Redefining mobility in the Motor City—the fate of I-375

By Mary Ebeling

Detroit, home to the nation’s Big Three automakers, fully embraced the construction of the interstate highway through its urban core. The fact that this city, the epicenter of car culture, finds itself considering the removal of a freeway is a clear sign that transportation priorities in urban areas have shifted. The Motor City’s evolving approach to livability, quality of life, and revitalization are pushing a reconsideration of the fate of I-375, also known as the Chrysler Freeway.

Detroit’s Downtown Development Authority recently authorized funding for a feasibility study on tearing out I-375 and converting it to a surface-level boulevard. Conversion to a surface street can help with the city’s goals of improving pedestrian safety and reconnecting commercial, cultural, and residential areas while opening up more land near the city’s cultural district for redevelopment.

After the end of World War II, car manufacturing bolstered the local Detroit economy, and prevailing wisdom asserted that increasing access to personal travel and the private automobile could only help the local economy. Detroit’s automakers did experience great success in selling increasingly more automobiles after the war, and certainly many in the auto industry prospered. However, as new interstates increased the reach of the daily commuter, the city stood helpless as much of its affluent population and tax base migrated to the suburbs. I-375 decimated a vibrant African American commercial and residential district and contributed to the emptying out of the once vibrant city. Additionally, land used for the highway removed properties from the local tax rolls. Once the interstate construction was complete, parcels adjacent to the freeway saw significant drops in assessed value, compounding the loss to the tax base.  In the end, the freeways through Detroit did not meet expectations of increasing development, which caused more economic harm than imagined as people and businesses left for the suburbs.

We’ve been here before: an aging freeway bisecting a once vibrant urban neighborhood has reached or surpassed its useful life and the city that has played host to the freeway wants a full consideration of alternatives for removing or restructuring the roadway to better meet a new set of goals. These cities are not so naïve as to think that long plowed-under neighborhoods can be recreated, but there is a reasonable desire to free up land for new development, address equity issues wrought by the freeway, attract new residents and businesses, and generate new tax revenue that can come with redevelopment. Cities such as Portland, Milwaukee, and now Rochester, NY, have removed or are removing significant portions of downtown freeways. Others, like Syracuse, NY, are in the process of evaluating alternatives for a portion of I-81 that bisects the downtown. Detroit can look to these cities for lessons learned and best practices as it evaluates the future of I-375.

Interested in learning more about urban freeway issues and opportunities? Learn more at SSTI’s webinar Rethinking the urban freeway.