in or near the country’s major cities. At the same time, a great American migration will take place. Urban, suburban and rural life will shift – all with new immigrants, new elderly, new poor and a new middle class with less financial freedom. The American Dream will not be deferred, but redefined.

So as the country plans and prepares, the aftereffects of the Recession weigh heavy. “Recovery” is a loaded word these days. An unprecedented multi-billion dollar public works investment to start recovery was made by the federal government to rebuild both the weakened economy and stressed national infrastructure. Still, that recovery has been questioned as unemployment and underemployment remain high.

But, if history holds true, the investment in infrastructure could modernize America (again) just as the Depression of the 1930s spurred spending to unite the states of the country with electricity, sewers and roads. What kind of America will these new Americans live in?

THE NEXT AMERICAN SYSTEM is a look back at the first American System as the country looks forward in this new century. That first system came from political minds such as Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun and John Quincy Adams in the early 1800s — defining a young country’s economic and infrastructural future.

Through two documentary projects (BEYOND THE MOTOR CITY and ROAD TO THE FUTURE), Blueprint America interviews today’s thinkers and tells the stories of everyday Americans as an older country looks for its next move. As simplistic an idea as it may seem, a new transportation system could be the answer.


Blueprint America examines how Detroit, a symbol of America’s diminishing status in the world, may come to represent the future of transportation and progress in America.

Detroit is the crucible in which the nation’s ability to move toward a modern 21st century transportation infrastructure is put to the test. The documentary shows how investments in the past — beginning with the construction of canals in the 18th century — profoundly shaped Detroit’s physical layout, population growth and economic development. Before being dubbed the Motor City, Detroit was once home to the nation’s most extensive streetcar system. In fact, it was that vast network of streetcars that carried workers to the area’s many car factories. And it was the cars made in those factories that would soon displace the streetcars in Detroit — and in every major American city.

Detroit’s engineers went on to design the nation’s first urban freeways and inspired much of America’s 20th century transportation infrastructure system — from traffic signals to gas stations — that became the envy of the word.

But over the last 30 years, much of the world has moved on, choosing faster, cleaner, more modern transportation and leaving America — and Detroit — behind. Viewers are taken on a journey beyond Detroit’s blighted urban landscape to Spain, home to one of the world’s most modern and extensive transit systems; to California, where voters recently said yes to America’s first high speed rail system; and to Washington, where Congress will soon decide whether to finally push America’s transportation into the 21st century.


Blueprint America goes to three very different American cities — Denver, New York and Portland, and their surrounding suburbs — to look at each as a microcosm of the challenges and possibilities the country faces as citizens, local and federal officials, and planners struggle to manage a growing America with innovative transportation and sustainable land use policies.

With roads clogged and congested, gas prices uncertain, smog and pollution creating health problems like asthma, cities that once built infrastructure to serve only automobiles and trucks are now looking to innovative new forms of transportation systems — like trolleys, light rail, pedestrian walkways and bike paths.

Whether it is talking to residents pushing sustainable development in the Bronx, smart growth in Denver, or a journalist in Portland whose beat is bicycling, Blueprint America finds a common theme: America’s love affair with the car may be a thing of the past, and that may be the road to economic recovery.

  • Bob Gries

    …became the envy of the word.” (?)

  • Jane

    Thanks for airing this. ‘Just drove 2,200 miles down I-75 and up I-77 and the urban sprawl and traffic density and numbers of semis are appalling in terms of everyone’s quality of life. My mother traveled by inter-urban everywhere in the Detroit-Windsor area. In one generation we lost so much, including the city of Detroit.

  • john calen

    Maybe this program will get someone to realize the need for public transportation for all those people who cannot afford a car! Is anyone listening?

  • Allyson

    This was absolutely fascinating. I am glad this was set to tape, because its worth keeping. The retrospective on Detroit and environs was so well blended into the information about the impact of transportation strategies… historical, near term, potential long term…I was riveted.

    This is really well put together. If you’re posting, you’ve probably watched it. Tell those you know to watch, it’s a perspective on several larger issues that really causes one to think.

  • Amy

    Thanks, this was such and interesting look at not only Detroit’s infrastructure, but that of our entire nation. I would love to see Detroit’s public transportation brought back to life so that the city could once again flourish! Please re-air this quickly, so that I can get others to watch!

  • Paul Sichert

    Any ambitious prpject, but there is no mass to trsansit in Detroit, except to and from the airport. We cvan builod mass transit euipment in closed auto
    factories with skilled UAW people. Budd did in the
    1960’s and produced the Metroliner for Amtrak whcih was capable of 160mph. I know, I was there, Thanks

  • Jon Cosner

    Detroit was the Silicon Valley of it’s day. I’ve lived in both. CA plans to build high speed rail based on Spain’s system. Seems we share similar climates, topography, population densities, and (now, unfortunately) financial conditions. Why not compare Detroit with Chicago? They share similar climates, topography, and histories, but with very different outcomes. Why no mention of walking or biking as a feeder option? Appears that Detroiters could use some excercise, but that gets into healthcare and… Otherwise, great show!

  • RonMcLinden

    There’s no doubt the nation needs to reinvest in its infrastructure, especially its public transit and inter-city rail systems. However, since our perceived “needs” for such infrastructure far exceed the financial capacity of a nation already more than $12 trillion in debt, we need to also give a lot of attention to making our cities and towns a whole lot more walkable / bikeable / livable.

  • Jonathan Maus /

    I just saw this at free screening in Southeast Portland. I was very disappointed that there was no mention of how bicycles can be a solution in Detroit (and beyond). There was a lot of focus on Ford Motor Company, almost like a commercial for them in some segments.

    Am I missing something here? Does anyone else think it’s a bit odd that, given a blank canvas to envision a new type of urban mobility, there was no mention at all of bicycling? Very odd and it’s really too bad that this is being screened so widely.

    Bicycling remains the best solution for short urban trips yet it’s being forgotten by people clamoring to build big, shiny, expensive rail projects. That’s too bad. I expected a more balanced and informed perspective from PBS.

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