Learning from Detroit

11 Jan

I had the privilege to find myself in Detroit for 10 days last summer. As someone committed to getting the transport systems in our urban areas working well I was inspired by the BBC documentary ‘Requiem for Detroit’ to see the city which was both the birthplace of mass car ownership and which had been virtually destroyed by the same industry. I was able to see a city that can tell us a lot about what was wrong more generally and which has messages for us back in the Europe.

I found a cycling friendly city with lots of open space, but soon after we got they I started noticing that this bankrupt city was installing dropped-kerbs at every junction including for ones where there were no occupied buildings and no evidence of any foot traffic such as this one.

Brand new dropped kerb – grass gowing out of the pavement

And this one. It is however a complete co-incidence that the unoccupied building in this next photo used to house the ‘State of Michigan, Dept of Management and Budget, Motor Transport Division’ which I guess was in charge of using money wisely! Incidentally, the building is on Rosa Parks Boulevard which is named after Rosa Parks who was later described as “the first lady of civil rights”, and “the mother of the freedom movement” after she refused to go along with the laws in the South that said that a black person had to give up their seat on a bus if a white person wanted to sit down. She lived in Detroit in her later life and is someone who should be an inspiration to everyone who wants the bring about change, including getting cars off pavements!

The ‘Dept of Management and Budget Control’. Closed, but enjoying a brand new dropped-kerb

Why? Well the Disability Discrimination Act in the USA requires urban areas to install dropped kerbs and I was told by a local that the city had been sued for not implementing them. Given that the official boundary of the city was still the same as it had been in the 1930s, the city had to install them everywhere, including places where no one lived anymore. Another person pointed out that the previous mayor was in jail for corruption and perjury having previously been ‘riding around in luxury as city decays‘. I have had no suggestion that these dropped kerbs were part of any corruption though. A combination of well intentioned but unhelpful legislation, poor decision making and cronyism does occur to some degree everywhere however – in the UK we can also spend money on some pretty odd things as has been beautifully highlighted by the Warrington Cycle Campaign’s ‘Facility of the month awards’. Incidentally, Detroit is about to shrink its boundaries as the state halves its road budget due to reducing icome from their ‘gas tax’.

I am pleased to say that we also found a great city though which is full of optimism with younger people coming back with ideas for the future with an impressive Critical Mass ride each month. Both of these Critical Mass videos are worth watching. They present a view of huge empty space in the city, its vibrancy and a glimpse of what is starting to take place in the spaces vacated by all the cars and why creative pioneers are moving back into the city in what has become known as ‘reverse white flight‘.

However… this is still ‘Motown’ and Detroit hosts the North American International Auto Show this week with ‘car dealers rejoicing as optimism returns to motown’.

So there you have it – messages for all of us from Detroit where everything is in the melting pot!

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