BY NICK VAN MEAD VIA THE GUARDIAN
A battered Dodge Challenger roars past as I head out on the nine-lane highway, riding past shuttered shops and decaying restaurants and row upon row of vacant, overgrown housing lots.
Normally I wouldn’t even consider cycling on such an expanse of road, but it’s not so bad in Detroit. After all, the birthplace of America’s car industry doesn’t have that many cars any more.
My ride along Jefferson Avenue passes the low bulk of Chrysler’s car assembly factory. Along with General Motors’ Hamtramck plant, it is all that remains of the once-great industry which supported this city. Where there were 285,000 jobs, now there are just 10,000.
In 1940, Detroit was the fourth largest city in the US; now it doesn’t even make the top 20. From a peak of 1.8 million inhabitants, the population stands at 677,000.
But the city is resurgent – and its near-total collapse may unwittingly have created one of its most powerful and unique assets. The well-documented flight to Detroit’s sprawling suburbs killed the city inside, but it also left space. The wide rivers of asphalt carved deep into the city were designed to transport a population three times its current size.
Now the city’s new director of planning, Maurice Cox, wants to take all this space and transform Jefferson Avenue, and a number of other major arteries, into European-style “grand boulevards”. Cox says he can reduce motor traffic here to four lanes without affecting journey times – which would leave five lanes for wider pavements, protected cycle lanes, more greenery and space set aside for future streetcars or a bus rapid transit (BRT) system.
Across the city, Cox has decreed that all future bike lanes must be physically separated from motor traffic. With little active opposition, the pace of change will be fast; by the end of next year, Detroit will have 25 miles of new segregated cycle facilities. Advocates say this will catapult the city from 70th in the US rankings of protected lanes to a likely place in the top five, above Minneapolis and Portland.
Cox envisions a Detroit taken “back to the future”, before the car became king and when cycling and walking coexisted. “We still have the framework for that kind of city, but we haven’t nurtured it for decades,” he says. “In so many cities we have cars, pedestrians and cyclists jostling for space, but here they can all have part of the street.”
I arrive at Detroit Metropolitan Airport with two heavy bags and instructions to try to get everywhere on foot, bike or public transport. The Motor City tore up its streetcar system in the 1950s; today it has no metro and no tram, apart from a short elevated loop serving a small central area. Construction is set to finish next year on a streetcar project to connect fast-regenerating Downtown with Midtown, but the three-mile M1 system won’t reach into the hardest-hit neighbourhoods, or go anywhere near the airport.
Ground transportation gets a pretty low-key show on the airport website, so I pick up a copy of Visit Detroit magazine, which has a welcome page from the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation, Smart. The section on airport information gives driving directions and explains the options for car rental (around $60 a day) and taxis ($50 Downtown). Smart itself runs a public bus service, but that doesn’t even get a mention.
The Smart timetable online says a bus is due in 30 minutes – it shows up after an hour. The driver explains I’ll have to change to a DDOT city bus to get Downtown; I pay my $2.25 and get on board with the three other passengers, all wearing the uniforms of airport fast-food concessions. As we pick up more people there are a lot of complaints about lateness; the bus driver takes pity on those who don’t have enough money for a ticket and waves them through. I get off and change to the city bus system – another 30-minute wait in the dust and detritus beside a busy highway. It’s three hours before I make the hotel.
We'll always be the Motor City. We don't have to lose our automotive soul.
- Maurice Cox
The issue briefly caught the attention of the international media last year when car worker James Robertson told how he walked 21 miles as part of his daily commute. Readers rallied round and raised $350,000. He bought a Ford Taurus and now drives to work in a fraction of the time. He also gained a lot of weight.
An estimated 40% of people living in the city don’t have access to a car – that’s 270,000 Detroiters. People who wait this long for a bus mostly don’t have a choice.
The next day sees Detroit’s first ever Open Streets event. On a sunny Sunday afternoon, families, young people, old people, black, white, Latino, turn out on bikes to ride four miles of closed roads from Downtown, through the hipster haunt of Corktown to Mexicantown in the south-west. The route passes in front of the grand old Michigan Central Station, derelict since the last passenger train ran in 1988, killed by the car and intercity flights. Because times were so tough and no one wanted the land, historic structures like the station, the Packard factory, Fisher Body 21 and scores of others still stand – another of Detroit’s problems has created a potential asset.
Mayor Mike Duggan, the man who brought Cox in from New Orleans, makes an appearance. He tells me about 20-minute Neighbourhoods, a plan to regenerate areas in the neglected north of the city – from Six Mile to Eight Mile – so anyone can safely walk or cycle to shops, schools, the park or the library within 20 minutes, and enjoy a good quality of life without access to a car. Around 100 historic homes will be renovated, and blighted buildings that are not recoverable will be demolished. A new neighbourhood park and green cycleway will be created from unused land.
Inspired by a visit from former New York transport commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, Duggan authorised officials to use her experimental approach: forget time-consuming engineering risk assessments, put down some traffic cones and see what happens. The early signs from Fitzgerald – a neighbourhood which lost a large part of its population, and has the lowest rates of car ownership – are positive.
It’s about the 40% in Detroit who don’t have access to a car … and they have just as much right to mobility as drivers
“This younger generation grew up in the back of their parents’ cars being taken to school and to shops, and they don’t want that any more,” Duggan says. “They want to walk and cycle. We can’t compete with the suburbs on their terms, but we can offer young people bikeable and walkable neighbourhoods, and that’s at the heart of what we’re trying to do.”
Raquel Castaneda-Lopez, the city council member for District 6, sees mobility as a matter of human rights. A vibrant Latino community in her area was cut in two in the 1970s by the 18-lanes of the I-75 and I-96 highways. A pedestrian bridge now allows safe access, reuniting people on both sides.
“When you design for the car you get divided cities,” she says. “Roads divide communities. For me it is about access to mobility, which is a human right. It’s about the 40% in Detroit who don’t have access to a car. These people need to get to the grocery store or school or work, and they have just as much right to mobility as drivers.”
When Zak Pashak wanted to start making and selling an affordable bike from American steel, Detroit was his first choice. “People here know how to make stuff,” he says. “It’s steel work – it’s welding, tooling, engineering and design – and then there’s all the spinoff firms, the lawyers, the packing, the shipping … It makes sense.”
The former music promoter set up his Detroit Bikes factory in a west-side neighbourhood blighted by abandonment and crime. We get there past rows of overgrown, vacant lots and burnt-out houses left to slowly collapse.
Pashak has invested heavily in machinery to cut, bend, weld and paint steel tubes into finished bikes; hand-built frames hang in rows like carcasses at a butchers. He employs around 40 people – as many as he can locally – and hopes to expand that to 200.
Tony Sheldon, a 46-year-old from Seven Mile, ran a welding machine team for American Axle until production was outsourced to China in 2008. He earns a fraction of what he used to make in the automotive industry but is happy here. “The auto industry was worth billions of dollars,” he remembers. “The pay was better of course and the scale of the bike industry is much smaller – but that’s over now. We can’t do that any more, so that’s it.”
Pashak hasn’t turned a profit yet but believes bicycles could be a positive part of Detroit’s future. “It’s a $50bn a year industry globally but 99.5% of bikes are made in Asia, mostly China and Taiwan. If we can carve off even a little bit of that then it would have a big impact,” he says. “The US bike industry has got a lot of potential. Bikes can be a great part of the economy of Detroit.”
The city has been steadily reinventing itself since the riverside was renovated as part of the city’s 300th anniversary in 2001. The city’s flagship project, the Dequindre Cut, is a former rail line transformed into a paved path and cycle track. In a sign of the times, a luxury apartment building taking shape nearby is selling itself with promises of communal cycle parking alongside images of granite worktops and a pool.
The Detroit Greenways Coalition is working on extending the route into a 26-mile loop and the city’s even getting a bike share next spring. Last month it sneaked into the top 50 of Bicycling magazine’s Best Bike Cities of 2016 after census data pointed to a 400% increase in ridership since 2000.
Todd Scott, executive director of the Greenways Coalition, says cycling in Detroit is more successful now than any time since the 1890s, when Henry Ford built his first car, the Quadricycle, from bike parts and rode to his factory on two wheels.
“Right now the city can remove a parking lane if it wants, give the space over to cycling, and know no one’s going to make an angry call to their local councilman,” he says. “Vacant lots don’t complain.”
Houston, we have a solution
I fly into Houston and follow signs to the public bus stop. Again I’m the only passenger not wearing a worker’s uniform. The bus takes the scenic route to the shiny glass and steel centre of America’s oil capital but it’s comfortable, smells strongly of cleaning products and – compared with $50 for a taxi – is a bargain at just $1.25.
Like Detroit, cars are hardwired into the fabric of the city: the addiction is structural, not just cultural. Houston is laced with wide ribbons of asphalt, but many here are elevated on towering concrete columns, and at rush hour when I arrive the freeways look like parking lots.
Unlike Detroit, this habitual boomtown is growing fast. It is forecast to overtake Chicago to become the third largest city in the US and can lay claim to be one of America’s capitals of sprawl. Houston, though, is also the nation’s most racially and ethnically diverse metropolitan area and, as waves of new residents arrive, they bring ideas – like expecting to be able to get around on foot, bike and transit.
Houston has tripled the size of its Metro light rail over the past few years, and opened two new lines. There’s a new bike share system which has just gained approval for a threefold expansion, taking it out to the Medical Center and Texas Southern University. And the city looks set to approve its first Bike Plan for more than two decades. New mayor Sylvester Turner has called for a “paradigm shift”in how Houston gets around, stressing that the city can’t solve its congestion problems simply by building more roads.
The whole American dream – that you can live in the suburbs, drive a nice car, get around easily – that’s just not true
“We have been the poster child for car-centric poor planning for so long,” says Carter Stern, chief executive of the B-Cycle bike share scheme, “but now we’ve got all these people coming from outside the city with new ideas and they really expect to be able to walk around, to cycle, to enjoy being outside in public space. Houston was behind but things have started coming together … It is going to change the way Houstonians view their city.”
Then there are the bayous: slow-moving streams which cut right into the heart of Houston. Transformed into linear parks by previous mayor Annise Parker and millions of private money, these flood facilities offer spectacular green spaces in the shadow of Downtown skyscrapers. They are popular at weekends but – with better connections to the varied neighbourhoods they pass through – could better act as freeways for bikes, delivering cycle commuters safely to the centre of the city.
Houston is even walkable in small, isolated pockets. Forget the fake urbanism of City Centre, a swanky development of strollable shops, cafes and restaurants on the edge of town which can only be reached via vast multi-lane freeways and is as good as inaccessible on public transport. Areas like Rice Village – built in the 1930s before the trolley system was torn up – are great to get around on foot. If you’re lucky enough to live in Midtown, Montrose or West U, their quieter tree-lined side streets are perfectly pleasant places to walk and cycle. It’s just that not many people do.
The city is not without its challenges, though. The Downtown area is crisscrossed by a grid of four- and five-lane one-way streets. The cars are big and people drive fast. Oversized SUVs called Silverado, Denali and Tundra are popular – names chosen to inspire adventure in the minds of their drivers, but whose approaching roar raises the heart rates of people crossing or cycling for all the wrong reasons.
Within a couple of blocks of where I’m staying are four large, surface-level parking lots and three multi-storey car parks. If you park on the 10th floor it can take 20 minutes just to get out at the end of the day.
The typical cycling experience involves 20 minutes where it’s fine and then five minutes of terror
Mary Blitzer, advocacy director of Bike Houston, tells me that outside the loop formed by the I-610 freeway, it gets harder to walk or cycle. People tend to live on small suburban streets which lead nowhere except a six-lane arterial highway.
“This is Texas and people love their big cars. They drive fast and they don’t like to stop for pedestrians,” she says. “Houston has a terrible traffic problem. The whole American dream – that you can live in the suburbs and drive a nice car and get around easily – that’s just not true. It’s a pain in the ass to get around this city by car.
“I don’t think most people want to be sitting in traffic jams, though, and we need to give them options. People will choose to walk, cycle or ride public transport if it’s easy and it’s comfortable – but they’re not going to choose the miserable option.”
Houston is richer than Detroit, but an estimated 33% of its population don’t have access to a car. State senator Rodney Ellis, a long-time cycle advocate, represents some of the wealthiest and some of the poorest areas in the city. As he takes me on a ride round some of Houston’s historically black neighbourhoods, an impatient driver blasts his horn behind us and close passes at speed. It’s the only bit of road rage I witness in three days cycling in the city.
“People think this road belongs to cars,” Ellis says. “But that’s changing. If you get more people out riding bikes, that will change further – but to get more people cycling, you need safe infrastructure.”
Many people cycle here without lights late at night or early in the morning, as they make their way to and from poorly paid jobs. There are a lot of deaths and many are not investigated. Cyclists make up 0.8% of commuter journeys in Houston, but account for 2.5% of traffic casualties – a disproportionately high number which does not even take account of these “invisible cyclists”.
Houston’s planning director, Patrick Walsh, admits the city’s existing cycle infrastructure is below or at minimum standard, and that “the typical cycling experience involves 20 minutes where it’s fine and then five minutes of terror. It is the most challenging part of the ride that stops people from trying it.”
However, the adoption of a Complete Streets programme has institutionalised the consideration of pedestrians, cyclists and public transport when new roads are constructed or existing ones remodelled. The city is also altering development regulations to reduce the emphasis on parking and allow it to design streets which make it harder for drivers to speed.
But change will not come fast. “I think in 20 years you’ll see an incredible transformation in places like Midtown,” says Walsh. “We’ll have lively places where people want to walk out to have dinner, or get to work – but we are not there yet. At some point we are going to have to make choices about how people get around, but it has to be incremental.
“If we tried to change overnight, we would have push-back. Cars are going to remain the primary mode of transportation for a while.”
Nobody walks in LA
Silver Lake has a reputation as one of LA’s most walkable areas, but that’s really not saying a lot. Deborah Murphy of Los Angeles Walks meets me at the farmer’s market off Sunset Boulevard.
The roar of traffic is a constant accompaniment and, as we wait to cross the six lanes of Sunset, a woman in her 80s with a walker starts her journey from the other side. At peak hours the queues of drivers behind their metal and glass is endless, and outside rush hour cars shoot by at 40 or 50mph.
The woman is not even halfway across when the countdown warning starts, and she’s still on the road when the first cars accelerate away. She makes it to safety, visibly relieved, but if her husband hadn’t been on hand to help her up the kerb, she would have been stuck.
The elderly – and children walking to school – account for disproportionately high numbers of those killed and seriously injured on LA’s streets. Almost 200 people a year are killed in traffic crashes in the city and 33% are pedestrians (even though journeys by foot make up only 18% of trips). Cars are the leading cause of death for two to 14-year-olds.
The area has made some improvements: the triangle where the market takes place was closed to traffic in 2011, and a number of crosswalks were painted after a brace of deaths. A mural depicts Danny, the triangle’s unofficial homeless caretaker, who was knocked down and killed crossing to the 99 cent store.
Murphy points out the problems that make it hard for people to get around on foot: signposts bisecting the narrow sidewalk which make it impassable to wheelchairs and buggies; smashed and wildly uneven paving slabs; 40-ft high streetlamps which only light the road; non-existent crossings where pedestrians should have legal right of way; dropdowns which force vulnerable people into the path of oncoming traffic … It’s a long list.
LA’s adoption of Vision Zero, and a new Mobility Plan, aim to change that. Sunset Boulevard is one of a number of streets set to get redesigned with wider sidewalks, protected bike lanes and slower traffic. A year ago the junction at Hollywood and Highland – where one pedestrian a month was being killed or seriously injured – was turned into a Tokyo-style scramble crossroads. There have been no serious injuries since.
It’s not just on sidewalks that this most car-centric of all cities is making changes. LA Metro is working on the largest rail infrastructure project in the country: two major extensions opened this year – on the Gold Line in San Gabriel valley and the Expo Line to Santa Monica – and three more are under construction, including a connector to Los Angeles international airport. The city built its first protected bike lanes last year, with six more set for the next six months – and a bike share system started operation Downtown this summer.
And as Americans go to the polls on Tuesday to choose a new president, voters in Los Angeles County will also vote on Measure M – a half-cent sales tax raising $860m a year for transportation projects. If it gets the two-thirds majority it needs, then this vast, polycentric metropolis could be transformed over the next 40 years with a whole host of new highway, metro, light rail, streetcar, BRT, cycling and walking projects.
I see more people on bikes in Los Angeles than in Houston and Detroit combined – but riding the busy streets among trucks, SUVs and fast-moving cars reminds me too much of London. I’d rate it the least cycle-friendly of the three.
In the past year, protected bike lanes have been created on Reseda, Los Angeles Street, and along the side of the Expo Line to Santa Monica. Facilities like that – and safe cycle paths running along the LA River and the beach – are great, but existing bike paths elsewhere are painted lanes or sharrows. Even the colour of paint is an issue, with the city still fighting battles against Hollywood film makers, who complain that bright green bike lanes “ruin the shot”.
Despite the lack of safe infrastructure, the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalitionsays cycling’s commute share rose from 0.7% to 1.3% between 2010 and 2013. That fell back to 1.2% last year, but the LACBC is optimistic that new protected lanes in the pipeline will boost figures further.
I see CicLAvia events as like a gateway drug for cycling
“If this is the number of people cycling without very good infrastructure, then you will really see that jump when we have better lanes,” says executive director Tamika Butler. “When you ask people why they don’t bike, their number one issue is safety. When you make it safer the demand will be huge.”
Joe Linton, editor of LA Streetsblog, thinks the city is only just catching up with how groups of Angelenos have been using their streets for years. “People have walked and biked in LA for 100 years and more,” he says. “Biking and walking took an upturn in the 1980s and 90s, but the city didn’t notice and kept planning for cars. The backlash led to the last bike plan but the city is still waking up from this ‘we only need to think about cars’ hangover and is still more car-oriented than not.”
Linton welcomes safe bike lanes and new metro lines – and describes the city’s hugely popular CicLAvia events as like a “gateway drug” for cycling – but two decades-plus of campaigning has left him frustrated at the pace of progress.
“I feel like there’s a hundred reasons we keep building for cars,” he explains. “Transport laws, state and federal regulations and standards, parking requirements … We’ve fought back and got rid of maybe 20 of these, but we are still behind. It’s like we’ve cracked the windshield, but we haven’t broken through.”
I hop on a 704 Rapid Line bus downtown to meet Seleta Reynolds, the city’s head of transportation. The day before I was waiting to get off the same bus when a woman tapped me on the shoulder and handed me the wad of $20s that had slipped out of my pocket on to the seat.
Today the bus is full of people, mostly Latino, reading books, checking their phones, chatting, sleeping … There are also a significant number of people in their 20s and early 30s – the millennial generation I’ve seen all week on the Expo and Red metro lines, who seem to feel driving interferes with smartphone screen time.
“There are hundreds of thousands of people in LA who have to get around without a car,” says Reynolds, as we survey the city’s latest protected bike lane on Los Angeles Street from her office on the 10th floor of Thom Mayne’s futuristic “death star” building. It boasts cycle-specific lights and floating bus stops.
I don’t know that people really love driving in LA any more
There has been a fall across the board in the number of Americans holding driving licences, but the shift has been most marked among young people. As Deborah Murphy jokes, a few years ago non-drivers were considered “car-less”, now they’re “car-free”.
Reynolds is keen to stress there is “definitely not a war on cars”, but she says the reconstruction of the 405 freeway – and the much-feared threat of “Carmageddon” – taught Los Angeles that it cannot simply build itself out of congestion. “There’s a huge latent demand for road space which shows up if you increase capacity,” she says. “Now the 405’s finished, the traffic is just as bad as it was before.”
That lesson has long been learnt in Europe, where increasing numbers of urban planners are focusing on efforts to reduce the space given over to individual motor vehicles and talk is of the first steps towards truly car-free cities.
The fact is, though, that Los Angeles remains the most congested city in North America. Maybe it’s like the scene in LA Story, I suggest, where Steve Martin climbs into his car to drive next door. Is it a city which – despite the deaths, the air pollution and all that time wasted in traffic jams – is so addicted to the car that it could never change?
End of the car age: how cities are outgrowing the automobile
Unlike other city officials I’ve met on this trip, Reynolds at least acknowledges the existence of a “stick” – in the form of more expensive parking, and perhaps even a congestion charge one day – alongside the carrot (better transit and safer facilities for walking and cycling).
“To reduce the number of single-occupancy vehicles, for example, research shows carrots can cut that by 7 or 8%, but sticks can have a 30% effect. We need the carrot and the stick. It’s a question of providing good options but having some really good public policy discussions about the stick … and that’s tricky.”
All three cities are taking some impressive measures to encourage walking, cycling and public transport – from Detroit’s land grabs and protected bike lanes, to Houston’s bayou conversions, and LA’s metro extensions – but this is the first time I’ve heard “the stick” mentioned.
If this sprawling shrine to freeways that look like parking lots is even considering what it would take to push people out of cars – could there yet be hope for the rest of America’s cities?
“The truth is,” says Reynolds, “I don’t know that people really love driving in LA any more.”