February 8th, 2010
The Next American System
[OP-ED] POV of the Motor City

An op-ed forum to discuss Blueprint America: Beyond the Motor City. Use the below reactions and interpretations of the documentary from various transportation and Detroit-interested groups as a starting point to add your thoughts in the comment section at the bottom of the page.

The following responses do not represent the views of Blueprint America. They were selected in an effort to encourage a diverse debate reflecting all viewpoints on the often contentious issue of transportation in America.

by Ben Fried, Streetsblog New York

Ben Fried is the editor of Streetsblog New York, a website covering the evolution of streets, transportation, and public spaces in the Big Apple.

bfried_streetsblogIt’s tempting to think of transportation policy mainly as a matter of getting people from point A to point B. Beyond the Motor City is filled with images and scenes that prove how treacherous that assumption can be.

Just look at Detroit’s once-grand Michigan Theater, stripped down and emptied out to make room for parking. It is, quite literally, a shell of its former self. It’s also an apt symbol for the self-defeating nature of unadulterated car-based mobility.

The problem isn’t that cars pollute more than transit or bicycles (although they do). It’s that they take up much more space. So much space, that once you start planning cities solely to accommodate their movement, soon enough you won’t have anywhere left worth going to. By betting massively on freeways while abandoning the streetcar network, Detroit and its suburbs systematically engineered the decline of places like the Michigan Theater, Woodward Avenue, and the city’s own neighborhoods.

Detroit may have taken the logic of automobility further than most American cities, but for fifty years, our national transportation policy (or lack thereof) has led the rest of the country in a similar direction – favoring highways and sprawl at the expense of transit and livable cities.

The time to turn things around is now, while we’re sifting through the wreckage of a historic real estate bust and searching for ways to combat stubbornly high unemployment. A different set of priorities for transportation policy can set the stage for a sustainable recovery, a pattern of growth that fills our cities with great places instead of hollowing them out.

by Adrian Moore and Shikha Dalmia, Reason Foundation

Adrian Moore is a transportation economist and vice president of Reason Foundation. Shikha Dalmia, a senior analyst at Reason Foundation, was an editorial writer at the Detroit News, and has lived in the Detroit area for close to two decades.

amoore_reasonOnce upon a time we lived primarily in dense cities and traveled by trolley in the city and by trains between cities. Then came the automobile, and though it was expensive, it offered such a vastly superior means of travel and access to a significantly wider range of the country that in seemingly no time at all Americans en masse made the switch. To quote the narrator: “Most American’s who could were happy to ditch the crowded trolleys and choose the freedom and luxury of Detroit’s finest.” They were not forced to do so, they chose to. And they continue to choose their cars.

But this documentary forgets all of this and issues a clarion call for rail to once again stage a competition that it has already lost.

sdalmia_reasonThe documentary asks: When “will the U.S. change course and begin to catch up with the rest of the world?” This puts reality on its head. The U.S. has an interstate system that, even with all its faults and current needs, has long been the envy of the rest of the world. And today, Europe’s dense, walkable, transit-oriented cities that those in the film yearn for are losing population to the suburbs as car ownership soars. As people choose what is best for them, Europe’s transit systems are losing market share.

This might come as news to some of the folks interviewed in the documentary, but more and more Europeans are choosing to live like we do here in the United States. They are choosing automobiles over romantic trains because of the mobility and freedom that cars offer. This is not to say that mass transit is always a bad choice. The transportation option that is best for a given community varies depending on local circumstances. Mass transit can work when it is located in high-volume, very dense corridors but is linked with highly flexible systems that tie together dispersed housing and job centers in a metropolitan area. But, ultimately, to be effective, any local transit system — mass or not — has to compete effectively with cars.

But the people interviewed in the documentary seem to be quite innocent of such nuance and want to impose their living choices on everyone else. If they actually paid attention to facts on the ground, they would realize that most American cities are not good candidates for extensive light-rail transit schemes. That’s because these cities lack the dense corridors needed to make light-rail viable. Nor do they have the resources both for expensive light-rail and a flexible and competitive bus system. The upshot usually is that when light-rail schemes are implemented, they tend to beggar the bus system. This means that the poor carless residents who use buses end up subsidizing light-rail users who tend to be middle class commuters and shoppers. Light-rail systems are therefore neither fair nor sustainable.

In fact, dozens of cities around the U.S. have built light-rail transit in the past three decades. None of these projects have succeeded in changing how people travel – the share of trips taken by transit cities that have built light rail lines has remained at 1 to 4 percent — and falling — compared to automobile trips. Our cars keep winning the competition.

That should instill some humility in the grand designs of social engineers. But mass transit advocates in the documentary appear undeterred — and issue a plea for light-rail in Detroit. But Detroit is even less likely to succeed where others have failed because it lacks density and doesn’t even have the resources to provide an adequate bus service. But notwithstanding the “build-it-and-they-will-come” mentality of light-rail boosters, the fact of the matter is that the lack of mass transit is not the cause of Detroit’s demise – and it won’t be Detroit’s nirvana.

Detroit’s wounds are self-inflicted. They have been caused by a dysfunctional political class that has ruled the city like its personal fiefdom. Even if one ignores the rampant corruption, city leaders dole out business contracts to favored constituencies as opposed to entrepreneurs with viable plans. Lousy schools, high crime, substandard — yet still expensive — city services have triggered an exodus from the city. The cost of doing business in Detroit is exceedingly high, thanks to its high taxation and a truly Byzantine regulatory system. Existing businesses leave and new ones do not replace them. A shrinking tax base further erodes city services and drives more people out. It is a classic death spiral.

In 2002, Detroit News Editorial Cartoonist Henry Payne hauntingly described the sharp contrast between Detroit and neighboring suburbs across Eight Mile — showing that Detroit’s malaise has nothing to do with the lack of transit, and everything to do with how it is lead. He wrote:

Eight Mile is stark evidence of the failure of liberal urban policy… Since 9/11, 20 new businesses have opened on a three-mile stretch of East Dearborn’s Warren Avenue alone. The commercial heart of the Detroit area’s 93,000-member Arab community, East Dearborn borders Detroit’s west side. Warren Avenue is the American Dream come alive — a street jammed with grocers, restaurants, and appliance stores that service the neat, working-class, predominantly Arab neighborhoods behind it. Shoppers of every ethnic variety bustle along the neatly manicured sidewalks from merchant to merchant, their stores’ names displayed in both English and Arabic. It is an American success story, unaffected by the tremors of 9/11.

But when Warren Avenue crosses Central Avenue, the vista dramatically changes. Central marks the border of East Dearborn, the beginning of Detroit, and the end of hope. Like someone has flipped a switch, the streets are suddenly lifeless. Storefront after storefront stands empty or boarded up. Graffiti defaces walls, and grass pokes through cracked, neglected sidewalks.

Detroit has to address the root causes of its decline to make a comeback — not indulge in utopian and expensive rail projects, especially when it can’t even fund its existing bus service, thanks to poor fiscal management. Spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a light-rail line that will run down one road for 3.4 miles, providing service to a fraction of a fraction of travelers in the city, is beyond irrational. It will deepen Detroit’s fiscal woes — especially if the state government, which too is in a deep fiscal hole, is unable to cough up the operating subsidies that this line will need.

This isn’t how you improve mobility for the poor. And it isn’t how you provide better transit citywide. The hundreds of millions that the rail system would suck could be much better used to offer a bus service that vastly more people would use. Incidentally, what was ironical – even comical — about the documentary was that it glowingly portrayed the volunteer bus service that has tried to fill some of the transportation gaps for Detroit’s car-less residents while completely ignoring the city’s harsh anti-jitney laws that have created that gap in the first place.

The documentary’s case for a transit-led renaissance of Detroit is at best fanciful. But the fantasy becomes surreal when it turns to national transportation policy.

At a time when the nation is facing a record deficit, the idea that taxpayers in states like Iowa, Oregon, and Mississippi should be forced to pay for a transit system in Detroit is arguably offensive. The show criticizes federal policy for spending 80 percent of transportation money on highways and roads. But the highway system carries 98 percent of all surface travel — and yet gets just 80 percent of the funding. In a rational world, this would be regarded as under-funded — not “over-funded” as the narrator suggests. There is no sense — no national interest served — in letting the national highway system decay to give Detroit a rail system.

The show waxes eloquent over Spain’s high-speed rail and idolizes California’s proposed high-speed rail line. But Spain is a small country, much poorer than the United States, where car ownership is a fraction of the level in the U.S. and air travel is relatively more expensive. More Spaniards compared to Americans don’t have cars, can’t afford to fly, and have long traveled between cities by train. So it is not surprising that when they are offered an improved train system in the form of high-speed rail, they love it. But it is very, very expensive — and is not even close to breaking even.

But America does not have a large population of car-less intercity train riders like in Spain, or lots of dense major cities fairly close together like in Asia — all of which is necessary to make high-speed rail remotely feasible in terms of cost-effectiveness. Americans have better options with affordable driving and air travel. Rail would require the government to build it and taxpayers to pay massive (billions upon billions) subsidies each year to keep the rail lines afloat. These lines won’t make money. They won’t even break even. Given that we have affordable auto and air travel between cities, high-speed trains will become a white elephant: a luxury that we can’t afford.

As for California, a Reason Foundation study found its proposed high-speed rail plan to be a pie-in-the-sky dream that is likely to cost more than twice what the rail authority predicts (and the predictions keep rising) and will carry less than half the projected passengers. It will not compete well against flying or driving. Wildly inflated ridership predictions and astronomical costs, both in construction and yearly operations, are why private companies haven’t jumped on the bandwagon — they know there is no way to break even, let alone make a profit.

Cars and the highway have made Americans the most mobile people in the world and allowed them to pursue lifestyles that they want. Solving the problem of decaying cities like Detroit is crucial to our country. Vibrant, healthy, job-creating cities are vital to our economic and cultural health. But the solution won’t come from building a pretty rail system that few will use. And it will not come from scrapping our outstanding, auto-based transportation system, but by working with it to ensure that low-income families get the transportation they need to climb the economic ladder and live the American dream.

by Chris Leinberger, The Brookings Institution

Chris Leinberger, a land use strategist, teacher, developer, researcher and author, balances business realities with social and environmental issues. He is a Visiting Fellow at The Brookings Institution and Professor and founding Director of the Graduate Real Estate Development Program at the University of Michigan.

cleinberger_brookingsBlueprint America‘s program on the tragedy of Detroit demonstrates to all Americans what could be in store for their metropolitan area in the not too distant future as well. Detroit, the industry/city/metro area, was addicted to a 20th century version of the American Dream; exclusively car-driven, isolated development which led to deep social and racial divisions and reliance on the one industry that epitomized the industrial economy. It is ironic that Detroit has been hoist on its own petard.

However, other metropolitan areas should not be smug since many are following the same exact path; exclusively car-dependent, isolated development, etc, etc. But there are notable exceptions; metropolitan areas which recognize the knowledge economy is driving a new version of the next American Dream, one that provides multiple transportation options (rail and bus transit, biking, walking in addition to cars), integrated walkable urban places where you can get to most places by foot or transit and biking plus the option for drivable sub-urban development, which America has in vast, overbuilt surplus.

The metro region leading the way, perhaps surprisingly, is the Washington, DC, region, but quickly followed by metro Denver, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland and Chicago. Other metros, that some might think unlikely, which are moving aggressively toward providing the choice of both drivable sub-urban and walkable urban way of living, include Dallas, Phoenix and Houston. And the many small and mid-sized metros, like Chattanooga, Boise, Greenville and Santa Fe, which are going down this same path of offering choice, show that this is not a trend isolated to large metropolitan areas.

Beyond the Motor City also shows a side of Detroiters that few have seen; their grit and commitment to their hometown. As a part-time professor at the University of Michigan but living in Washington, I have been an outside observer of a tribe of people deeply committed to their hometown. Perhaps it is the shared experience of economic freefall or the self-selection of those who have chosen to stay, but I have rarely seen people more devoted to bringing their city and region back. And once some success is achieved, I bet many Detroit ex-pats will return as well. For example, their proposed private-sector funded rail transit system from downtown Detroit up Woodward Avenue to the Amtrak and a proposed commuter rail station is unique in the country. The existing walkable urban places you would not expect in the Motor City include Birmingham, Ann Arbor, the redeveloping downtown, Midtown and New Center areas, not to mention Riverfront and Mexicotown. These neighborhoods defy the outside image that all is lost in Detroit, Michigan.

Perhaps borne of desperation, Detroiters are rising to the challenge.

by Elana Schor, Streetsblog Capitol Hill

Elana Schor is the lead reporter for Streetsblog Capitol Hill, a D.C.-based news site focusing on transportation and infrastructure policy. She has covered Capitol Hill for five years, working as a staff reporter for The Hill, The Guardian, and the Talking Points Memo blog.

eschor_streetsblogBlueprint America’s latest installment, Beyond the Motor City, is an edifying and entertaining look at how Detroit’s struggle to build a future decoupled from the auto industry reverberates throughout the nation and across the Atlantic. The film did not shrink from intractable political challenges, such as the imbalance between federal spending on roads and transit, and did not sugarcoat the prospects for a renewal of Detroit despite the city’s recent progress on a light rail plan.

Two themes in particular emerged after viewing the piece. The first stemmed from the choice of Albert Gallatin as a paragon of early federal transportation planning — which initially felt out of left field, given his criticism of all deficit spending by the nascent U.S. government, but ultimately turned into an inspired call. Gallatin’s vision of a United States made whole by its built environment was driven as much by land use as by transportation, a concern driven home in the present day by the film’s observations about the vast tracts of unused land left in the Detroit core. In an era where the national economy is driven increasingly by the financial markets (as promoted by Gallatin’s ideological opposite number, Alexander Hamilton) as opposed to agrarian or manufacturing interests, what will remain to remind Americans of the connection between land use and transport? As Beyond the Motor City notes, Detroit’s growth and mobility were shaped by its commerce.

Some of the most heated debates in Washington today center on how to better join economic growth with transportation policy; in other words, how to ensure that transit, bike infrastructure, and roads are built where they can foster sustainable job creation and productivity. As one Detroiter protesting bus service cuts reminded the filmmakers, many urbanites depend on transit to get to work. But transit can also be an effective spur for future job opportunities, in Detroit and elsewhere — a link that I wish the film had explored in greater depth.

The documentary’s second thought-provoking theme rested in its comparison of America with Spain and other developed nations that have invested more smartly and heavily in high-speed rail. It is indisputable, as one interviewee pointed out to the camera, that the nation’s current infrastructure spending rate of 1.3 percent of GDP needs to rise significantly in the coming years to save the connective tissue of the U.S. economy. But Spain’s population is about one-sixth that of the U.S., and its parliamentary system has allowed for several minor political parties to develop alongside the two major affiliations. Contrast that with an American system where an ongoing breakdown in governance, driven by rising partisanship, has stalled rational debate on future transportation policy, and it becomes clear that the entire nation is in the same boat as Detroit — grasping for a sustainable way forward with little sign of leaders willing to make the difficult choices necessary to do so.

I look forward to future episodes in the series that will dig even deeper into these questions…

by Chris Bedford, Sweetwater Local Foods Market (Michigan)

Chris Bedford is co-founder and President of the Sweetwater Local Foods Market — Michigan’s first farmers market to exclusively sell locally grown products.

cbedford_The urban basket case of the nation, Detroit, Michigan, has received increasing attention as an “opportunity” rather than just a “crisis” in the media recently. Blueprint America’s Beyond the Motor City represents a major documentary film effort to explore Detroit’s future, particularly, the impact of transportation policy on the city.

The PBS show — at one hour and twenty-six minutes in length — presents a look at the need for and history behind the Woodward Avenue Light Rail project in Detroit as a possible harbinger for the rebirth of the Motor City.

The program has a number of good points — particularly the look at Spain’s high speed rail success and the historical sections that trace the demise of public transportation in the US in favor of the private automobile, many of which were made in Detroit (the auto industry’s “Silicon Valley” of the 1920s-1940s).

But, overall, the show fails miserably, both as a documentary and as a tool for change in transportation policy. I have listed my review of these failures below.

1. The documentary is incredibly and mind numbingly repetitive, revisiting ideas again and again, in a kind of chaotic ADD type of filmmaking. The film could easily be reduced to 58 minutes in length at substantial benefit to its audience and its purposes. There is only the barest outline of what might be called a story arc.

2. The documentary is extraordinarily superficial in its understanding of Detroit and its problems. For instance, the demise of Detroit’s once vibrant public transportation system is never linked to the public policy efforts of the auto industry which wanted Americans to buy more cars. The US auto industry killed public transportation.

3. Likewise, the historical role of racism in the auto industry which brought African-Americans to Detroit to do the dirtiest jobs in the production line is not understood. When a neighborhood activist grieves for the neighborhood lost to highway construction, again there is no understanding of how highway construction was used to maintain racial lines.

4. The presentation of the Woodward Avenue Light Rail Project as an answer to Detroit’s problems fails to make the case for why people would want to travel to downtown Detroit today. When Woodward Avenue was a vibrant trolley corridor in the first half of the 20th Century, the commerce and income of the auto industry drove that success. What is the equivalent in the 21st Century? The documentary doesn’t even consider that question. It shows an empty downtown and gives no picture for why people would want to travel there.

5. The brief inclusion of Hantz Farms and their proposal for an initial 50 acre urban farm suggests that the filmmaker might have thought about the local food revolution in Detroit for a moment. This revolution is the real story about the rebirth of Detroit. But it is not covered by the documentary. The Hantz project is widely viewed as a kind of 21st Century colonialism in the guise of progress.

6. The Hantz Farms inclusion also demonstrates virtually no understanding of the nature of the change underway in Detroit. The Farm and the Woodward Avenue Light Rail are examples of institutional thinking stuck in the past. They are a version of the “if brute force isn’t working, you aren’t using enough of it” approach to change. Read about the Transition Movement — the work of communities to reinvent themselves. The film also ignores Peak Oil and its implications.

7. Finally, I appreciate all the earnest and educated statements about the problem. But the sustainable solutions will come from the people of Detroit who have a different perspective than the well-funded advocates in this film.

I don’t mean to be a downer. But this film is so misdirected in its content that is actually part of the problem, not the solution. The only thing that saves it from being truly destructive is the mediocrity of the filmmaking. This failure makes Beyond the Motor City a little interesting and ultimately, meaningless.

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