When does freeway construction put us on a road to nowhere?

Charlie LeDuff, in his engaging “Detroit: An American Autopsy,” argues that Detroit’s plummet downward is best understood as a vanguard, that Detroit’s present and future is the future of every city in America. “Go ahead and laugh at Detroit,” he writes, “because you are laughing at yourself.”

Detroit’s fate resulted from complex factors. There is no single cause for its fall, but at the center of the nexus is the automobile. Like most American cities, Detroit built itself to accommodate the automobile. While this kind of development produced immediate economic gains, it extracted high financial and social costs. The result was repeated by local governments across the country: years of little growth coupled to second-generation maintenance costs related to auto-based development that generates no new cash flow.

Often when I talk to people about paying taxes, the first thing they’ll offer as justification is the nation’s road systems. Those systems, however, are emblematic of what is wrong with our political system, one very gifted at touting benefits while hiding costs.

The interstate highway system was created with complete disregard for the Constitution. When a bill for “internal improvements,” meaning the federal construction of roads and canals, appeared on his desk in 1817, James Madison who knew a thing or two about the Constitution, vetoed it. He acknowledged “the great importance of roads and canals” and that if Congress were going to pass such a law it would undoubtedly provide a “signal advantage to the general prosperity.” Yet that wasn’t sufficient for passage, for “such a power is not expressly given by the Constitution” whose “permanent success” depended on “a definite partition between the General and State Governments.”

Madison believed that justice required protecting the weak from the strong, and that investing power in the central government would naturally redound to the interests of the stronger. Consider the highway system in Detroit. It has been well documented how it carved up neighborhoods, displaced individuals, eviscerated communities, destroyed locally-owned businesses, and critically weakened the black middle class. Clearly some actors benefitted – the military and large-scale merchant enterprises primarily – while others were irreparably harmed. They’re the hidden price of progress.

Often these highways have destroyed the integrity, culture, and landscapes of once-thriving cities. Consider Detroit or Cincinnati or Louisville, where highway development has cut off citizens from their waterfronts and made their cities less walkable and less hospitable to local businesses. The Progressives believed that democracy is messy and inefficient and politics best left in the hands of experts, who could be counted on to get it right. Healthy cities are never about efficiency. Trial and error and failure are essential to growth, which is why it’s always best to keep things on as small a scale as possible, as we found out with our banking industry, unless failure becomes catastrophically large.

It is rarely the case that the strong oppress the weak out of malicious motives. Beware the tyranny of those who seek to do good on your behalf. Those who ripped Detroit apart with the interstate highway system were convinced their plan was enlightened. Ed Hustoles, part of the planning team, wistfully recalled “We thought we were doing good,” even while acknowledging his failure.

The Constitution is not designed to restrain only those who are maliciously motivated; it is primarily designed to restrain those who believe they are doing good, as Hamilton argued in Federalist #73, for the simple reason that human beings are fallible. “Do not give power to someone you agree with unless you’d be willing to give that same power to someone with whom you disagree” is not a bad maxim, and one that might have saved Detroit.

But “progress” can be reversed. Discussions are now taking place in Detroit about tearing up I-375, a first and necessary step in helping the city recover from its ill-fated experiment with automobile-based design. If Detroit, with its massive infrastructural and liability problems is the dark future of every American city, as I believe it is, then perhaps its effort to turn back the clock may offer hope.

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Fri, 01/16/2015 - 8:38pm
Our writer sounds like the dog who hoped to get fat by eating his own tail. The backbone of his thinking revolves around “urban planning,” and he manages to point to the disasters that these worthies have inflicted on cities in the past (stuff like zoning initiated by the KKK, public housing projects, urban renewal, building interstates through city centers, pedestrian malls, and most recently, hatred of automobiles as embedded in new urbanism “smart cities” and the like) These academics imposed their big ideas on cities possibly leading to the destruction of many weaker ones (I know of no good studies to support this.) The secret of good urban planning is in correcting the mistakes made by previous planners. We are now told that Bright Young College Grads (implied to be computer savvy, itching to start the next Google and create “jobs” for the local serfs) leave Michigan to go to Chicago, California and the like because they want to live in inner cities, use public transport, walk to work and bars, commune with nature and similar blather. They will go to “a place” even if there are no jobs. Our Michigan state government listened to this nonsense from the academics (at MSU as I understand it) and is foisting the following swindle on our communities. You must build walkable downtowns with street level entertainment, great public transit, use your waterfronts, make using cars miserable and have folks get around on bikes (January in Lansing.... Yeah.) I always fantasize that the cities proposed by these visionaries would look like tourist traps, populated from Memorial Day til Labor day, then windblown. When the bright kids see how Michigan cities comport to their fantasies, why, they’ll leave jobs in Houston and move back to Flint! Great! Well, one could wonder whether these young, bright, college Grads (Harvard with a degree in transgender studies) are capable of working, much less starting a business. Another concern is why should a BYCG choose a city in Michigan if Buffalo, Allentown and Syracuse also look like a tourist traps? One does not want to compete with the other failures. Our author, who I otherwise enjoy reading on the front porch thing, here espouses a superstition generally called a “cargo cult.” Look it up. If a backwash adopts the appearance of successful cities, it will become prosperous. And the bozos who destroyed Detroit, Flint, Erie, and the rest have now, only now, found the potion that will make it all better...Magic. On the other hand, maybe the dog can fatten up by eliminating his past. I dunno.
Sun, 01/18/2015 - 1:23am
Detroit just like other cities was built on the benefits of people living together and they still are. Highways were built to serve people and they still are. Oh, there are the exception, but they prove the rule. There are highways that distrupted local settings but it didn't destroy them. The refrigerator did more to change local businesses than did a highway, affluence (the affluence of government and how it spent the money) did more to disrupt social structures and local cultures then did a highway. "Healthy cities are never about efficiency." If not about efficiency then why did people create cities, is it for the natural beauty, is it for the desire to travel long distance for needs and wants, is it for spending time walking and enjoying nature? I wonder how Mr. Polet believes that an apartment building isn't about efficiencies, how mass transit isn't about efficiencies. Mr. Polet uses the same logic as those who claim big projects will create personal success. The reality is that neither work when you are talking about people's success. It's the people and what they do that creates success. Neighborhoods work when people socialize, cities work when people participate in daily city activities, people succeed when people work at success. The reality is we live in an evolving society, those that move with evoluting society and work to adapt succeed, and those who don't fall behind and become dependent on those who succeed. Mr. Polet seems to only see those who staid in Detroit, what does he think happened to those who left? Isn't the old saying that within three generations a fortune is lost still true, that is based on the 3rd generation were dependent on others and didn't learn to work to succeed, is true of cities and people. Every generation has problems to overcome, it is the what the people choose to do not some structure that determines success. I would encourage Mr. Polet to learn what why success is before he builds his answer based on a particular failure.
Le Roy G. Barnett
Sun, 01/18/2015 - 7:57am
I say drop Jeffrey Polet as a commentator and replace him with Erwin Haas (above). The latter makes a lot more sense than the former.
Dedra Downs
Sun, 01/18/2015 - 12:14pm
This article is crazy. I live in Detroit and we couldn't get around without our Freeways. Simply put, Freeways are GOOD.
Sun, 01/18/2015 - 1:21pm
I would say the phenomenally high tax rates imposed and corresponding rampant corruption, leaving no money for the city to work with, had more to do with the decline than anything else.
Frank Kalinski
Sun, 01/18/2015 - 1:34pm
Take a look at Columbus Ohio. Shot through with freeways yet matches up with Detroit in many ways: Population is larger; 822,000. Larger in square miles at 223 sq. miles. Major industrial center; aviation matches automobile. Yet Columbus is very stable with many neighborhoods each with a sense of "place". Columbus should be our measuring stick for progress in Detroit. The culture, the people, the inhabitants are the ones that make a culture, a society. Detroit is unique in the way folks migrated here to work in miserable factories of the 20s and 30s. Then during WWII huge numbers of poor Blacks and whites were recruited to work in "The Arsenal of Democracy" bringing all the social tension and injustice from the rural south to a highly industrial city. I recommend the book "The Arsenal of Democracy" By A. J. Baime He breaks some new ground on the social issues we have inherited
John Q.
Sun, 01/18/2015 - 7:59pm
Columbus is both the capital of Ohio and the home to the state's largest university. Both generate economic activity that helps sustain the city. The same is true of similar situated cities throughout the country.
Sun, 01/18/2015 - 8:09pm
Freeways have nothing to do with demise of the City.Lack of mass transit is. And since Detroit harbors the auto industry, there were never any efforts made to have mass transit.
Mon, 01/19/2015 - 11:16am
Is it possible that without the huge Highway/Expressway infrastructure investment that society and culture would have evolved in different ways? Maybe people would have been forced to live closer to their work, schools or other parts of their lives rather than living out in the suburbs and shooting in and then out without barely a care in the world. More mass transit options? Would people really use our highway system if they were charged the true costs in tolls? Impossible to answer, but you can't dismiss the author's thoughts so quickly. There can be no denying that much public infrastructure is built with other concerns than efficiency of movement.