A Transportation Manifesto For a New Decade

A new decade is a time for reflection, yes, but the occasion also calls for a look forward.

In a state built on the internal combustion engine, Transport Michigan‘s Joel Batterman has a vision of a healthier environment where the automobile has at last been subordinated to more sustainable modes of travel. It’s a vision we can all aspire to, whether we live in a cyclists’ haven like Portland, or deep in the autosprawl of exurban Phoenix.

As we embark on a new decade, Batterman draws from a quote from abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who railed against calls for moderation in the anti-slavery movement. “On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation.  No!  no! … I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD.”

Will the Motor City change its gas-guzzling ways in the new decade? Joel Batterman is hopeful. Civic Images

The system of slavery, of course, was a stain on the American republic a good deal darker than our transportation system, and Garrison’s call for immediate emancipation can’t quite be matched on this front, since physical infrastructure takes time to build. That said, there’s no question that the current auto-exclusive system is deeply unhealthy, and while all change must be incremental to some degree, we’d better make those increments as big as possible if we want to save our state.

It’s 2011 now, more than a century since the first Model T motored onto a Michigan street, more than fifty years since the last streetcar rolled down Detroit’s Woodward Avenue. Most people alive today have never seen a Michigan whose cities weren’t ruled by the automobile. We take its hegemony for granted, and the slow pace of our retreat from that mindset comes at our peril. This decade, it’s time to accelerate.

The transportation fight is just one part of a much larger war, the war for Michigan’s social, economic and ecological survival. We’re losing that war, thanks in part to an antiquated mid-twentieth-century transportation system that strangles our cities, pumps millions in gas money out of state, and stokes the fire that’s cooking our planet.

In the year ahead, then, we’d do well to follow Garrison in the work to move Michigan towards healthy transportation: no equivocation, no excuses, and no retreat.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Urban Cincy details a retrograde plan to extend a highway through Cincinnati, bulldozing established neighborhoods and clearing the way for sprawl. The Transport Politic outlines 2011 transit construction plans across the country, with streetcars dominating the landscape. And Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space remarks on the irony of zoning laws that fail to maximize land values.