New PBS Documentary "Beyond the Motor City" Reveals America's Transportation Past, Present and Future
Detroit is emblematic of American transportation history, with all its ups and downs (shown here is its abandoned but impressive Michigan Central Station). Can the city become a model for transportation innovation and urban revitalization? Photo by Яick Harris on Flickr.

Detroit is emblematic of American transportation history, with all its ups and downs (shown here is its abandoned but impressive Michigan Central Station). Can the city become a model for transportation innovation and urban revitalization? Photo by Яick Harris on Flickr.

On Tuesday night, PBS premiered the latest installment of its Blueprint America series on the challenges of renewing America’s decaying infrastructure. (We mentioned it the other day in our post about America 2050.)  The newest episode, “Beyond the Motor City,” is a broad look at our country’s transportation history through the lens of the experience of Detroit, a city once renowned for its auto manufacturing and now for its extreme deterioration.  A compelling mix of documentary filmmaking and advocacy, the episode lays out Detroit’s urban and transportation problems while examining the federal role (or lack thereof) in transportation throughout American history.

Filmmakers view Detroit as the canary in the coal mine – and a potential model for other American cities.  In its dual role as the archetypal auto-dependent U.S. city and the home of the auto industry, Detroit has suffered intensely with the decline of domestic car manufacturing.  If the city can reinvent itself, the documentary suggests, there is hope for other U.S. urban areas – and for American innovation and technology development – as we move into a post-automobile future.

The episode traces the rise and fall of the Motor City, from the boom years, when its population reached almost 2 million and it boasted a dense public transportation network and a vibrant downtown, to the present, when half of that population has fled to the suburbs, and as narrator Miles O’Brien says, the “former world capital of transportation [is] having trouble transporting its own citizens.”  The show tells the story of Detroit’s failed regional rail system, which was reduced to the 3-mile “People Mover,” and notes the difficulty of operating a transit system that must serve such a diffuse population, spread across so many vacant neighborhoods.  (As a side note, if you’ve never seen images of Detroit, you’ll be astonished by the footage of all the empty lots and abandoned buildings, such as the haunting Michigan Central Station. For an intriguing photography exhibit, unrelated to the PBS documentary, check out the 100 Abandoned Houses project, by Kevin Bauman, who has been documenting Detroit’s abandonment since the mid-’90s.)

The documentary takes an international look at regional transportation and provides an interesting contrast between Spain’s national transportation programs and the lack of federal leadership in the U.S.  Spain’s Alta Velocidad Española (AVE) rail system was created as an emblem for a comprehensive national transport system, and has been immensely successful, transforming cities and cementing the country’s role as an infrastructure leader and manufacturer.  The American government has taken a more hands-off approach.  Though there have been periods of federal involvement in transportation development, such as the Gallatin plan under Jefferson and the interstate highway system under Eisenhower, modern federal policymakers have largely followed the Reagan model of decentralization (summed up by President Reagan’s quote, “The national government should be concerned with arms control, not potholes.”)

In the absence of a federal urban or transportation vision, “Beyond the Motor City” turns the spotlight on some interesting community and corporate initiatives to renew Detroit.  Responding to service cuts, a community center has started running its own transit vehicles, providing transportation to people who need to get to the grocery store and doctors’ appointments.  The Motor City Blight Busters are group of volunteers who remove and repair blighted buildings and help install gardens and art in their place.  Hantz Farms is formulating plans to create the world’s largest urban farm in Detroit, converting 5,000 acres into agriculture.  Ford is converting its idle Wixom facility in suburban Detroit to a renewable energy center that will manufacture batteries and solar panels.  On Woodward Ave., a former main street where streetcars once ran, a coalition of foundations, civic boosters and city planners headed by long-time General Motors employee Matt Cullen is planning a stretch of light rail.  This rail line could provide connectivity and add value to existing revitalization projects like the Riverfront and new ballpark. (See our previous post on TheCityFix about why Detroit should get in on the streetcar business again.)

“Beyond the Motor City” asks some tough questions that are yet to be answered.  Can Detroit reinvent itself?  Will the city’s extreme situation lead to innovation, and will that innovation pay off?  Is a new era dawning in American federal transportation policy?  Will Obama’s high speed rail be our AVE?

Keep your eye on the Blueprint America Web site for notifications of upcoming episodes and for news, reports, and online videos related to infrastructure issues.

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