Michigan Land Use Institute

MLUI / Articles from 1995 to 2012 / Southeast Michigan’s High-Priced Spread

Southeast Michigan’s High-Priced Spread

Decades of highway subsidies strangle transit and region’s future

January 17, 2005 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Bruce Giffen
  Metro Detroit’s expressway building boom spurred one of the nation’s worst cases of sprawl and contributes to an unprecedented obesity epidemic.
It’s been 43 years since Jane Jacobs explained in her seminal book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, that the highway-building, neighborhood-flattening, cul de sac-spreading joyride then beginning to sweep the nation was a titanic error that would ruin American cities and roll over the suburbs, too. Ms. Jacobs, who now lives in Toronto, insisted that it is investments in sidewalks, storefronts, parks, affordable homes and offices, safe streets, public transit, and good schools that make a city work so well that people are pleased to be there.

History proves she was right. In the 1950s, while Michigan began pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into building the Lodge, Ford, Chrysler, and Southfield expressways to hurry people from Detroit to the suburbs, Toronto instead built a subway. It was among the many smart, human-scale public investments that Toronto made to preserve its downtown from ruinous freeways and make its urban neighborhoods among North America’s nicest. Detroit, meanwhile, lost more than half of its population and now has fewer residents than it did in 1920. Its suburbs are so spread out that its roads are the nation’s tenth most congested, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. Transportation has become so stressful and expensive that people are moving in droves to the state’s forested northern Lower Peninsula, now the Midwest’s fastest-growing region.
MLUI/Bruce Giffen
Congestion, though, is just one measure of the exploding financial and personal costs of sprawl in southeast Michigan. According to the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the region’s population is among the most obese in the nation, largely a result of the sedentary lifestyles auto culture encourages. Suburban Detroit also has among the nation’s worst flooding and sewage contamination problems; stormwater runoff from its heavily paved-over landscape inundates treatment plants.
MLUI/Bruce Giffen
  Reconstructing the Lodge Expressway at I-94 in midtown Detroit
Since growth follows money, solving the Detroit region’s severe sprawl problem greatly depends on changing public investment patterns. Few other metropolitan areas’ public spending patterns have produced such a clear set of winners and losers. From 1969 to 2000, Michigan’s patterns focused on suburban development, with dramatic results: Oakland County and its five neighboring suburban counties added 1.1 million new jobs, a 146 percent increase; but Wayne County, including Detroit, lost 209,000 jobs, a nearly 20 percent reduction. 
 This striking imbalance harms the region’s economic performance, in turn limiting the state’s competitiveness:

  • Southeast Michigan’s dogged devotion to highways and refusal to develop regional rapid transit means that 94 percent of Detroit-area workers commute by private vehicle, overwhelming the region’s roads. A big budget crunch is approaching, according to a current Southeast Michigan Council of Governments study: New roads will cost $60 billion over the next generation, but just $40 billion is available without raising taxes.
  • The region’s vehicle dependence costs about $6,000 per year per car and often tops housing in family budgets.
  • The Detroit region is growing more slowly than almost any other major American metropolitan area. It is shedding manufacturing jobs by the thousands and losing droves of young adults tired of bad traffic, dead end jobs, and centerless suburbs. Many of the more than 200,000 young people who left Michigan in the 1990s came from metropolitan Detroit, literally making it the national brain drain champion.
  • Executives of major southeast Michigan companies complain that recruiting top talent is difficult because other areas offer more opportunities for recreation, culture, housing, and transit. In 2003, Forbes Magazine ranked the region’s growth and career opportunities 141st out of the 150 largest metropolitan areas in the United States.

Blaming the Victim

MLUI/Bruce Giffen
  Long-abandoned apartments in Detroit
Yet Michigan business and political leaders, including many suburban Detroit state lawmakers, still believe that Michigan’s taxpayers should continue to pay for more of the same. They propose spending at least $550 million, and likely billions more, to widen Interstate 75 in Oakland County from Eight Mile to Auburn Hills. They favor spending $1.2 billion to widen Interstate 94 in downtown Detroit, a project that officials readily acknowledge is mostly about moving suburban commuters and international freight. A proposal to extend Interstate 375 in downtown Detroit a few blocks to the Detroit River would cost $60 million. Another proposal would add a third Detroit River vehicular crossing and expand a freight rail yard; both could flatten homes and businesses in southwest Detroit, where 100,000 people enliven the city’s fastest growing neighborhood.

L. Brooks Patterson, the influential Republican Oakland County Executive, is an important booster for new highways; he says they are critical to the business climate and quality of life in his slowed-to-a-crawl suburbs.

Urban renewal leveled thousands of homes and triggered massive “white flight,” which was in turn facilitated and accelerated by ambitious expressway construction programs.
“Cities declined because they squandered their assets,” Mr. Patterson wrote in a widely read article last year. “High crime rates, high taxes, failing schools, foul air, and a lack of open green spaces forced people to move. Sprawlers, like me, simply wanted a home with green grass on a safe, well maintained street, a quality neighborhood school that actually educated their children, a good job, nearby parks and recreational spaces, and a local government that actually delivers the services their taxes paid for…they wanted a place like today’s Oakland County.”

While Mr. Patterson is right about why people choose suburbs, he’s wrong about what it takes to build economic competitiveness in the 21st century and what causes urban decline, particularly in Detroit. Racial, political, economic, labor, housing, government, and manufacturing trends prompted the Motor City’s long slide; in some cases city residents and leaders encouraged it; in others, business executives and political bosses in Washington and Lansing did.

‘That Makes No Sense’

MLUI/Bruce Giffen
  Downtown Detroit’s new Compuware building
Just two Washington-fostered, big spending economic development programs — urban renewal and highway construction during the 1950s and 1960s — triggered much of the city’s turmoil. Urban renewal leveled thousands of homes occupied by African Americans, forcing them to move to white neighborhoods. This touched off massive waves of “white flight,” which the concurrent highway construction both facilitated and worsened as it demolished still more of the city. Gloria Jeff, an African American who now directs the state Department of Transportation, remembers it well.

“One of the reasons I got into planning is that my godparents lived in Black Bottom,” said Ms. Jeff, referring to Detroit’s prime black neighborhood of that era. “There were three promises made to folks that lived down there when they moved them out. It was: We will build new housing. It will be affordable. And we’ll move you back in. Well guess what? They did build new. It wasn’t affordable for the folks they moved out. Urban renewal had much more of a detrimental impact than highways. The two in combination did very bad things to the city.”

No wonder many now question whether the path to the Detroit region’s prosperity is more parking lots and highways, as so many leaders insist. Many great American cities are now dismantling their urban freeways. San Francisco took down the Embarcadero, which blocked the city’s shoreline from the central business district. Milwaukee demolished a downtown freeway and replaced it with a thriving neighborhood. Boston buried its downtown freeways and built parks, housing and offices over it.
Metro Detroit will either smother in the expense brought on by bowing to freeway culture or invest in jobs, quality mass transit, and excellent public schools.
“If you look across the country and see which cities are doing well economically, they all have strong central cities,” said Lou Glazer, president of Michigan Future Inc., a think tank in Ann Arbor, and author of Revitalizing Michigan’s Cities, a 2003 study of urban economic development in Michigan. “It’s hard to find a successful region in North America that doesn’t have a successful rail system. If Detroit and its suburbs are talking about adding capacity to the highway system to make it easier for people to quickly go through cities, that makes no sense.”

Because Detroit spawned so many 20th-century American hallmarks — cars, malls, freeways — it’s appropriate to see Detroit representing what Michigan and the nation could well become in the 21st. But this new reckoning depends on where economic development investments are made. Detroit will either be the first city to smother its entire metropolitan region with the expense, pollution, congestion, and stress fostered by public spending that bows to freeways and drive-through culture. Or it will be at the vanguard of a new and uniquely efficient design that relies on smarter public investments to generate jobs, build quality mass transit, produce safe neighborhoods, and encourage excellent public schools. Just as they have in Chicago, Portland, Seattle, and Boston, smarter public investments in Detroit would foster a region that celebrates its neighborhoods, conserves its clean air and water, and boasts an array of interesting jobs, cool destinations, safe streets, and good schools.

Ferndale Sues Regional Council
City manager says region needs more transit, not highways

Tom Barwin, Ferndale’s city manager, is dead set against widening I-75.

“While it’s under construction it will turn this county into a mess,” he said. “And when it’s done it will increase congestion.”

He believes constructing commuter rail lines would be a superior investment. In the more than 20 American cities that have done so since 1992, ridership has consistently exceeded estimates and the systems generate billions in employment, construction, and tax dollars.

Last year Mr. Barwin convinced Ferndale to sue the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, which annually distributes more than $600 million for transportation projects. Mr. Barwin contends that SEMCOG’s transportation spending favors white, upwardly mobile outer suburbs and ignores Detroit and its inner suburbs. The suit, now on appeal, asserts that SEMCOG’s voting structure is unfair. For example, three committee votes represent Detroit’s 900,000 people, while four represent Monroe County’s 150,000.

“We simply seek equal voting rights for all citizens,” he said.

Mr. Barwin favors building light rail along Woodward Avenue between Detroit and Pontiac, reviving a line that once was part of the country’s largest regional rail network. He says it would cost $35 to $50 million a mile and attract thousands of riders; a SEMCOG study confirms it would serve some of the region’s most vital areas.

Events back Mr. Barwin’s claim that there is strong support for transit. Grand Rapids’ regional system added 200,000 riders this year; Lansing’s has doubled its count since 1998; Detroit’s suburban system is growing steadily. In August 2004, citizens in 13 out of 14 Michigan counties voted for property taxes to support their buses, mostly by landslides.

Michigan Land Use Institute

148 E. Front Street, Suite 301
Traverse City, MI 49684-5725
p (231) 941-6584 
e comments@mlui.org