by Rebecca McKevitz, Associate ASLA
The past ten years have brought no shortage of conversation surrounding the current state of America’s rust-belt cities and the endless number of impacts the 2007 economic crisis had on these important cultural hubs. There has been an on-going fascination with both the collapse and rebuilding of these struggling urban centers from economists, politicians, city planners, and residents alike. Almost five years since the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy in Detroit, we are just starting to see glimpses of rebirth, and the majority of Detroiters are still questioning when they will feel the effects of this economic rebound. For urban centers, density promotes efficiency, and Detroit’s tremendous sprawl has created many challenges for the city. More specifically, a lack of reliable public transit has ailed the city for more than half a century.
Detroit’s significant transportation problems began when the city was designed for complete car dependency, resulting in spatially separated land uses, wide roadways, expansive parking lots and a lack of pedestrian friendly urban spaces (Talen). Detroit cannot afford to delay improvements in its public transit system any longer. The successful future of Detroit is dependent on many economic, political and social factors, but the first step towards revitalization is reconnecting the city through an updated and expanded public transit system. There are many systematic problems that got Detroit to where it is today, but refocusing efforts on a regional transit master plan will allow the city’s residents to engage with and contribute to their city, and will attract new business and development to the Motor City.
Detroit’s extensive area and obvious transit deficiencies make it an ideal location for Transit Oriented Developments (TODs). According to “Reconnecting America”, TOD is defined as “a type of community development that includes a mixture of housing, office, retail and/or other amenities integrated into a walkable neighborhood and located within a half-mile of quality public transportation.” Because the future of Detroit depends on both a transit overhaul as well as consideration about future land-use, a strategic plan for transit routes, along with a future land-use strategy, would inform the location for an assortment of diverse TODs strung together by a reliable transit system. In turn, as Detroit works to revitalize specific portions of the city, the established transit routes determine the areas of the city to be priorities for new development. This planning technique would result in a sequence of unique and accessible neighborhoods and communities at each stop along the transit route.
It is clear that transit will positively improve the physical, social, and economic function of the city of Detroit. The city should develop a way to incrementally build and fund their system while considering how to use transit design to carefully determine future development patterns. The question now is what types of transit to establish in the city. With its strong street grid and wide roadways, a rapid bus system with designated bus lanes could make an impact with minimal capital investment. On the other hand, if Detroit seeks to begin building a system that will remain technologically relevant into the future, it may consider a state-of-the-art light rail system.
Detroit’s need for a transit overhaul has been a hot topic of debate in recent years and the 2016 election gave Detroit an opportunity to refocus its efforts on a mass transit system, but after narrowly being voted down, the Regional Transit Authority is now working to revise its plan for the city in hopes of a “yes” vote in 2018 (Messner). If Detroit hopes to attract new industries to fill the gaps deindustrialization left behind, the city will need to add a strong public transit system to its list of amenities. Amazon’s recent request for proposals specified a quality mass transit system as a prerequisite for their HQ2 location. It can be expected that other corporations considering the move to Detroit would require an improved transit system as well.
Detroit’s existing residents are still in need of an affordable and reliable way to access their city. Currently, Detroit “is in the top ten for least car owners per capita, while it does not even chart in per-capita spending on mass transit” (Messner). With many residents unable to afford a vehicle, a lack of transit options creates an even greater challenge for these already underserved communities. Detroit should consider transit improvement an investment in its current residents as well as a draw for the future growth the city is striving for.
A recent opinion piece in The Detroit News discussed the decline of public transit use across the country stating that “traditional mass transit is slow, inconvenient, impersonal, and a dismal experience compared to alternatives.” With the availability of ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft, outdated public transit can seem inconvenient and unattractive. The article argues that “the future of mass transit lies in ride sharing, driverless cars, and other market-based innovation” (Drolet). Unfortunately, for the time being, these options are neither affordable nor available, and Detroit needs help now. The city does have decisions to make about what type of public transit is most suitable, but with residents scattered across the city, many of which are unable to afford a car, the need for a strong system of affordable and accessible transit options is indisputable.
With 139 square miles to cover, designing a regional transit master plan for Detroit can quickly become a daunting task. Fortunately, the city’s distinct “broken grid” street layout can begin to outline future mass transit routes. These transit corridors will inform where future development takes place and should also link transit options into communities or neighborhoods that are viable for revitalization. Dan Gilbert’s 3.3 mile long “QLNE” light rail system runs along Woodward Avenue from downtown through midtown and into the north end which corresponds with an assortment of new sports arenas, modern high-rises, and retail corridors that have been constructed throughout downtown and midtown. The QLINE boasts that “more than $7 billion in investment has poured into the Woodward Corridor along the QLINE route since 2013” along with more than 210 development projects that have been developed or planned (Parking). The amount of development that has spurred from this simple transit route, along with the affordable prices for riders could classify the QLINE a success, but it is just one small part of what can be a larger network of transit. The question now is how to design a deliberate and robust system that reconnects the city and even increases access to and from the suburbs.
Making Detroit a city that is accessible by public transit, individuals will finally have access city services, new and improved infrastructure, and employment opportunities, and will feel a greater sense of connection to their communities.
Rebecca McKevitz, Associate ASLA is a designer at Dan Gordon Landscape Architects and is an Executive Committee member of the Boston Society of Landscape Architects
Drolet, L. (2018, February 08). If we build mass transit, they won’t necessarily come. Retrieved March 29, 2018, from https://www.detroitnews.com/story/opinion/2018/02/07/build-mass-transit-come/110209678/
Kohlstedt, K. (2017, February 06). Detroit’s Pattern of Growth: Four Key Factors Explain Motor City’s Conflicted Grid. Retrieved March 29, 2018, from https://99percentinvisible.org/article/detroits-pattern-growth-four-key-factors-explain-motor-citys-conflicted-grid/
Messner, M. (2018, February 06). Metro Detroit still struggling to agree on regional transit plan. Retrieved March 29, 2018, from https://archpaper.com/2018/02/metro-detroit-still-struggling-to-agree-on-regional-transit-plan/
Mineta National Transit Research Consortium. (2014, March). A Study of Factors that Inhibit and Enable Development of Sustainable Regional Transit Systems in Southeastern Michigan; Transit Oriented Development (TOD) in Metro Detroit. Retrieved March 29, 2018, from http://transweb.sjsu.edu/PDFs/research/1136-4-transit-oriented-development-TOD.pdf
Ockerman, E. (2016, December 13). Detroit’s new streetcar QLINE takes maiden test run on Woodward. Retrieved March 29, 2018, from https://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/detroit/2016/12/13/detroit-streetcar-qline-test/95384282/
QLINE Detroit M-1 Rail. (2018, February 06). QLINE a Catalyst For Investment Along Woodward Corridor. Retrieved March 29, 2018, from https://qlinedetroit.com/downtown-north-end-qline-drives-7-billion-development-along-woodward-corridor/
Reconnecting America. (n.d.). What is TOD? Retrieved March 29, 2018, from http://reconnectingamerica.org/what-we-do/what-is-tod/
Talen, E. (2010). Fixing the mess we made. Planning, 76(9), 32-36.
What is TOD? (n.d.). Retrieved March 29, 2018, from http://reconnectingamerica.org/what-we-do/what-is-tod/