Tag Archives: Detroit Mapping

Detroit Transit, Part 1


Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night? – Jack Kerouac

Detroit is ironically the most and least likely place to discuss mass transit. Once the home of one of the nation’s most extensive streetcar systems, Detroit has become synonymous with decentralization, suburban expansion, and the dominance of the automobile.  Where human mobility was once limited by the location of rail lines, canals, and the limited travel range of other non-motorized forms of transportation, the car provided a universal form of personal transportation which could be used at virtually any geographic scale. Unfortunately, the success of the car came at the expense of all other modes of transportation, eventually leading Detroit and other cities toward an inefficient and unsustainable transit monoculture.

Recently, infrastructural failures in this country have gained national and international attention. With increasing national imperative, as well as efforts at the regional and local level, it appears mass transit is finally becoming a reality. High-speed rail development in Florida between Tampa, Orlando and Miami, and in California linking Sacramento, San Francisco and L.A., has been covered extensively throughout the media. Portland Oregon’s streetcar system has become a benchmark for urban transit in this country. And the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) has allocated substantial funds to the development of public transit systems, indicating a shift in support and investment toward sustainable car alternatives. As this transition occurs, however, it is important to consider not only the new forms of transportation infrastructure and technology that will be necessary, but also the relationship between these and existing development patterns. Continue reading

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CIRCUMSTANCE.  Since the 1950’s Detroit’s population has been on the decline.  As the city expanded outward and fulfilled mid-century aspirations for suburban life and unencumbered industrial development, the overall population began dropping from its 1,850,000 peak.  Exacerbated by the combination of seemingly benevolent post-war policies such as the 1944 Serviceman’s Readjustment Act (GI Bill) which guaranteed low interest mortgages to returning veterans, Title One of the 1949 Federal Housing Act and the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, those who were not fully incentivized to leave the city were in some cases dispossessed or ghettoized. 

Vital communities broke down, functional public transportation fell into disrepair and ignorant, racially motivated segregation beseeched the city, making day to day life in Detroit quite inhospitable, promoting a sharp increase in migration to the suburbs.  At the same time, larger structural economic problems, such as an abiding faith in a Fordist economic model and a dominant one-dimensional industry, took their toll.  By the late 1960’s the population had fallen to 1,500,000 (while the 7-county region had grown to nearly 4,500,000) and in the late summer of 1967, the infamous riots engulfed parts of the city.  With this, many who had not yet left the city did so – if they had the means and opportunity.  (link to time line flash)

Over the final three decades of the 20th century Detroit maintained a steady population and employment decline as disinvestment, poor quality of life and limited services made a significant impact.  Now, with the economic recession that has come to define the early years of the 21st century, Detroit’s population loss and disinvestment have accelerated (along with several other communities in southeast Michigan, highlighting the regional dimension to these pernicious problems). Continue reading

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