Other City Sidewalks: Livonia/Detroit, Michigan

[The lone bicyclist appears on the road like a dear in the gunsight.]

In what's becoming a theme in my travels, I found myself attending a friend's wedding this fall in the Detroit suburb of Livonia, Michigan. And it was an eye opening experience. I've long longed for a real visit to Detroit, and though I didn't get quite into the heart of the city this time, from the first moment to the last, I dwelt in a sidewalk-free zone. Yes, friends, Livonia, Michigan is the anti-sidewalk. It is the pure absence of pedestrianism, a manifestation of everything non-foot. Rather, it is the incarnation of the automotive, a land of pavement and absorbed promises, a land of detachment. Don't get me wrong, the people seem just fine. But never before have I seen such a public space wasteland.

Maybe it was my rental car. Immediately, the second the Hertz agent said "zoom zoom" to me with a wink, I was intoxicated with the love of speed, delighted by the rigid, asphalt uniformity. All the Michigan isolation, the Detroit alienation, the way that each house was a world unto itself... it all fell by the wayside as my engine revved. I became drunk with my ability to move, and I found myself under the spell of my car (a "manual" Mazda 3) that let me zip around the city like a deadly taser, over highways and byways with magnificent ease, so rarely going less than 50 mph that I became a NASCAR champion. Could I make it to the church on time, to deliver my friend to his wedding? Of course! The freeway would not lead me astray. My only regret was that there were so many freeways, so many six lane roads, so many green stoplights, and so little time.

[The average neighborhood in Detroit suburbs looks like this.]

Or maybe it was my accomodation. I was staying in a Marriott that was literally connected to a giant mall in the middle of a vast big box parking-lot-moated complex of chain retail. My one attempt to go to the bar nearby involved walking through the adjoining endless mall where everything was closed, a common experience in Livonia, and probably the only walking environment most people experience there.

[The view from my hotel room was of the mall parking lot.]

In Livonia, everything is built for cars. At one point, I was hell bent on getting a sandwich from the Jimmy John's across the four lane street from my hotel/mall complex. The trip was perhaps a quarter mile, but needless to say, it involved driving. The endlessness of the parking lots, the lack of walkable spaces, the four and six lane barriers, the speeding motorways. Needless to say, we drove to get the sandwiches. In fact, I have rarely felt so ridiculous as driving across the street, but you need to understand that the motorcar was the natural way to move around. The parking lots were conveniently placed in front of the doors, and it seemed to quick and easy. The alternative, walking down the empty, deserted, and alienating sidewalks, was simply not an option.

[The view of the mall/hotel from the Jimmy Johns across the street in Livonia.]

This is not to say that the place was devoid of sidewalks, though. I don't want to give the wrong impression. They do exist. It's only that they're completely isolated, and miles from anything interesting or walkable. Rather, they run alongside major motorways like yellow snow next to a snowmobile trail, marginal and despondent.

[The world's least interesting sidewalk is in Livona, Michigan.]

Part of the problem with Detroit (especially its suburbs) is that everything is so wide and big, designed for speed and safety. Every little street is a big, space-sprawling street (especially the main roads: 8 Mile Road, 7 Mile Road, 6 Mile Road, etc.), and the intersections are huge. And all the roads lead to driveways that lead to houses awash in giant lots in the "forest". All the homes seem to be separated by acres of green lawn, surrounded by fences. It's so strange to be in a place that's so rural-seeming, in the middle of a big city. You get the sense that Livonia is the land of misanthropy.

[A typical Detroit suburb neighborhood.]

In fact, Detroit, Michigan is so auto-oriented that they've literally broken new ground in auto-centric transportation practices. They have something so pernicious and great for driving that I'll have to describe in some detail...

It's called the "Michigan Left," and it keeps traffic going incredibly interruption free at 50 mph like nothing you've ever seen. It involves an absolute ban on left turns, to be replaced by right turns and then U-turns through large, grassy medians. It's a design feature (not a bug) that allows green lights along major roads to stay green for a long, long time, and supposedly decreases accidents by large margins.

But, at the same time, it's incredibly space-consumptive. As the wikipedia article on the Michigan Left describes:
There are several reasons why other states have yet to adopt the Michigan Left as a normal intersection geometry:

Confusion. Since the scheme is rare outside of Michigan, it can be confusing to visitors expecting to be able to turn left from the left lane.[2].

Extra Land. Depending on the width of the existing median, extra land may be needed for large vehicles to make the U-turn because their minimum turning radius is greater than the width of the median; essentially the larger vehicle must cross both oncoming lanes to get to the extra roadway added for this purpose.

Access to business. It may be harder to access local businesses.[2]

Sure it may make driving a piece of absolute auto-cake, but it also makes you really want NOT to walk across the street to get a sandwich. And it means that Livonia sidewalks are emptier than Rod Blagojevich's ethics manual.

The point this: Livonia, Michigan was designed to make life incredibly simple for cars. When your car finally blows its tranny, dies, and goes to heaven, heaven looks a lot like suburban Detroit. The streets are paved with pavement, and you can drive anywhere you want at a minimum of 50 miles per. All other things -- public space, businesses, culture, nature -- take a back seat to the auto driver, and the entire community is built on the promise of instant speed.

I really have not idea what might happen to a place like Livonia should gas prices return to their stratospheric heights. People here really have no choice but to drive every time they leave their houses. I feel really sorry for Jehovaha's Witnesses in Livonia, and I'd rather cut of my patella than try to go door-to-door or start a petition drive in this fair burg. The whole place was designed to make Detroit happy, and it's one reason why I have very little sympathy for the plight of the auto-makers in today's rotten economy.

[The concrete lies in the green green grass, unmarred by footsteps, wear, or tear. It lies like a precious, alabaster turd in the midst of automotive heaven.]


Anonymous said...

I hated living there. You couldn't jog anywhere.

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Stephen Gross said...

* First of all, thanks for putting your thoughts in writing on this subject. You do an excellent job of painting a vivid picture of the area.

* I was really baffled the first time I encountered the Michigan Left. (I didn't know it had a name). At the time, it seemed really strange. You're right, though: it facilitates really fast traffic.

* You are also correct to note that the city is designed entirely for the automobile. Imagine, if you will, the following scenario: What if automobiles were the ONLY form of transportation. What form of human habitation would emerge? Livonia, I think.

* I just came back from a trip to Silicon Valley. You may be interested to know that this is extremely similar to Livonia, except with 10-story office buildings everywhere. And it measures about 30-by-30 miles, as well.

* I am truly baffled that the car-centric suburban form has triumphed so completely in parts of America. Its advantages are clear, and yet so are its disadvantages: it destroys community, because it destroys the visibility of other humans. When our lives become isolated--in suburban houses, cars, cubicles, etc.--we lose community. I am always surprised at how willingly people sacrifice that value in favor of seemingly luxurious isolation.

Suzanne said...

The next time you're in Detroit, I invite you to come downtown and see the functional sidewalks along the river and near the university, as well as some empty sidewalks colonized by nature. Some parts of Detroit have been abandoned by cars as well as by people. But the Riverwalk, and the in-progress greenways, are a bright spot.

Andy Wilson said...

The best thing about being a bicycle or pedestrian commuter is that poor urban planning really does not matter if you exercise sufficient resourcefulness and discipline. Frightening as the cars may seem on a 5-degree, blustery downtown Minneapolis (or Detroit) day, there are surprisingly few motor vehicle operators who will deliberately run you down with their gasmobile if you elect to borrow a fraction of their pavement.

Very interesting photos. Suburbia seems to work very hard to preserve such stunningly ugy linearity.

Anonymous said...

Livonia is probably one of the best examples in Michigan of late 20th century US suburban development. But you clearly didn't stray outside the city or you would have found some great places to walk just a few miles down the road.

* Hines Drive - A 17 mile greenway along the Rouge River that extends from Northville (just west of Livonia) to Dearborn (Home of Ford Motor Company!)


* Downtown Northville - An upscale version of Main Street with historic districts sandwiched next to a horse racing track.

* Lakeshore Park - Hundreds of acres of parkland and miles of walking and mountain bike trail just up the road from one of the largest retail areas in SE Michigan. Areas of the park interior allow you to escape the drone of suburbia.


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