Fifty years after it was built, a highway in downtown Detroit is in fairly dire need of replacement. Rather than rebuilding the whole thing, though, the Michigan Department of Transportation is considering following the lead of other cities that have torn down old freeways and turned them into walkable boulevards.
Interstate 375 is one of the shortest interstate highways in the country, at just over a mile long. But building it effectively chopped the eastern side of the city off from downtown Detroit, and helped turn tree-lined avenues into places where no one wanted to go.
"They had the wrong goal when they built the freeway," says John Norquist, the CEO of the Congress for New Urbanism, an organization that promotes highway conversions. "The goal was to eliminate congestion, and in the urban context, that doesn’t work, because congestion is a symptom of success. In Manhattan, you have lots of congestion. Why? Because people want to be there."
At its peak, Norquist points out, Detroit had around 1.8 million residents, roughly the same as Manhattan today. "If you want to turn Manhattan into present-day Detroit, take away public transit and build freeways."
Norquist is convinced that getting rid of freeways, conversely, helps cities become more livable. It’s worked in places like Seoul, where the government tore down a major downtown highway and created billions of dollars of new property development. And in San Francisco, a freeway damaged in the 1989 earthquake was turned back into a boulevard and a pedestrian path next to the waterfront.
For now, despite the zeal of Norquist and other advocates who want to see Detroit convert 1-375 into a boulevard, it’s not clear yet what will happen. The DOT will spend the next several months studying the question and getting input from the public.
One thing that probably won't happen—or at least not immediately—is just repairing the freeway as it is.
In an initial study, the DOT estimated that repairing the freeway could cost around $80 million. "That’s money we do not have right now as a department of transportation to invest, and we’re not going to invest $80 million of taxpayer money on a freeway that doesn’t necessarily fit the city’s needs," says Rob Morosi from the Michigan DOT. "We need to make sure any future money we invest fits the future vision of the city, so we don’t rebuild something that’s going to be obsolete five years down the road."
Detroit is already starting to move towards walkability in some other ways, like a new privately owned streetcar route that will begin construction in a few weeks on Woodward Avenue, the main street downtown. The city also recently built a new bike and pedestrian path by the downtown riverfront.
"Detroit's future can't be as focused on the automobile as it used to be. Everybody says that, but what should it focus on?" asks Norquist. "They need start thinking about how they attract commerce, not how to move people in vehicles. The city can be a destination, not just a place to drive through."