Opinion: In Detroit, Black mobility matters

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Paul Jones III

Detroit, once hailed as the automotive capital of the world, isn’t so easy to get around without a car. Despite making the least investment in public transportation of any metro our size, suburban Detroit continues to balloon (aided by highway expansion) in size, growing tasteless strip mall and faux-brick subdivision into a region almost three times larger than it was at the city’s peak in the 1950s. 

Jobs and resources are plentiful in communities dozens of miles outside of the city while Detroit remains the nation’s poorest big city. Urban planners call this spatial mismatch, defined as a mismatch between where jobs are located and where job seekers live, which can cause high unemployment rates and lead to longer spells of joblessness, both prevalent issues in Detroit.

Transportation policy and investment in Metro Detroit continues to ignore the real and urgent mobility needs of Black Detroiters and our region. 

Cars and roads won’t solve the region’s transportation challenges. Detroit has the highest insurance rates of any American city, notoriously poor roads, and dangerous street designs that encourage speeding and lead to almost 25,000 reported collisions a year. Owning a car, legally and safely, is impossible for many city dwellers. 

In fact, according to a 2017 U of M transportation and mobility survey around 34% of Detroiters do not own a car and many more don’t have enough vehicles to adequately meet their household’s needs. At this intersection are people with disabilities, seniors, youth, and people (like me) who just don’t want to drive everywhere. Our region is a mobility disaster for people without cars, and in a city where nearly 80% of residents are Black, it’s clear who’s disproportionately affected. 

While key decision-makers like Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, Lansing lawmakers, and other regional leaders continue to squabble over how to raise money for a meaningful investment in regional transit, almost all transportation allocations in the area have been spent on highway and road expansion projects that only contribute to sprawl and congestion. 

Most recently, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer greenlit MDOT’s plan to expand  a 6-mile span of I-94 in Detroit and delayed funding for the removal of I-375 in downtown Detroit, doubling down on the destruction of the Black Bottom and Paradise Valley communities that were tragically razed for the highway in the 1940s and ’50s. 

Our leaders’ love affair with making the city easy for car drivers has cost residents their property values, their health, their economic and physical mobility. The work that needs to be done for Black lives on Detroit’s streets goes beyond a block-long downtown street mural. As we continue to face a national reckoning about systemic racism and its impact on Black communities, we must confront the reality that our region’s decision-making on transportation continues to threaten the quality of life we should be working to give all Detroit residents. 

Detroiters need bold, decisive action on transportation and mobility that meets the needs of their households and gives them access to the opportunities that allow them to thrive. Without it, mobility will continue to be a barrier to quality education, adequate employment, better health, and overall quality of life for all of southeast Michigan. As we face COVID-19 and our uncertain future in the economic fallout, we must acknowledge and act on the reality that our growth will be limited and inequitable without meaningful mobility investments that include a regional approach to public transit, safer streets with space for people walking and biking, and sustainable roads we can afford to maintain. 

More locally, the City of Detroit needs to continue taking tangible steps to prioritize and improve DDOT on our streets with things like dedicated transit lanes, make walking and biking safer options across the city, and downsizing roads that were designed for heavy traffic before the city’s population loss and are now dangerously wide. 

Mobility decisions in Metro Detroit have displaced Black communities, subjected them to disproportionate levels of pollution, and iced them out of opportunities beyond the city limits. Ill-fated streetcars, highway expansion, and self-driving cars won’t fix this. Our response in this moment should be to take action that will specifically address one of our region’s largest barriers to opportunity while improving quality of life for everyone in Southeast Michigan. 

Paul Jones III is a native Detroiter and master’s degree candidate in Urban & Regional Planning at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College. He is a board member of Transit Rider’s United. The article reflects his views as an urbanist and transit advocate.

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