PBS: Beyond the Motor City

In February, PBS will be debuting a new transportation documentary with a focus on Detroit.

Narrated by Blueprint America correspondent Miles O’Brien, the 90-minute documentary asks whether it is time to fundamentally change the way Detroiters — and by extension all Americans — get around. Detroit is the crucible in which the nation’s ability to move toward a modern 21st century transportation infrastructure is put to the test. The documentary shows how investments in the past — beginning with the construction of canals in the 18th century –profoundly shaped Detroit’s physical layout, population growth and economic development. Before being dubbed the Motor City, Detroit was once home to the nation’s most extensive streetcar system. In fact, it was that vast network of streetcars that carried workers to the area’s many car factories. And it was the cars made in those factories that would soon displace the streetcars in Detroit — and in every major American city.

Detroit’s engineers went on to design the nation’s first urban freeways and inspired much of America’s 20th century transportation infrastructure system — from traffic signals to gas stations — that became the envy of the world.

But over the last 30 years, much of the world has moved on, choosing faster, cleaner, more modern transportation and leaving America — and Detroit — behind…

While this documentary looks interesting, there is some irony in their description. It was streetcars and bicyclists that were eventually displaced from Detroit streets often with the argument that the automobile was a more modern means of transportation.

On the transportation invention timeline, we’re not moving on by choosing bicycles. We’re moving back.

And moving back isn’t always that sexy, which is probably why those post-WWII transportation visions of the future had sleek cars on elevated super-highways and inexplainably-fit peds on moving sidewalks.

The Jetsons didn’t ride bicycles.

Now the Flintstones — they had active transportation (which really doesn’t help explain why Fred and Barney had higher BMIs than George Jetson.)

It seems the WALL-E vision for a transportation future without human-power and is more accurate.

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