Category Archives: Public Transportation

Is Ed Glaeser Wrong About Detroit?

Two weeks ago, Ed Glaeser, professor of Economics at Harvard and author of The Triumph of the City, wrote another in a series of articles that use Detroit as an example of a failed city that has lost its “entrepreneurial culture,” despite, and perhaps because of, large public investments in infrastructure and housing (see Bloomberg articles, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and City Journal.) In these articles, Glaeser consistently argues that the country should learn from Detroit’s experience and, more-or-less, uniformly avoid federal infrastructure spending. He argues that cities should instead  focus on deregulation and lowering taxes that scare away would-be entrepreneurs. “Failed public policies that tried to fix Detroit with urban renewal and transportation projects stand as stark evidence against the view that our economic woes call for more federal spending on infrastructure,” says Glaeser.

In reality, Detroit’s renewal projects of the twentieth century provide no such “stark evidence” against the potential value of housing and infrastructure investments. Glaeser’s “evidence” exists only if one ignores the details of urban renewal in Detroit and cherry picks extraordinarily broad correlations. In Glaeser’s telling, Detroit rapidly lost population throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, just as the federal government poured money into “transportation infrastructure” and “housing.” As such, says Glaeser, America should avoid such investments in the future.

A closer look at the record shows that Detroit under-invested in non-highway transportation infrastructure throughout the twentieth century while destroying thousands of units of housing. Detroit’s decades long urban renewal program was indeed a disaster for the city, not because of its investments in housing and infrastructure, but because of its embrace of the anti-urban and racist ideals and policies of the day.

Although Detroit did make a substantial investments in infrastructure throughout the twentieth century, such investments were shaped by anti-urban ideals. Apart from the People Mover project that Glaeser references, which was far too little (three miles of light rail) and far too late (mid-1980s), Detroit’s urban renewal investments in “transportation infrastructure” were devoted to miles-upon-miles of highways. Such highways ripped up and divided scores of once-functional neighborhoods throughout Detroit.

Glaeser is no friend of highway spending, but it is misleading and misguided to use Detroit’s twentieth century “transportation investments” to argue broadly against public investments in transportation infrastructure. With the exception of the People Mover, Detroit has failed to make any investments in rapid transit. Detroit nearly built a comprehensive subway in the 1920s, but residents ultimately rejected the plans because they did not want to pay the special assessments that would have funded the system. The city tried again in the ‘30s, hoping to finance a smaller system through Public Works Administration funding, but was turned away due to a subway and elevated system being considered “socially undesirable.”

As we re-embrace the ideals of urban living and move beyond what Glaeser calls the “twentieth century aberration” of suburban living, it is likely that a pre-existing and comprehensive transit system would have proven to be an asset for the City of Detroit. Such a system would likely go a long way in helping Detroit to compete with its suburbs or other cities for residents and their crucial tax dollars. Is the lesson of Detroit, perhaps, not that it failed because it wasted money on infrastructure, but rather that it collapsed because it embraced infrastructure and ideals that were antithetical to urban living?

Glaeser also states that the federal government “showered” Detroit with funds to build new housing throughout the 1960s. “Detroit’s never needed more housing or transportation,” Glaeser assures us, “declining cities are practically defined by having too much infrastructure relative to people.” In reality, while Detroit was indeed losing population in the 1960s, it was simultaneously experiencing a severe housing crisis. Unfortunately, Detroit’s “housing investments” in the 1950s and 1960s only served to make this problem worse by destroying thousands of units of low-income black housing.

The reason for this housing shortage—despite declining overall population—is that a perfect free market rarely exists in the real world and certainly did not exist in the Detroit housing market throughout the 1960s. Black Detroiters were severely limited in terms of the neighborhoods in which they could live. Black Detroiters faced the threat of violence for moving into a white neighborhood and were denied access to capital through red lining. Worse still, white neighborhoods frequently lost their access to capital if a black Detroiter were to somehow break through the color line. The result of these policies is that black Detroiters were isolated, disproportionately poor, and paid extortionate prices for low-quality housing. By 1968, 93 percent of Detroit’s black population was concentrated within one continuous ghetto.

Detroit’s “housing investments” of the ‘50s and ‘60s exacerbated this problem by removing tens of thousands of housing units from mostly black neighborhoods. By the summer of 1967, Detroit’s “housing” and “infrastructure” investments had displaced over 170,000 black residents. Between 1950 and 1970 over 36,000 low-income housing units were destroyed under Detroit redevelopment. Within the same period 15,494 units were built, but only three percent of these structures were available to black Detroiters. In fact, one of the “housing” investments referenced by Glaeser comprised the wholesale razing of one of Detroit’s few black neighborhoods, Paradise Valley or “Black Bottom.”

The “infrastructure” and “housing” investments of urban renewal were a part of Detroit’s massive “slum clearance” initiative, in which neighborhoods were arbitrarily declared slums (Detroit’s definition of “slum” comprised neighborhoods being multi-use or having “inconsistent” style of dwellings). After a neighborhood was pronounced a “slum,” it would lose access to any capital that was previously available. The neighborhood would begin to empty out as individuals and businesses of means fled, mostly to the suburbs. This effect was the self-fulfilling “wet blanket” of redevelopment, in which urban renewal would create or reinforce the very slums it was meant to eradicate. Eventually, all the neighborhood’s property would be bought up at depressed rates via eminent domain, all occupants would be evicted, the neighborhood would be razed, and the land would be sold at a discount to private developers for single-use development.

This is the notorious Title I scheme of the 1949 Housing Act. Under Title I, removal was not permitted unless those removed had access to adequate housing. Unfortunately, however, Title I did not specify how cities should accomplish the goal of providing alternative adequate housing. In response to this requirement, Detroit, like most cities at the time, simply maintained that it could be fully expected that those removed would have access to adequate housing through the private market. Such an expectation was absurd, of course, given  the obvious low-income housing shortage (to which redevelopment projects consistently added to by razing thousands of low-income units).The federal government did not question the city’s rationale and consistently provided funding.

Detroit’s urban renewal program was not merely a series of foolhardy housing and infrastructure investments made by a desperate and declining city. Instead, urban renewal was yet another contributing force of the systematic isolation and degradation of black Detroiters and their neighborhoods.


Each dot represents 25 residents. Blue are black residents, red are white, orange are Hispanic

Sources: Income Graphic from Rich Blocks Poor Blocks, Race Graphic Eric Fischer

The lesson of Detroit is not that infrastructure and housing investments are foolish ones for a struggling city to make, but rather that it is foolish to arbitrarily exclude 25 percent of your city’s population from the mainstream economy, to isolate them geographically, to deny them access to capital, to destroy their neighborhoods, and to force them into smaller and smaller spaces with worse and worse quality of housing that is becoming more and more expensive. The lesson of Detroit is that it is foolish for a city to embrace policies that rip up the urban fabric, that it is foolish for a city to attempt to compartmentalize all of its functions, and that it is foolish for a city to invest in infrastructure and housing policies that quickens the flow of residents into the suburbs  The result of these policies is the Detroit we see today: an infrastructure-poor, disproportionately black, and disproportionately impoverished city that is isolated from the affluence and tax revenues of its sprawling suburbs. This fate was brought about not by a loss of some all important “entrepreneurial culture” but by the wholesale embrace of racist and anti-urban ideals.

Having an entrepreneurial culture is surely a good thing. It is hard to argue with Glaeser when he states that we have under-invested in the human capital of our cities, and that having a well-educated people is preferable to a poorly educated people. It is also no doubt true that it is preferable to live in a society that is capable of taking risks and is not shackled by unnecessary regulation. But it is wrong to argue or suggest that a weak entrepreneurial culture is the core problem facing Detroit and that this is the problem that brought Detroit to its current troubled state. Glaeser rightly reminds us that healthy cities are places of competition and innovation, but he must be reminded that the details matter in how such competition and innovation was snuffed out of Detroit. It is not as simple a story as he would lead us to believe.

–By Chad Hughes

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Walkable City Author Jeff Speck on the One Thing that Can Wreck a City

The post originally appeared on Streetsblog.

What makes a city great? According to Jeff Speck, the secret sauce is, quite simply, walking. If your city is a good place to walk — that is, walking is safe, comfortable, interesting, and useful — everything else will fall into place.

In Walkable City, his talked-about manifesto about healthy urban places, Speck lays out a simple formula for any city to become a pedestrian haven. “Putting cars in their place,” “mixing uses,” “getting parking right,” and supporting transit and cycling are a few of the 10 principles, he says, that separate the successful cities from the rest.

A planner and urban design consultant, Speck has a few other books under his belt. In 2000, he co-authored Suburban Nation with Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and he also co-wrote the recently released Smart Growth Manual with Duany and Mike Lydon. Meanwhile, Speck has served as the director of design for the National Endowment for the Arts and headed the Mayors’ Institute on City Design.

In Walkable City, he lays out a powerful argument, supported by careful research and highly-Tweetable facts, that fostering a culture of walking should be a central aim of every American city.

If you’re a professional planner or advocate, Walkable City is a new, essential reference. If you’re new to the subject, there’s no better introduction.

Streetsblog reached Speck this morning for an interview. Here’s what he had to say…

Angie Schmitt: You’ve taken the broad concept of civic health and boiled it down to this one act: walking. Can you talk a little about why this one activity is so important? How did you come to that conclusion?

Jeff Speck: I came to it very indirectly. I am a designer. I am a city planner. I was never focused on walking in any way, from a health perspective or a recreational perspective.

But then I started working with a lot of mayors. I oversaw the Mayors’ Institute on City Design for four years. Every two months, eight mayors and eight designers would meet. Each mayor would bring their top city planning challenge.

Listening to mayor after mayor and how they explained their idea of a successful city, it became very clear that both the best measure of a thriving place and perhaps the best contributor to a thriving place was street life: walkability. Being successful in walkablity is really nothing less than providing street life. In our age of digital connectedness, I think for a while people forgot how important it was to have a public realm where we come to gather physically. That is still in our DNA. We need that.

It became clear to me that solving the walkability problem ended up addressing all their other concerns as well. It was not a strategic choice, to reframe this argument under the realm of walkability, but I have to say it may finally be the outfit that allows this concept to sell. We can clothe it in other terms like New Urbanism, which scares conservatives, and neo-traditionalism, which scares liberals. But no one doesn’t like walking.

AS: What is the biggest mistake cities make?

JS: I’ve repeated it so much I hate to tell you the same thing, but it’s the honest truth. The biggest mistake cities make is to allow themselves to effectively be designed by their director of public works. The director of public works, he or she is making decisions every single day about the width of streets, the presence of parking, the question of bike lanes. And he’s doing it in response to the complaints he’s hearing. But if you satisfy those complaints you wreck the city.

A typical public works director doesn’t think about “What kind of city do we want to be?” They think about what people complain about, and it’s almost always traffic and parking.

The one thing we’ve learned without any doubt, is the more room you give the car the more room they will take and that will wreck cities. Optimizing any of these practical considerations — sewers, parking, vehicle capacity — almost always makes a city less walkable.

AS: What do the effective cities do instead?

Planner and author Jeff Speck is the former director of the Mayor's Institute on City Design and the National Endowment for the Arts' design division.

JS: In more effective cities there’s a mayor who sees that he’s more or less the chief designer of the city. Charleston’s mayor, Joseph Riley, woke up one morning, slapped his head and said, “Oh my God, I am the chief designer of my city. I need to start making decisions that make my city more beautiful and functional in a more holistic way.”

Cities need specialists that help define what make them a great city. Is it going to make you a great city having an 18 minute commute versus a 20 minute commute? Or is it going to make you a great city to have a smaller carbon footprint and more transportation choices?

Those cities that recognize that they’re not generating the economic activity that they could because they’re not generating a street life and their population is sick, overweight, because they’re not getting enough exercise, they’re not getting a useful walk — those are the cities that are succeeding. If they decide that those are the objectives: economic health, public health, and environmental sustainability – [they] all mandate a city which is walkable city.

AS: You single out smaller, “more normal” cities as sort of the next frontier of this movement, as opposed to livability stars like New York and San Francisco. How do you reach these less progressive places?

JS: There is a lot of data from New York and San Francisco in it, but this book is firmly directed at the Clevelands, the Las Vegases, the Dallases, the Cedar Rapids. The cities that, if they’ve figured it out, they’re not showing it.

My book is part of it but it can’t be just me. My small firm only does so much work, now with my book out I’m doing much less [planning] work. I think it’s much more important to spread the message than to make more examples.

I lecture to the largest possible audience and then generally someone from the city council says, “We need you to help us.” But that is not a strategy for fixing our country. There will be, and there are, dozens of practitioners that will hopefully take this to their cities. This book will hopefully increase the demand for them, for their work as well.

There are probably 500 cities in America that have one-way streets through their downtown or a four-lane, two-way road that could get a road diet. They just need to come to understand this discussion.

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Hero Couple Gives Away Bikes to Cleveland Kids

Video after the jump


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Cool Time-Lapse Video: Cincinnati on the Move

Paths and Nodes: Cincinnati from Andrew Stahlke on Vimeo.

Shout out to Urban Cincy for the heads up on this video.

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NOACA Promises Reforms

As our faithful readers are well aware, Rust Wire has been very critical of Cleveland’s regional planning agency, NOACA, namely because we — and by that I mean editor Angie Schmitt, the person writing this — think(s) the agency has played a critical role in the sprawl that has devastated greater Cleveland’s urban areas. We don’t think anyone at NOACA is a terrible person, per say. We just thought — and again by we, I mean me — that they are just terribly old-fashioned, in the sense that they see their first cause as fighting congestion and building highways.

That isn’t that unusual for old-school transportation agencies, but it is really insidious in a shrinking region like ours. Because “fighting congestion,” generally means widening highways — not improving transit or active transportation — and that makes it possible for people to live in insane places like Richfield and commute to Cleveland pretty easily. Since our regional population has shrank by 7 percent since the 1970s, expanding our living space to include rural tracts 20+ miles from the city hasn’t exactly been the smartest use of resources and has drained the region’s urban areas of people and vitality, to the extent that our core city has become an internationally renowned poster child for abandonment.

In more progressive metros like Portland and Minneapolis and Salt Lake City, planners have begun to recognize the errors made in previous decades and have been working to expand transit, to help build efficient, equitable communities. I guess it’s not surprising that greater Cleveland would be a little behind the curve in this respect, but we were trying to make a point, namely we can’t afford to do the same things that have propelled our decades-long decline.

Anyway, eventually we got the attention of the folks at NOACA — particularly our post 30 Reasons Why NOACA Sucks (which is reprinted at the bottom of this post). But we are happy to report things are changing at NOACA. They just hired a new director, a woman named Grace Gallucci, who has a background in transit from a more-progressive city called Chicago.

A lot of folks in the sustainability world have been looking forward to the retirement of former director Howard Maier for a long time. And I, for one, was pretty pleased to hear they hired a woman, with a transit background, from a bigger city. So I guess I have to credit him for that.

Anyway, Grace reached out to us at Rust Wire and she seems committed to reforming the agency with respect to some of our complaints. She has already gotten the agency on Facebook and Twitter (NOACA’s shunning of which was one of our biggest complaints).

Grace impressed us with her humility and ambition. As a result, we have agreed to take down 30 Reasons Why NOACA Sucks (we have moved to to a “private” post, which means we can reactivate it again at any time). But it will no longer appear as the number two item when you Google NOACA. We are replacing it with this post, because we have faith that it is a new day at Cleveland’s regional planning agency.

Grace is just one person, and she reports to a board of directors, which has at times been very politicized and parochial. But we think strong, forward-thinking leadership can help make this agency something the whole region can be proud of (even its website, which is undergoing redesign right now).

So for posterity, the post below. Also, Rust Wire would like to take a moment to congratulate ourselves and our readers for drawing attention to this important regional government agency’s shortcomings and helping initiate a dialogue between some regional leaders and some less well represented factions of our community.



Original Post: 30 Reasons why NOACA Sucks

#1. They are incapable of maintaining a respectable website.
#2. They can’t even hire a new executive director.
#3. They call their bike/ped planner the “multimodal” planner because it makes them so uncomfortable to think of transportation in terms of moving people rather than vehicles.
#4. Their board is controlled by exurban political officials who put the interests of their communities over the interests of the region.
#5. The Avon interchange.
#6. Their leading employees are all white men who live in the suburbs.
#7. They have no public outreach strategy other than posting unintelligible PDFs on their lousy website.
#8. Jimmy Dimora was a board member for years, and when he was arrested they almost honored him for his service.
#9. They spend most of their money in the exurbs and let the city’s roads crumble.
#10. The average age of its board and staff combined is 54 (probably).
#11. They almost never hire graduates of the local planning school, even though their director teaches there.
#12. They actually paid someone a salary to promote their Ride Share program that no one has heard of.
#13. During the summer, they pay an intern to drive everyday to Avon to be sure there aren’t any “bottlenecks” on the highways, but the very street where they are headquartered in Cleveland is a mess from a traffic perspective.
#14. They have barely any black people on their board or staff although the region has a very significant African-American population.
#15. Every year they ask cyclists to volunteer for a big “count day” event and then they don’t build them any new infrastructure as thanks.
#16. They have a bicycle advisory board as well but they still never build any bike infrastructure.
#17. All the smart younger people who work there leave because they are so beaten down and miserable after a year or two.
#18. They hold their meetings during the middle of the day so that no one except for insiders can attend.
#19. Almost no one from the region knows who they are or what they do.
#20. Cleveland and the entire region have been declining for decades and they have not responded in any meaningful way.
#21. Out of some 50 employees, only one does any bike or pedestrian planning and that is considered an entry level position (translation: not important).
#22. They prefer to hire engineers over planners, a practice that not only disadvantages women, but has the effect of narrowly focusing efforts on factors like car capacity at the expense of larger community impacts.
#23. They refuse to consider the land use implications of planning decisions and as a result perpetuate sprawl and inequality.
#24. Their transit planning is uninspired and minimal.
#25. Last year they spent an untold number of staff hours developing a 50-page “public involvement policy” that contained not one mention of social media.
#26. They have invested billions of dollars in a massive highway widening campaign to “fight congestion” but it has done little more than lengthen commutes and entrench car dependency.
#27. Every interchange they have added over the last few decades has produced a Walmart and killed 82 local businesses.
#28. They once fielded a softball team of employees named after their pejorative nickname NO ACTION.
#29. They spend all their “air quality” money building really expensive traffic signal coordination systems that have almost no effect on air pollution.
#30. When a bunch on cyclists took time out of their busy schedules to speak before the board to call for bike lanes and sidewalks on the Innerbelt bridge, the board and staff refused to even respond to their comments.


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How NOT to Fix Your Economy: Prevent People from Getting to Work

This post originally appeared on Streetsblog.

Let’s say you’re a Rust Belt city trying to dust off your stale image and compete in the 21st century. You would think the last thing you would want to do is prevent able-bodied people in your region from working, especially those who are most economically vulnerable.

But you’d be wrong! Perrysburg, Ohio, a suburban neighbor of Toledo, where I was born, is taking a page from Detroit, carving out big parts of the region to exempt from transit service.

The Toledo Blade, in an article that almost hurts to read, explains that voters in suburban Perrysburg have decided to “opt out” of the suffering regional transit system, TARTA. People that relied on the service to get to their jobs? They’re out of luck. Perrysburg voters will decide in November whether to replace the regional system with some privately run local system, but that isn’t much use to people like Glenn Perryman:

Perryman of Toledo boarded a downtown TARTA bus Tuesday on his way to the Perrysburg Hilton Garden Inn, where he’s worked as a dishwasher and cook for the past three years.

People such as Mr. Perryman, who spends more than three hours on a bus getting to and from work each day, make extraordinary efforts to stay on the grind, commuting to suburban jobs that often pay little more than minimum wage.

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Park(ing) Day in Cleveland

Park(ing) Day is an international, grass-roots demonstration of the wasted potential in American cities represented by surface parking.

Cleveland, Ohio had its biggest demonstration ever today, with five different pop-up “parks” on Prospect Avenue downtown.

I recorded this video for posterity.


you like it!


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