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Detroit will always cling to its cars

Phil Berg
Car Culture

Unlike Detroit, a lot of American cities are experiencing a growth in density. The urban density has contributed to almost stagnant vehicle miles traveled by cars in the U.S. lately, even though auto sales hit a record 17.3 million in 2015. In most cities, cars are proving to be inefficient and expensive ways to get around.

Bicycling, for one alternative, is growing fastest in urban areas, says Bicycling Magazine editor Bill Strickland, explaining that city dwellers are finding two-wheel pedaling to be the quickest way to commute.

Another auto alternative is for city dwellers to use ride-hailing or self-parking cars. Ford CEO Mark Fields announced Aug. 16 at the company’s development center in Palo Alto, California, that by 2021 the company will launch a fleet of autonomous ride-hail taxis, which are intended to drive completely on their own in selected dense cities The cars will not have steering wheel or pedal controls, and so will be fully robotic and likely operate within the boundaries of dense cities, although Ford hasn’t revealed any of these details.

It’s likely Ford may test the self-driving cars in the Detroit metro area, but the Ford plan may better serve more rapidly growing urban areas. According to mobility planning expert Jarrett Walker: “As cities succeed, they succeed by becoming denser, that means you have to use space more efficiently. I don’t have a problem with cars in outer suburbia. I don’t have a problem with cars as a system of rural transportation. The problem is going to be with cities.”

Detroit, I’m guessing, is going to follow very different mobility paths than those of increasingly denser large American cities: We’re going to become the automotive “Jurassic Park.”

First, we like cars. Judging by the nearly one million fans that police estimated attended the Woodward Dream Cruise last weekend, and the popularity of the grand opening at M1 Concourse classic car condos, which has sold $25 million worth of hobbyist garage/man caves, the Detroit area likely has more well-running classic cars. M1 Concourse founder Brad Oleshansky says there are likely more than 60,000 running classic American cars from the muscle car period parked in garages around the region. Oleshansky expects up to 1,500 will find garage space at the M1 Concourse facility.

Next, I’ve noticed that as advanced driver-assistance systems are forcing the cost of new cars higher, a significant portion of auto consumers are eyeing used cars as economic alternatives, especially in the Detroit region.

Additionally, the Detroit area has the highest density of mechanical engineers in the U.S., although California and Texas lead the country with other types of engineers, such as computer, chemical and electronic. In addition, the culture of restoration of older cars is in Detroit’s DNA, with generations of auto workers packing the tribal knowledge of how to keep the fleet of classics running.

Finally, Detroit has the empty space. Estimates from research done by The Detroit News in 2015 show as much as one-fifth of residential land in the city is uninhabited.

“The problem with cars in (other) cities is the problem of big things not fitting into small spaces,” says planning expert Walker. “If you’re looking at geometric facts, you really can predict very confidently that (it) will still be true 50 years from now.” As long as there is room for all the cars, I’m gathering, then they will make sense in Detroit.

My vision is that despite the new robotic autonomous cars coming from Ford and other carmakers, human-driven future classic cars will always be as much of a fixture of Detroit as gondolas in Venice.