The car killed Detroit

4129808416_eb14033725_zGiants also fall. The latest urban disaster took place in Detroit: the former ‘Car Capital of the World’. After the city’s bankruptcy application in July 2013, politicians in Latin America suddenly grew nervous. Our city planners are often inspired by trips to the USA where, speaking what they call fluent English (in Miami, for example), they pick up the ‘latest thinking’ and then turn our cities into replicas of Detroit.

The ‘Paris of the West’ was once an icon of the US urban model. In other words, anything but sustainable. For example, the city killed its public transport system (selling all its trams to Mexico City in the 1950s), while pushing the idea that bloated boat-like cars equal power and freedom. While in Amsterdam, ‘crazy’ youngsters were blocking streets, demanding better cycling infrastructure, in Detroit, they demanded highway extensions.

These great Americans also pioneered the super-sized combo of ‘freeway and ever expanding suburbs’. They bet on that toxic combination like no other city in the planet’s history. It worked for a while, as the city swallowed as much mountain and forest as it needed. But this poisonous buildup could only go on so long, before the effects become too much even for the nuancing of the ‘experts’. I wish my friends at the Antioquia government would realize this, as the Túnel de Oriente skewers an entire mountainside.

All-consuming cars 
Detroit also spawned the first shopping monster: the first suburban mall, dwarfed only by its parking lot. Don’t feel guilty if (like many) you’re only made happy by the smell of something new, or confuse quality of life with level of consumption. Truth be told, the only thing that bothers me about the dynamic is why people feel they have to go to Zara in every city they visit, when it sells the same things in all its stores?

What do people say about this in Colombia? Very little. Now that we’re approaching national elections, I cannot imagine genuine interest in the subject from any of the candidates besides Peñalosa (a great urban expert, but still a bad candidate). As for our honourable founding fathers, our esteemed congressmen, their mobility strategy is summarized with a very original proposal: cutting the price of petrol. It sounds like a joke, but that’s indeed what they’re promoting, and with so many ‘honourable’ populists in congress, the idea has won many innocent voters and Machiavellian strategists.

Smother love
Yet, with the debacle in Detroit, our politicians may still learn to change course. Now, instead of going to Houston and Atlanta to learn from public transport, instead of promoting urban development in the style of Los Angeles and Detroit, they’re focusing on Madrid. They won’t be studying Amsterdam, Copenhagen or Singapore, because let’s face it; it’s not very easy to communicate over there. Plus, Madrid has it all: a run-down metro, abandoned suburbs, and a mandatory helmet law for cyclists.

Beyond that, it’s a paradise for corrupt contractors. After all, it was the esteemed Spanish who taught us to appreciate ‘sneakiness’. Something that other – obviously malicious – people call corruption. Moreover, getting visas to visit this ‘mother country’ is easy. Well, not really easy for the average citizen, but if the honourable politician has good connections, it’s very easy – how sneaky.

Believers or not, I encourage all of our Latin American politicians to follow the example of Pope Francis. He was recently given an electric bicycle and is already publicizing it before his colleagues in the Catholic Church and beyond.

by Carlos Cadena Gaitán, PhD fellow at UNU-MERIT / School of Governance. First published in Las2Orillas on 23 July 2013. Translated from the Spanish by Howard Hudson. Image: Flickr / B.Jagendorf.


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  2. Jullian Regina

    There’s some poetic justice here. One of America’s greatest cities at its peak, now lies crumbling under debt load and a slowed North American car industry. The ultimate lesson in innovate or die, the Detroit that was once the leader for job security is now the place people are fleeing regularly.
    No word of a lie, Redwings are still my favorite hockey team.



    • Carlos Cadena Gaitán

      Thanks Jullian for your comment. We really ought to decide which type of urban innovations are necessary (and convenient) today.