Planning a Transportation System for Metropolitan Detroit in the Age of the Automobile: The Triumph of the Expressway

By Hyde, Charles K. | Michigan Historical Review, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Planning a Transportation System for Metropolitan Detroit in the Age of the Automobile: The Triumph of the Expressway


Hyde, Charles K., Michigan Historical Review


Although Detroit had no rapid-transit system in place in the early 1920s, the Motor City seemed poised in 1923 to build the most modern and innovative transportation system in the United States. The Detroit Rapid Transit Commission (RTC), led by former automobile executive Sidney D. Waldon, proposed a comprehensive and pathbreaking transportation system that included high-speed rail lines routed through subways in the downtown area, but then extended well beyond the city limits on elevated "super-highways" that also carried motor vehicles, with express lanes for through traffic and other lanes for local traffic. Waldon was unable to gain public approval for this system during the prosperous 1920s, and the plan died for lack of funds in the 1930s. The transportation requirements of World War II brought instead the construction of three substantial expressways, which became models for later expressway development in Detroit in the postwar years. This article will identify the forces that led to this outcome.

From the 1910s to the late 1950s, transportation experts and urban planners proposed a wide range of solutions to Detroit's growing traffic congestion as the Motor City expanded rapidly. The Detroit Rapid Transit Commission developed multiple proposals for rapid transit that included various technical solutions: subways; high-speed rail lines on grade-separated, dedicated rights-of-way; "super-highways," which integrated rapid rail and express highways; and high-speed rail lines in the medians of expressways.

Detroit's elected officials and voters rejected various rapid-transit proposals nearly a dozen times starting in 1915. The higher initial costs of these rapid-transit systems versus express highways, and the lack of funds to build them, sealed their fate. For rapid transit to be successful, it had to draw riders; yet an entire transit line, if not the entire system, needed to be completed before it would attract mass ridership. Expressways on the other hand could be (and were) built piecemeal. Drivers could simply leave the expressway where it ended and resume travel on surface streets.

Funding, however, was the greater barrier to rapid-transit development. The RTC could not use gasoline-tax revenues collected by the federal and state governments because these were earmarked for roads and highways. Instead it had to rely on local property taxes or bond issues to finance rapid-transit construction, and both required voter approval. Detroiters became more leery over time about the high costs of the various proposals floated, and as automobile ownership spread, the appeal of rapid transit diminished.

Expressway development gained further advantages over rapid transit starting in the 1940s. Federal, state, and local governments jointly planned and financed high-speed express highways to serve World War II defense plants in the metropolitan Detroit area. In doing so they established the foundation for postwar expressway planning and finance. The triumph of an expressway system over alternative mass-transit systems was by no means inevitable at the end of the war, but expressways had substantial advantages over the other options before the final competition played out.

By the mid-1910s Detroit wrestled with crushing automotive traffic jams brought on by the rapid adoption of the automobile and the inadequacies of the existing at-grade electric streetcar system. Detroit had had horse-drawn streetcars since 1863, and its system of franchised, privately owned lines expanded with the growth of the city's population throughout the nineteenth century. Private operators resisted electrifying their lines until Hazen S. Pingree, the reform-minded mayor of Detroit, forced the issue in the mid-1890s by threatening a municipal takeover. The individual streetcar companies merged in 1900 to become the Detroit United Railway (DUR), which monopolized streetcar service in Detroit until 1922, when the city bought out the company. …

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