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Connecting Detroit Neighborhoods With Better Streets and Public Spaces

This intersection redesign would incorporate bump-out parking, bike lanes, crosswalk, landscape improvements, and sidewalk bordering techniques to make it more comfortable for pedestrians. Image: Economics of Place

This intersection redesign calls for sidewalk extensions, bike lanes, high-visibility crosswalks, and landscape improvements to make it safer and more comfortable. Image: Economics of Place

Can safer streets and livelier public spaces help knit Detroit back together?

The Michigan Municipal League thinks so, and it is working hard to show southeast Michigan how. Recently the organization teamed up with some partners to address a problem area in southwest Detroit, or Mexicantown.

Sarah Craft at the Economics of Place blog explains:

Vernor is Southwest Detroit’s main street and is populated with densely packed storefronts, restaurants, and independent businesses. Due to Southwest Detroit’s proximity to Canada and the international bridge crossing, the area unfortunately has quite a bit of industrial land use and suffers from a high volume of truck traffic.

Vernor’s vibrant commercial district is divided by about a half mile “gap,” created by complicated intersections, a former industrial complex, wide one-way roads, a viaduct, and an unnatural bend in the road. In an effort to better connect the east and west sides of Vernor, the League partnered with Southwest Detroit Business Association (SDBA) and Archive DS to collect resident ideas, concerns, and desires to reduce the gap and better connect the community.

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7 Photos Show How Detroit Hollowed Out During the Highway Age

While searching for images of highway interchanges in urban areas, I came across these historic aerial photos of Detroit on a message board, showing how the city fabric has slowly eroded. It’s a remarkable record of a process that has scarred many other American cities.

1949: Here’s what the east side of the city looked like right at the middle of the century, with Gratiot Avenue forming the diagonal. Detroit was a big, bustling city.

1949

1952: Just a few years later though, urban renewal and other city-clearing initiatives were already leaving their mark.

1952

1961: Almost a decade later, you can see a large space south of Gratiot had been cleared to make way for Lafayette Park, a neighborhood of high-rise residential towers.

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Talking Headways Podcast: A Butterfly Flaps Its Wings In the Metro

At around 800 people per square mile, places go from voting red to voting blue. Image: ##http://davetroy.com/posts/the-real-republican-adversary-population-density##Dave  Troy##

At around 800 people per square mile, places go from voting red to voting blue. Image: Dave Troy

The metro is coming to Loudon County, Virginia. Eventually.

The Silver Line expansion that opens this summer will only go as far as Reston, but by 2018 it’ll be in Loudon, one of the nation’s fastest-growing — and wealthiest — counties.

As the county’s population continues to grow — especially among communities of color – will its density hit 800 people per square mile, which is the threshold at which places magically turn from Republican to Democrat? And if it does, will it turn Virginia from purple to blue? And with such an important swing state shifting solidly to one camp, does that change the national political balance? And what is it with the number 800 anyway?

We try to figure it all out on this week’s Talking Headways. Plus, Stephen Miller, my colleague from Streetsblog New York, joins us to talk about what is — and what isn’tmoving forward as part of the city’s Vision Zero plan.

And: Detroit is tearing down more than 20 percent of its housing stock to reduce blight and still splurges on roads. Is that the way to revitalize a city? The comments section awaits you.

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Detroit Has a $2 Billion Vacancy Crisis But the Region Still Splurges on Roads

On Tuesday, the results of a federal report on Detroit’s vacancy crisis made jaws drop: The pricetag for tearing down and cleaning up the city’s abandoned properties would be $1.85 billion, the report found.

Tearing down Detroit's abandoned residential and commercial structures would cost $1.85 billion -- far less than widening two highways in the area. Photo: Wikipedia

Transportation agencies are planning to spend billions on road projects that will only exacerbate Detroit’s vacancy problem. Photo: Wikipedia

Where the money will come from is a wide open question at this point. So is the more basic issue of whether tearing down dilapidated houses and factories is the best way to spend close to $2 billion to help Detroit.

But to put the figure in context and add a touch of irony, consider this: The Detroit region is moving forward with major highway expansion projects that will cost more than twice as much over the next decade as the proposal to address the vacancy problem.

Last year the Detroit regional planning agency approved close to $4 billion in spending to rebuild and expand I-94 and I-75 in the city and its nearby suburbs. These projects are moving forward despite widespread protests that they will further disinvestment in the urban core — a major factor in the city’s vacancy crisis.

This is a classic example of how the state, the regional planning agency, and the federal government have failed Detroit. It’s not that there’s no money flowing into the region — the money just can’t be used for what the city really needs. Instead, the big transportation bureaucracies just keep pumping money into the same kind of thing they’ve been doing for 50 years.

You’d think 40,000 vacant buildings would be a wakeup call that business as usual has failed. What will it take for the Detroit region to reexamine the planning policies that helped land it in this position?

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Parking Madness Elite Eight: Rochester vs. Detroit

The last spot in the 2014 Parking Madness Final Four is at stake today, as Rochester faces off against Detroit.

The pictures of these two places, below, really speak for themselves. So without further ado, we’ll leave it up to you guys to tell us which city has the worst parking crater.

Here’s Rochester:

rochester

This soulless, unlovable area, reports submitter Matthew Denker, used to be the town square for Rochester, where the annual Christmas tree was raised. That was before the Inner Loop freeway came along and decimated the place.

Can Detroit beat that?

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Parking Madness: Detroit vs. Atlanta

parking_madness_2014_2

Yesterday, Chicago’s United Center parking lots bested Denver’s Court Place parking crater in the first match-up of Parking Madness 2014. Today, two heavyweights are facing off: It’s the motor city versus sprawl city in a bare-knuckle brawl of car infrastructure run amok.

Without further ado, here’s the Detroit entry. Warning: This could get ugly.

detroit_madness

This picture really needs no further elaboration. Submitter Gerald Fittipaldi says these lots are only used infrequently, during sporting events, and that there’s potential here for mixed-use development.

On to Atlanta:

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To Revive Detroit Transit, One Resident Takes Matters Into His Own Hands

Detroit, the country’s 18th largest city, has seen its transit system shrink to the point where few people can rely on it to get to work. The situation got so bad that one young entrepreneur stopped waiting on the region’s dysfunctional government agencies and started running private buses.

In this video by Dark Rye (an initiative of Whole Foods), Detroiter Andy Didorosi explains how his frustration with the city’s transit system inspired the Detroit Bus Company. Didorosi started DBC in 2012 with $50,000 to buy and paint six used school buses. With support from local foundations, the company started transporting kids to after-school activities. Now DBC is testing service to the airport and a commuter route from nearby Royal Oak to downtown Detroit. Riders pay $5 for an all-day pass; airport service is $12. Paid fares subsidize free rides for people in need, through a program DBC calls “WeRide.”

Didorosi says he was motivated by the cancellation of the M-1 Rail project in late 2011. (The project has since been revived as a three-mile streetcar proposal.) But Detroit’s transit system has been in a downward spiral for some time. The latest blow came earlier this year, when planners arbitrarily cut the city’s transit budget by $7 million. Still, the recent creation of Detroit’s first regional transit system, replacing separate suburban and city systems, should lead to better transit service in the years ahead.

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Detroit Advocates Challenge Michigan DOT’s Highway Expansion Plans

Perhaps you’ve read recently about the city of Detroit’s financial woes. The pensions of public employees are on the chopping block and Detroit may have to sell masterpieces from its art museum as it negotiates bankruptcy proceedings.

A costly proposal to widen I-94 in Detroit threatens the recovery of the city's Midtown neighborhood. Image: ##http://www.freep.com/article/20131201/BUSINESS06/312010066/I-375-I-94-MDOT-freeways-Detroit## Free Press##

A costly proposal to widen I-94 in Detroit threatens the recovery of the city’s up-and-coming Midtown neighborhood. Image: Free Press

But the transportation agencies that have saddled Detroit with a sprawling and expensive road system certainly aren’t scrimping. They just keep on building highways. Earlier this year the region’s regional planning organization, SEMCOG, greenlighted some $4 billion in highway expansion plans for Detroit. That includes $2.7 billion for a project that would widen I-94 through the city’s up-and-coming Midtown neighborhood. All this despite the fact that a quarter of Detroit residents lack access to an automobile and the city has been slashing transit services for years.

Local advocates are pushing back. The Great Lakes Environmental Law Center and faith-based social justice organization MOSES are asking the Federal Highway Administration to order a new environmental impact study for the I-94 project. In a letter sent to FHWA this week, they allege that the Michigan Department of Transportation and regional planning agency SEMCOG are rushing the proposal, charging that the required environmental review for the project is outdated. The EIS was completed nearly a decade ago and uses information from as far back as the 1990s.

Great Lakes’ Executive Director Nick Schroeck points out there are a lot fewer people living in the Detroit region than there were then. The number of miles driven per person has also declined. The original environmental impact study, from 2003, assumes vehicle miles traveled will increase 11.4 percent by 2025. But since that time, mileage actually decreased 14 percent.

“Significant changes have occurred in the ensuing years,” said Schroeck. “The population and economic projections in the FEIS were way off, leading to faulty conclusions.”

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The U.S. Cities Where Cycling Is Growing the Fastest

Cities where bike commuting is growing fastest. Table: League of American Bicyclists

Cities with the most growth in bike commuting, per the U.S. Census. Table: League of American Bicyclists

This table, showing the top 10 U.S. cities where cycling is growing fastest, comes from a new report from the League of American Bicyclists that analyzes census data. Though the census only tracks bicycle commuting — and thus understates how many people are cycling — the results tell an interesting story about cycling trends.

Notice a mix of rust belt cities and larger, more progressive metros that are doing a lot to improve conditions for cyclists. It should also be noted that cities like Detroit, Cleveland, and Baltimore had such small shares of commuters cycling in 1990 that, while percentage increases seem absolutely whopping, actual bike commuting rates are still somewhat modest. (The average bike commuting rate across the United States is 0.6 percent, the League reports.)

But even Portland had only a 1.2 percent bike commute mode share in 1990. It will be interesting to see where these cities are 23 years from now. Imagine if these trends continued.

The Bike League study is loaded with interesting city rankings. Check it out, and you’re almost certain to find your city on one of those lists.

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Proceeds From Tour de Troit Help Pay for Permanent Changes in Detroit

Detroit’s bicycle advocates have built a powerful tool for change in the annual Tour de Troit bike ride. This two-wheeled tour of the city’s historic landmarks has grown to attract more than 6,000 riders, making it the largest bike ride in the state of Michigan.

Even better, Tour de Troit helps finance new, permanent bike infrastructure in cash-poor Detroit. According to the above video, the ride has provided $160,000 for new bike lanes and other bike improvements in the Motor City. If it weren’t for supportive private players like this group, Detroit would not be on track to add an impressive 50 miles of bike lanes this year.

In the words of several tour participants: “Keep doing it!”