Thursday, December 23, 2010

Grease and desist

Last week, the Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine urged Mayor Bing to place a moratorium on new fast food restaurants in the city. This group repeatedly cited the fact that Detroit was home to 73 fast food restaurants, which seemed to be a substantial under-count. To explore this issue and determine the number and location of the city’s fast food restaurants, I looked to perhaps the most reliable sources: the fast food companies. I copied the location information for each company’s franchises in Detroit from each company's website. I compiled information for A&W, Burger King, Church’s Chicken, KFC, Long John Silver’s, McDonald’s, Popeye’s Chicken, Subway, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, and White Castle. According to the fast food companies, Detroit is home to a total of 195 fast food restaurants.

Every company has a presence in the city. Contrary to my own expectations, Subway is actually the chain with the largest presence in the city, with 52 locations.

As the map indicates, fast food restaurants are distributed evenly across the city – no area has been spared from a fast food restaurant. (Although it does look like the west side has a bigger grease tooth than the east side.)

In fact, if you are in Detroit, you’re never more than about a 5-minute drive – 1.5 miles – from a fast food restaurant, unless you are on the southeast corner of Belle Isle.

Unfortunately, however, this problem extends far beyond Detroit’s boarders. I tracked the same restaurants in a diverse mix of eight Detroit suburbs and the City of Grand Rapids. Shockingly, Detroit is the second-most under-served municipality. I calculated the number of fast food restaurants per 5,000 residents in each city, based 2005-2009 ACS population data.

These numbers question the wisdom of the committee’s plan – why focus on reducing supply of fast food in an area that has a comparatively low supply per resident?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Space-age Transit

In honor of Metro Detroit’s ongoing transit-planning process, this is the first post in a series looking at previous transit planning efforts. Although the city has a storied – and well-documented – transit history, the city’s transit planning history remains more of a mystery.

City records suggest that Detroit’s first transit planning effort began in 1914, with a proposal by the long-defunct Board of Street Railway Commissioners for a subway along Woodward between Jefferson and Milwaukee. Subsequent Detroit transportation authorities – primarily the Rapid Transit Commission – have produced more than 20 wide-ranging plans that evolved with the city, transit technology, and public opinion. Among these plans is one of my favorites, the Miriani-era 1958 Rapid Transit System And Plan Recommended For Detroit And The Metropolitan Area.

At its core, Rapid Transit Commission’s space-age 1958 plan called for the city to construct an elaborate network of elevated, suspended “duorail” lines along the city’s arterial roadways, with spur lines along some of the outlying major east/west and north/south roadways. This system was to be built upon 28’ tall, concrete and steel “T” and inverted “L” shaped pylons that would support tracks for the large, 58’ long boat-shaped cars. As this artist’s rendering shows, the cars were to hang from the tracks, 18’ feet off the ground. Although cars were supposed to have an average speed of 40 mph along busy routes, the cars were to exceed 70 mph in outlying areas.

The plan identifies seven reasons why Detroit and its suburbs need a unified transit system, including current concerns such as reducing congestion, increasing accessibility, and encouraging compact commercial development. It’s greatest concern, however, was that the CBD was beginning to decline. As the plan notes, “…downtown valuations [assessed value] decreased by 38.5% between 1930 and 1953, and citywide valuations had no change. What is indisputably evident here is the definite and gradual decline of the property valuations not only in the central business district but also along the major commercial thoroughfares in the city.” The commission strongly believed that these space-age trains would draw people to arterial commercial zones and the CBD, and reinvigorate these areas.

This artist’s rendering is supposed to illustrate the benefits of overhead transit to the Book Cadillac area of downtown. (Please ignore the potentially illicit transaction occurring in the lower right-hand corner.)

But just how would this look for the city and the region? Based on the lists of routes and stops provided (no map was included, oddly) I’ve mapped out the system, in the London-subway-map style.

The plan does not outline the exact routes beyond the city’s boundaries, so I’ve just indicated their final destinations. What is most interesting about this plan, perhaps, is the distribution of service - the areas east of Woodward have a far greater concentration given the area's relative size and population, compared to the west side. The choices for suburban terminuses - Mt. Clemens, Pontiac, Farmington, Ypsilanti, Grosse Pointe and Rockwood - illustrate the evolution of the suburbs; today, only two of these - Mt. Clemens and Pontiac - are commonly discussed as possible transit destinations.

Today, as much as in 1958, the City of Detroit needs more transit options. Hopefully, by evaluating our past we can better plan our future.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Stay Tuned

We're famous! The wonderful folks at model D featured this blog in last week's buzz section.

I'm afraid I'm slightly tied up with work and school matters this week, so I'm unable to post, but be sure to check back next week for some new posts. I'm working hard on a post examining the decline of Detroit's bowling alleys, a Bill McGraw-suggested 1950 bar map, and a post challenging the "food desert" discourse.

In the meantime, check out Dirtbombs legend Ben Blackwell's Detroit record label map.