But who will pay the taxes?

Detroit, the “motor city” is on hard times. Population has dropped to less than half of what is was in it’s hey-day of the early 1950’s, from 2 million to 900,000.

If you are a cyclist, here is a picture of what a week day looks like crossing  Woodward Avenue.
800px-MonroeNearWoodward

Nice wide streets, devoid of cars. Isn’t this what every cyclist dreams about?

A fellow from Detroit wrote about this very place the other day in the New York Times. Here is a snippet:

“ONE night a little over a year ago, crossing Woodward Avenue, I crashed my bicycle. As I flew head over heels across Detroit’s main boulevard, I thought, well, in any other town, I’d be hitting a car right about now. But this being the Motor City, the street was deserted, completely motor-free.

While bike enthusiasts in most urban areas continue to have to fight for their place on the streets, Detroit has the potential to become a new bicycle utopia. It’s a town just waiting to be taken. With well less than half its peak population, and free of anything resembling a hill, the city and its miles and miles of streets lie open and empty, beckoning. And lately, whether it’s because of the economy or the price of gas or just because it’s a nice thing to do, there are a lot more bikers out riding.”

This isn’t a small area because it is sprawled out. Here is what a map of Detroit looks like compared to other, older cities. Three older cities would fit into one Detroit.detroit1

But not just cyclists have their eye on Detroit.

In fact, some think Detroit should leave all the vacant land, vacant and use it for farming.

“Hopes and plans to repopulate the city and to redevelop all the city’s vacant land, are unrealistic, at least for another generation. Some redevelopment deals will succeed, but realistic Detroiters should seize the opportunity to become a leaner, greener city for the 21st Century.

“What if a lot of the vacant land was allowed to begin to become green?” Pitera said. “Could Detroit truly become the greenest city in the United States?”

This abundance of vacant land has people talking about new uses, such as urban farming, reforesting the city, and large-scale recreational areas. Urban farming is getting the most buzz. Michigan State University’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources is among the groups touting urban farms as a solution for Detroit’s vacant land.”

Doesn’t this all sound wonderful? Especially to a particular reader of this blog?

I see a major problem, though. Those streets don’t stay pot-hole-free by themselves. It takes a lot of money to keep them up and I remember a time in Florida when the tax base couldn’t keep our streets and roads in good repair. Montana has some of the highest taxes in the country because it is so lightly populated, yet their roads serve just about everyone. (Frost heave has a lot to do with the cost of keeping their roads up.)

Companies will not move into an area that they think will tax them too much and without businesses, there are no jobs and without jobs, taxes can’t be paid.

14 replies
  1. Rantwick
    Rantwick says:

    The upkeep on those beautiful wide and empty streets was the first thing I thought of when I started reading (although the title of course must have clued me in a little).

    I live only a couple of hours from Detroit… it is the closest big American city to me. I would love to see such a transformation…

  2. Keri
    Keri says:

    I found the article and possibilities fascinating.

    Bicycles create insignificant wear and tear on pavement compared to cars and trucks. But weather—rain and freeze-thaw cycles—create significant damage. Weather is constant.

    Obviously far less asphalt needs to be maintained for an infrastructure not dominated by private automobiles. The costs of humongous parking lots and ever-expanding roads is tremendous and it’s subsidized in a lot of ways that hide the costs.

    It’s true that a tax base is required for maintenance of infrastructure. But is automobile-dominance required for a tax base? Possibly not, if appropriate alternatives were provided. Bicycles alone won’t cut it.

    It’s just interesting speculation. The stuff of urban planner’s dreams, I suppose.

  3. Eric
    Eric says:

    I have a one word problem with trying to get rid of cars, buses and trucks: commerce.

    Don’t show me the pictures of a “group move” of bikes and trailers moving the contents of someone’s house across town, I know it isn’t impossible. I still don’t understand why more people don’t rig their bikes to make major grocery shopping trips the way I have.

    Since I am a tradesman, I look at things from the vantage point of trade.

    The fact is that when I have to go to work and the place I have to go is more than 10 miles away, I am going to drive since it is quicker and if I suspect that I have a “hospital case” I can put it in the back of my truck and bring it home to work on it here.

    And if I have more than one place to go in a day (I try to limit things to no more than three calls a day) and they are 20-30 miles apart in different cities, I need my truck.

    Even if I confined trade to Orange County, it’s quite a ways out to Winter Garden or Christmas.

    All I have to sell is my time. I can and do charge mileage. I ought to be charging travel time, but if it takes me three times longer to get somewhere is this greasing the economic wheel?

  4. Keri
    Keri says:

    I have the same concerns as well, especially in a sprawling city. And hostile climate. When it’s hot and humid, I have to build in time to stop sweating and change clothes (in a public restroom) before a meeting with a client. If it’s a 30 minute meeting, I’ve invested 3x as much time in riding and cleaning up as I have in the meeting itself. I could take the bus, but with the likelihood of transfers that would eat as much or more time… and I’d still sweat getting to and from the bus stops. That’s all unproductive time I can’t legitimately bill for. It’s much more sensible to drive, so I do.

    But the city is built entirely around the private automobile. A city like this can’t really be retrofitted very far… unless it was deserted, partially demolished and reconstructed. And yes, commerce would still need roads for cars, buses and trucks. But you could seriously reduce dependence and the “mandatory” nature of the private auto.

  5. Eric
    Eric says:

    I can’t show you a link, but the last I heard more than 60% of all the traffic was for business purposes.

  6. Keri
    Keri says:

    How much of that is freight-hauling vs people just moving themselves to conduct business? Theoretically, if you built a system on transit vs roads, and neighborhoods where general living could be conducted within a miles or so. Some percentage of business-purpose trips would not need private autos.

    It’s merely a curiosity. I don’t have a dog in this fight, I’m just fascinated with possibilities.

  7. Eric
    Eric says:

    As I recall, it was based on people and companies claiming tax deductions. Some people and companies do not claim deductions by the mile and base their deductions on actual expenses rather than mileage. I do not recall how that was handled.

  8. Kevin Love
    Kevin Love says:

    Keri wrote about:
    “…the “mandatory” nature of the private auto.”

    Kevin’s comment:
    Part of me is not going to be crying too much in the next few years as we go over peak oil. Or if there is a revolution in Saudi Arabia and car culture ends overnight.

  9. andrewp
    andrewp says:

    Eric: A very good post for just sitting back and thinking “what would I do if I was in charge …..”

    Kevin: peak oil or a revolution cutting of our oil supply will not solve the problems of auto dependancy. We’ll simply find another method to power a vehicle. Hopefully, that method will be much less stressful on the environment.

    But maybe in the short term, bicycle modal share would go up, and some may discover that they don’t need the “new auto” as much as they thought ….

  10. Lyle
    Lyle says:

    1. I suspect that the soil in urban Detroit is too heavily polluted to be safe for farming.

    2. I probably don’t need to remind everyone that the “need” to arrive perfectly-sheveled and kempt is itself a product of our car-culture. And the expectation that you can schedule lots of meetings with far-flung clients is also a product of cheap transportation. I wish I had some constructive ideas for culture-jamming on those issues.

    3. Personally, I do not look forward to an oil crisis. A falling tide sinks all boats.

    I like riding a bike by choice. I like that I have the option to drive a car affordably if I want to. Yes, I like being “rich”, by global standards. I’m pretty sure that there is a touch of class envy coming from those who would wish an oil crisis on us, because they think that it would strike the gas-guzzling affluent more than it would strike them. I promise you, if we experience an energy crisis, it’s going to hurt the American working class lots more than it will hurt the rich. Okay, the rich might have to give up a couple of first-class plane tickets to the Carribean. But the rest of us will have to give up orange juice, fresh produce, and air conditioning.

  11. Keri
    Keri says:

    To expand on Lyle’s point, a worldwide oil crash would cause a lot of chaos and starvation among the poorest people. Oil dependence has thoroughly permeated the food chain. It’s not something to wish for.

  12. Kevin Love
    Kevin Love says:

    Andrew wrote:
    “We’ll simply find another method to power a vehicle.”

    Kevin’s comment:
    Perhaps. You never know what the future has to hold. However, current alternatives have been disappointing. In spite of billions in research, hydrogen fuel cells are a flop, and electric batteries have range and price limitations.

    Ironically enough, the only electric vehicle in mass production today is electric bicycles.

    Even if some magical “star trek” technology were to be revealed to us by UFO aliens, it would take a considerable amount of time to move it into mass production and even longer to replace the present car fleet.

  13. Kevin Love
    Kevin Love says:

    Lyle wrote:

    “Okay, the rich might have to give up a couple of first-class plane tickets to the Carribean. But the rest of us will have to give up orange juice, fresh produce, and air conditioning.”

    Kevin’s comment:
    An interesting set of examples that really shows class bias.

    Air conditioning is, to me, an example of a foolish and wasteful luxury that the overwhelming majority of people who live in tropical climates do not have.

    Orange juce and tropical fruits are nice to have, but apples and root vegetables do just as well – and store nicely in root cellars.

  14. Eric
    Eric says:

    I think that no one needs to dispute Kevin Love’s statements.

    They speak for themselves.

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