The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

The "Reason Behind Detroit’s Decline" Series, Part 5

Detroit’s Lodge Freeway (M-10) as it travels beneath Cobo Center in Downtown Detroit.  Source:

The series to date:

Origin Post
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

It’s time to return to the oft-interrupted series about the issues and problems that made Detroit become the nation’s most cited urban dystopia.  Today’s reason: freeway expansion.

In 1941, the City of Highland Park, an enclave completely surrounded by Detroit, approved the reconstruction of Davison Avenue as a limited-access highway, making it the nation’s first depressed-grade freeway and the first freeway of any kind in the Detroit area.  Davison Avenue was selected for reconstruction because it approached gridlock at shift changes for the auto plants and supplier factories located nearby, and it was the only east-west road that travelled the entirety of Highland Park and connected it with Detroit on either side.  Here’s a map of the roadway here, in red:

You’ll notice that, unlike any first highways in other cities, which usually connected affluent areas to downtown or served as a ring around a congested downtown area, Detroit’s first freeway sits far north of Detroit’s downtown and ends in residential neighborhoods to the east and west.  Why?  Because in the 1940s that area was the epicenter of Detroit’s manufacturing, and the freeway addressed the critical issue of getting laborers from home to work.

The success of the Davison Freeway set the tone for freeway expansion throughout the metro area.

Detroit has an extensive Interstate system that is supplemented by an equally extensive state highway system built to highway standards.  Six Interstate highways go through the metro Detroit: I-75, I-94, I-96, I-275, I-375 and I-696.  Another seven state highways cut through the area: M-5, M-8 (the aforementioned Davison), M-10, M-14, M-39, M-53 and M-59.  Together, the area’s limited-access highways provide the city with unparalleled auto access among major American cities.

Most cities that put new highways in place between 1945 and 1975 adopted a hub-and-spoke model of highway development, connecting outlying areas with the central core.  Detroit, however, continued on the path that created the Davison Freeway — link outlying job centers with residential areas.  Downtown Detroit did not enjoy any primacy in Detroit’s job center hierarchy, so transportation planners treated it much like other job centers in the city.

Most urban freeway systems did little to help downtowns and city neighborhoods.  However, the development of Detroit’s system, and its utilization, took that one step further.  By connecting already outlying manufacturing job centers with residential areas, Detroit’s system accelerated the kind of freeway-driven suburbanization that other cities witnessed.  And when the manufacturing jobs disappeared, the freeways lost much of their early relevance.

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