Americas road trip: will the US ever kick the car habit?

Motor City Detroit built the automobiles, oil capital Houston fuelled them and Los Angeles was carved up by freeways in their honour. Yet now all three cities are pushing walking, cycling and the use of public transport. So does this mean Americas love affair with the car is finally waning?


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A battered Dodge Challenger roars past as I head out on the nine-lane highway, riding past shuttered shops and decaying restaurants and row upon row of vacant, overgrown housing lots.

Normally I wouldnt even consider cycling on such an expanse of road, but its not so bad in Detroit. After all, the birthplace of Americas car industry doesnt have that many cars any more.

My ride along Jefferson Avenue passes the low bulk of Chryslers car assembly factory. Along with General Motors Hamtramck plant, it is all that remains of the once-great industry which supported this city. Where there were 285,000 jobs, now there are just 10,000.

In 1940, Detroit was the fourth largest city in the US; now it doesnt even make the top 20. From a peak of 1.8 million inhabitants, the population now stands at 677,000.

But the city is resurgent and its near-total collapse may unwittingly have created one of its most powerful and unique assets. The well-documented flight to Detroits sprawling suburbs killed the city inside, but it also left space. The wide rivers of asphalt carved deep into the city were designed to transport a population three times its current size.

Detroits regenerated riverside. Cycling is up 400% since 2000. Photograph: Nick Van Mead
Now the citys new director of planning, Maurice Cox, wants to take all this space and transform Jefferson Avenue, and a number of other major arteries, into European-style grand boulevards. Cox says he can reduce motor traffic here to four lanes without affecting journey times which would leave five lanes for wider pavements, protected cycle lanes, more greenery and space set aside for future streetcars or a bus rapid transit (BRT) system.

Across the city, Cox has decreed that all future bike lanes must be physically separated from motor traffic. With little active opposition, the pace of change will be fast; by the end of next year, Detroit will have 25 miles of new segregated cycle facilities. Advocates say this will catapult the city from 70th in the US rankings of protected lanes to a likely place in the top five, above Minneapolis and Portland.

Cox envisions a Detroit taken back to the future, before the car became king and when cycling and walking coexisted. We still have the framework for that kind of city, but we havent nurtured it for decades, he says. In so many cities we have cars, pedestrians and cyclists jostling for space, but here they can all have part of the street.

Detroit recycled

I arrive at Detroit Metropolitan Airport with two heavy bags and instructions to try to get everywhere on foot, bike or public transport. The Motor City tore up its streetcar system in the 1950s; today it has no metro and no tram, apart from a short elevated loop serving a small central area. Construction is set to finish next year on a streetcar project to connect fast-regenerating Downtown with Midtown, but the three-mile M1 system wont reach into the hardest-hit neighbourhoods, or go anywhere near the airport.

Ground transportation gets a pretty low-key show on the airport website, so I pick up a copy of Visit Detroit magazine, which has a welcome page from the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation, Smart. The airport information page gives driving directions and explains the options for car rental (around $60 a day) and taxis ($50 Downtown). Smart itself runs a public bus service, but that doesnt even get a mention.


Detroit recently emerged from 18 months of bankruptcy. Photograph: Barry Lewis/Corbis via Getty
The Smart timetable online says a bus is due in 30 minutes it shows up after an hour. The driver explains Ill have to change to a DDOT city bus to get Downtown; I pay my $2.25 and get on board with the three other passengers, all wearing the uniforms of airport fast-food concessions. As we pick up more people there are a lot of complaints about lateness; the bus driver takes pity on those who dont have enough money for a ticket and waves them through. I get off and change to the city bus system another 30-minute wait in the dust and detritus beside a busy highway. Its three hours before I make the hotel.

The issue briefly caught the attention of the international media last year when car worker James Robertson told how he walked 21 miles as part of his daily commute. Readers rallied round and raised $350,000. He bought a Ford Taurus and now drives to work in a fraction of the time. He also gained a lot of weight.

An estimated 40% of people living in the city dont have access to a car thats 270,000 Detroiters. People who wait this long for a bus mostly dont have a choice.

The next day sees Detroits first ever Open Streets event. On a sunny Sunday afternoon, families, young people, old people, black, white, Latino, turn out on bikes to ride four miles of closed roads from Downtown, through the hipster haunt of Corktown to Mexicantown in the south-west. The route passes in front of the grand old Michigan Central Station, derelict since the last passenger train ran in 1988, killed by the car and intercity flights. Because times were so tough and no one wanted the land, historic structures like the station, the Packard factory, Fisher Body 21 and scores of others still stand another of Detroits problems has created a potential asset.

Mayor Mike Duggan, the man who brought Cox in from New Orleans, makes an appearance. He tells me about 20-minute Neighbourhoods, a plan to regenerate areas in the neglected north of the city from Six Mile to Eight Mile so anyone can safely walk or cycle to shops, schools, the park or the library within 20 minutes, and enjoy a good quality of life without access to a car. Around 100 historic homes will be renovated, and blighted buildings that are not recoverable will be demolished. A new neighbourhood park and green cycleway will be created from unused land.


Mike Darga rides past the derelict Albert Kahn-designed Fisher Body 21 plant, where his father worked for 30 years. Darga gives auto heritage tours for Wheelhouse Detroit
Inspired by a visit from former New York transport commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, Duggan authorised officials to use her experimental approach: forget time-consuming engineering risk assessments, put down some traffic cones and see what happens. The early signs from Fitzgerald a neighbourhood which lost a large part of its population, and has the lowest rates of car ownership are positive.

This younger generation grew up in the back of their parents cars being taken to school and to shops, and they dont want that any more, Duggan says. They want to walk and cycle. We cant compete with the suburbs on their terms, but we can offer young people bikeable and walkable neighbourhoods, and thats at the heart of what were trying to do.

Raquel Castaneda-Lopez, the city council member for District 6, sees mobility as a matter of human rights. A vibrant Latino community in her area was cut in two in the 1970s by the 18-lanes of the I-75 and I-95 highways. A pedestrian bridge now allows safe access, reuniting people on both sides.

When you design for the car you get divided cities, she says. Roads divide communities. For me it is about access to mobility, which is a human right. Its about the 40% in Detroit who dont have access to a car. These people need to get to the grocery store or school or work, and they have just as much right to mobility as drivers.


Detroit Bikes workers complete a contract for cycle share giant Citi Bike. Photograph: Bloomberg via Getty
When Zak Pashak wanted to start making and selling an affordable bike from American steel, Detroit was his first choice. People here know how to make stuff, he says. Its steel work its welding, tooling, engineering and design and then theres all the spinoff firms, the lawyers, the packing, the shipping It makes sense.

The former music promoter set up his Detroit Bikes factory in a west-side neighbourhood blighted by abandonment and crime. We get there past rows of overgrown, vacant lots and burnt-out houses left to slowly collapse.

Pashak has invested heavily in machinery to cut, bend, weld and paint steel tubes into finished bikes; hand-built frames hang in rows like carcasses at a butchers. He employs around 40 people as many as he can locally and hopes to expand that to 200.


The Dequindre Cut. Photograph: Pravin Sitaraman/Detroit Riverfront Conservancy
Tony Sheldon, a 46-year-old from Seven Mile, ran a welding machine team for American Axle until production was outsourced to China in 2008. He earns a fraction of what he used to make in the automotive industry but is happy here. The auto industry was worth billions of dollars, he remembers. The pay was better of course and the scale of the bike industry is much smaller but thats over now. We cant do that any more, so thats it.

Pashak hasnt turned a profit yet but believes bicycles could be a positive part of Detroits future. Its a $50bn a year industry globally but 99.5% of bikes are made in Asia, mostly China and Taiwan. If we can carve off even a little bit of that then it would have a big impact, he says. The US bike industry has got a lot of potential. Bikes can be a great part of the economy of Detroit.

The city has been steadily reinventing itself since the riverside was renovated as part of the citys 300th anniversary in 2001. The citys flagship project, the Dequindre Cut, is a former rail line transformed into a paved path and cycle track. In a sign of the times, a luxury apartment building taking shape nearby is selling itself with promises of communal cycle parking alongside images of granite worktops and a pool.

The Detroit Greenways Coalition is working on extending the route into a 26-mile loop and the citys even getting a bike share next spring. Last month it sneaked into the top 50 of Bicycling magazines Best Bike Cities of 2016 after census data pointed to a 400% increase in ridership since 2000.

Todd Scott, executive director of the Greenways Coalition, says cycling in Detroit is more successful now than any time since the 1890s, when Henry Ford built his first car, the Quadricycle, from bike parts and rode to his factory on two wheels.

Right now the city can remove a parking lane if it wants, give the space over to cycling, and know no ones going to make an angry call to their local councilman, he says. Vacant lots dont complain.

Houston, we have a solution


Elevated highways in front of the Houston skyline. Bayous pass underneath, creating freeways for the citys cyclists. Photograph: Alamy
I fly into
Houston and follow signs to the public bus stop. Again Im the only passenger not wearing a workers uniform. The bus takes the scenic route to the shiny glass and steel centre of Americas oil capital but its comfortable, smells strongly of cleaning products and compared with $50 for a taxi is a bargain at just $1.25.

Like Detroit, cars are hardwired into the fabric of the city: the addiction is structural, not just cultural. Houston is laced with wide ribbons of asphalt, but many here are elevated on towering concrete columns, and at rush hour when I arrive the freeways look like parking lots.

Unlike Detroit, this habitual boomtown is growing fast. It is forecast to overtake Chicago to become the third largest city in the US and can lay claim to be one of Americas capitals of sprawl. Houston, though, is also the nations most racially and ethnically diverse metropolitan area and, as waves of new residents arrive, they bring ideas like expecting to be able to get around on foot, bike and transit.

Houston has tripled the size of its Metro light rail over the past few years, and opened two new lines. Theres a new bike share system which has just gained approval for a threefold expansion, taking it out to the Medical Center and Texas State University. And the city looks set to approve its first Bike Plan for more than two decades. New mayor Sylvester Turner has called for a paradigm shift in how Houston gets around, stressing that the city cant solve its congestion problems simply by building more roads.

We have been the poster child for car-centric poor planning for so long, says Carter Stern, chief executive of the B-Cycle bike share scheme, but now weve got all these people coming from outside the city with new ideas and they really expect to be able to walk around, to cycle, to enjoy being outside in public space. Houston was behind but things have started coming together It is going to change the way Houstonians view their city.

Then there are the bayous: slow-moving streams which cut right into the heart of Houston. Transformed into linear parks by previous mayor Annise Parker and millions of private money, these flood facilities offer spectacular green spaces in the shadow of Downtown skyscrapers. They are popular at weekends but with better connections to the varied neighbourhoods they pass through could better act as freeways for bikes, delivering cycle commuters safely to the centre of the city.

Houston is even walkable in small, isolated pockets. Forget the fake urbanism of City Centre, a swanky development of strollable shops, cafes and restaurants on the edge of town which can only be reached via vast multi-lane freeways and is as good as inaccessible on public transport. Areas like Rice Village built in the 1930s before the trolley system was torn up are great to get around on foot. If youre lucky enough to live in Midtown, Montrose or West U, their quieter tree-lined side streets are perfectly pleasant places to walk and cycle. Its just that not many people do.


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Suburbs near Houston the Texan city is one of Americas capitals of sprawl. Photograph: David R Frazier Photolibrary/Alamy

The city is not without its challenges, though. The Downtown area is crisscrossed by a grid of four- and five-lane one-way streets. The cars are big and people drive fast. Oversized SUVs called Silverado, Denali and Tundra are popular names chosen to inspire adventure in the minds of their drivers, but whose approaching roar raises the heart rates of people crossing or cycling for all the wrong reasons.

Within a couple of blocks of where Im staying are four large, surface-level parking lots and three multi-storey car parks. If you park on the 10th floor it can take 20 minutes just to get out at the end of the day.

Mary Blitzer, advocacy director of Bike Houston, tells me that outside the loop formed by the I-610 freeway, it gets harder to walk or cycle. People tend to live on small suburban streets which lead nowhere except a six-lane arterial highway.

This is Texas and people love their big cars. They drive fast and they dont like to stop for pedestrians, she says. Houston has a terrible traffic problem. The whole American dream that you can live in the suburbs and drive a nice car and get around easily thats just not true. Its a pain in the ass to get around this city by car.

I dont think most people want to be sitting in traffic jams, though, and we need to give them options. People will choose to walk, cycle or ride public transport if its easy and its comfortable but theyre not going to choose the miserable option.

Houston is richer than Detroit, but an estimated 33% of its population dont have access to a car. State senator Rodney Ellis, a long-time cycle advocate, represents some of the wealthiest and some of the poorest areas in the city. As he takes me on a ride round some of Houstons historically black neighbourhoods, an impatient driver blasts his horn behind us and close passes at speed. Its the only bit of road rage I witness in three days cycling in the city.

People think this road belongs to cars, Ellis says. But thats changing. If you get more people out riding bikes, that will change further but to get more people cycling, you need safe infrastructure.

Many people cycle here without lights late at night or early in the morning, as they make their way to and from poorly paid jobs. There are a lot of deaths and many are not investigated. Cyclists make up 0.8% of commuter journeys in Houston, but account for 2.5% of traffic casualties a disproportionately high number which does not even take account of these invisible cyclists.


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State senator Rodney Ellis cycling in Houston. Photograph: Nick Van Mead

Houstons planning director, Patrick Walsh, admits the citys existing cycle infrastructure is below or at minimum standard, and that the typical cycling experience involves 20 minutes where its fine and then five minutes of terror. It is the most challenging part of the ride that stops people from trying it.

However, the adoption of a Complete Streets programme has institutionalised the consideration of pedestrians, cyclists and public transport when new roads are constructed or existing ones remodelled. The city is also altering development regulations to reduce the emphasis on parking and allow it to design streets which make it harder for drivers to speed.

But change will not come fast. I think in 20 years youll see an incredible transformation in places like Midtown, says Walsh. Well have lively places where people want to walk out to have dinner, or get to work but we are not there yet. At some point we are going to have to make choices about how people get around, but it has to be incremental.

If we tried to change overnight, we would have push-back. Cars are going to remain the primary mode of transportation for a while.

Nobody walks in LA


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Rush hour on Hollywood Boulevard. Photograph: Alamy

Silver Lake has a reputation as one of LAs most walkable areas, but thats really not saying a lot. Deborah Murphy of Los Angeles Walks meets me at the farmers market off Sunset Boulevard.

The roar of traffic is a constant accompaniment and, as we wait to cross the six lanes of Sunset, a woman in her 80s with a walker starts her journey from the other side. At peak hours the queues of drivers behind their metal and glass is endless, and outside rush hour cars shoot by at 40 or 50mph.

The woman is not even halfway across when the countdown warning starts, and shes still on the road when the first cars accelerate away. She makes it to safety, visibly relieved, but if her husband hadnt been on hand to help her up the kerb, she would have been stuck.

The elderly and children walking to school account for disproportionately high numbers of those killed and seriously injured on LAs streets. Almost 200 people a year are killed in traffic crashes in the city and 33% are pedestrians (even though journeys by foot make up only 18% of trips). Cars are the leading cause of death for two to 14-year-olds.

The area has made some improvements: the triangle where the market takes place was closed to traffic in 2011, and a number of crosswalks were painted after a brace of deaths. A mural depicts Danny, the triangles unofficial homeless caretaker, who was knocked down and killed crossing to the 99 cent store.


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