Backstory: Can the Motor City walk?

For the past 50 years or so this city hasn't just been defined by building cars, it has been defined by driving them. They have shaped its exteriors, its interiors, and its psyche.

Front doors are rare here. Visit Agave, one of Detroit's hippest eateries - if you can find it. It's easy to walk right by it. The entrance is around back where the parking lot is. Likewise, for 20 years, as a pedestrian you couldn't walk in the front of the dominant building on the city skyline - the Renaissance Center - because there were no front doors. When General Motors moved its headquarters there a decade ago, its first mission was to build a front entrance on the street.

Detroit sidewalks are often lonely - even at workday lunchtime. There are great places to eat downtown, but if you're going out for lunch you drive - it's easier to find the entrance. Besides, not driving would involve walking. And walking? Well, for many here walking's for suckers - or for those whose car is in the shop. Besides, it's still considered dangerous, though personal safety is rarely an issue in heavily motored areas, in daylight.

It seems you can't pay Detroiters to leave their cars, either. Congress last year appropriated $100 million to study a possible mass transit system along the I-94 corridor to Ann Arbor. Most cities facing hard economic times like Detroit, would smile and say thank you. The reaction here? Tepid. The Detroit News suggested Congress call off the grant: "Throwing money away doesn't make any sense."

But a drive-by city may not make sense either. Detroit, or at least its leadership, is starting to rethink the city's car-happy habitat and history. The city center has started to see some life again. Businesses, like IT giant Compuware, have moved downtown. There are new parks. The Tigers baseball team decided to stay and build a new stadium rather than move out in 2000. The Lions football team actually moved from the suburbs back downtown in 2002. The city scored Major League Baseball's All Star game last summer and the Superbowl in February. It's almost enough to make the people here think about setting foot on sidewalks again - almost. Standing in the way? A whole lot of automobiles.

"This city didn't grow up like Boston or New York. Detroit never flourished in the era of mass transit. It came of age in the era of the car," says Mike Smith, director of Wayne State University's Walter P. Reuther Library. "In Detroit it is a God-given right to have a spot to park your heap."

The city isn't just trying to remake itself, it's trying to change its ethos, which is welded to the car.

Detroit has one of the highest per capita vehicle ownership rates in the country. People here spend 60 percent more per capita on vehicles than the national average. And three interstates cut through the city's heart.

In fact, this area loves its autos so much, that every summer it holds the nation's prettiest, hippest traffic jam, the Dream Cruise. More than 1 million people and 40,000 custom vehicles crawl, bumper-to-bumper, along 16 miles of Woodward Avenue.

New cars are a way of life here. Auto workers (and there are tens of thousands of them) get deals on new cars, and annual new vehicle lease is part of compensation for even midlevel managers.

The truth is, getting around the city really requires a car. The small walkable spaces in the city - like Greektown, Bricktown, Wayne State University, the Eastern Market neighborhood, and Mexicantown - would be nice zones to stroll if linked. But they aren't, and driving is the easiest way to each.

"The fact is Detroit was the prototype for the 20th century American city," Mr. Smith says. "In a lot of ways we were the prototype for Los Angeles." Detroit developed after streetcar ridership peaked nationally in 1922, Smith says. The city had an extensive trolley system, but it was ripped up long ago, encouraged, in part, by GM, which advocated buses - and, of course, cars.

One might argue, of course, that Detroit is a company town - the car was bound to dominate. But it's hard to understand the pull of the car until you see the city in action.

On a late Friday afternoon, a tumbleweed wouldn't look completely out of place on the empty streets of the southwest corner of downtown where the abandoned Tiger Stadium looms. But the parking lot at Nemo's Bar and Grill is packed with Cadillacs, Buicks, and Fords - a sure sign of "city life" here.

"This place is basically an oasis," says Dave Stronski, who tends to the crowd that has to go out of its way to get here. "The people are from all over and drive just to come here."

Even on pro sports game days they come, Mr. Stronski explains. They eat and drink at Nemo's, park their cars in its oversized lot, then turn to this establishment to provide the thing this city has so little of - mass transit. Nemo's keeps four buses to shuttle patrons to the downtown homes of the Lions, the NHL Red Wings, and the Tigers, all of which are over a mile from here.

"There's no mass transit," Stronski says. "I wish the city was more like Chicago or New York, but it's not."

The loyalty people feel to the industry that built the city leaves some conflicted.

"A mass transit system would hurt the auto industry. They're having a hard enough time selling cars as it is," says William Hudson a security guard at GM's Renaissance Center. "I guess I'd kind of like something for downtown, like the El in Chicago, but nothing that would take people out of the city. It would hurt the auto companies." In other words, something that would replace walking downtown would be OK - but nothing that would make it easy to get in or out of the city without a car. That's bad for business. And why waste all that parking?

Of course, Detroit does have a kind of rail system, the People Mover, a 2.9-mile driverless elevated train that loops around downtown. But ridership has always been light. In fact, the number of times people boarded mass transit of any kind in this area (mostly buses) in 2002 was about 54 million. That may sound like a lot, but Chicago logged nearly 600 million trips; Boston about 400 million and the New York City area 3.3 billion.

Those numbers aside, there are tangible signs of change here in the Motor City, indications that "walk" is less a four-letter word than it once was.

On a warm, sunny spring weekday, the streets of the city are crowded by local standards - there are always at least four or five people on the sidewalk. This is progress: Even five years ago, it was easy to stand alone on a city sidewalk at high noon.

A small strip of Woodward Avenue, Detroit's main drag, has seen new office buildings go up. Those buildings have drawn people and things like bookstores, and, yes, even Starbucks - the gauge of an urban pulse. Loft apartments are going into old warehouse space and some young people are moving in. The city's development of a park and skating rink, Campus Martius, has drawn some foot traffic. There are even a few more souls on the chronically under-peopled People Mover.

But there's a long way to go yet. Pedestrians still look over their shoulders suspiciously. And ask a policeman how to walk to the famous Lafayette Coney Island diner and you draw a puzzled look.

Outside the downtown Michigan Opera House, Karl Hubble, a part-time loading dock worker there, smiles: "Look, it's Detroit. Everywhere you go people drive. It's only about 35 minutes to downtown from any nearby suburb. It's easy to walk down here, but they are just starting to do it."

When will walking become more than a novelty and be embraced as an actual means of transportation? "In time," he says. "It'll take time. It's not going to happen overnight. Detroit is Detroit."

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