Untokening Detroit Showed Why Mobility Justice Advocates Need to Think Intersectionally

Detroit's new QLine streetcar, which runs a relatively short downtown route and gets low ridership, reflects a planning process that ignored the needs of everyday transit riders. Photo: Lynda Lopez
Detroit's new QLine streetcar, which runs a relatively short downtown route and gets low ridership, reflects a planning process that ignored the needs of everyday transit riders. Photo: Lynda Lopez

This past week was the third annual The Untokening convening, a gathering meant to center the lived experiences of marginalized identities and communities while exploring mobility justice and equity. Last year, I attended the one in Los Angeles and it was one of the first times I had been in a space to explore transportation justice with a group of folks who were mostly people of color, which was particularly impactful for me. It allowed me to further consider who is prioritized in conversations about transportation, and how that influences the conclusions that are reached.

When I heard that The Untokening was happening in Detroit this year, I thought it made a lot of sense to hold this unique gathering in a city with so much history around transportation and as a significant place for black history in America. What could we learn about mobility justice from a place called “The Motor City?” Driving around Detroit, you see the legacy of the automobile industry, since highway construction hollowed out the entire city, making it a particularly unfriendly place for pedestrians and transit riders. You also see the legacy of segregation, disinvestment, and the housing crisis. As I thought about that history and its continuing legacy, I was compelled to consider how sustainable transportation could play a role in helping Detroiters rebuild their city in a just and equitable manner.

Like many U.S. cities Detroit was carved up by highways during the Urban Renewal era. Photo: Lynda Lopez
Like many U.S. cities, Detroit was carved up by highways during the Urban Renewal era. Photo: Lynda Lopez

Because these issues are so obvious in Detroit, holding The Untokening there underscored the need to think about transportation equity in terms of all the other social justice struggles that intersect with it. You don’t have to know the history of the city to realize that something has gone wrong when majority-Black neighborhoods are dotted with abandoned homes, while the downtown experiences massive redevelopment. One major player in redevelopment is billionaire Dan Gilbert, who was a key backer of the QLine streetcar, a project that prioritized the interests and preferences of the well-connected over the needs of everyday residents.

Throughout The Untokening, we heard Detroiters speak about their transit system but, importantly, they didn’t just talk about the bus. They highlighted the fact that Detroit is a majority-black city (82 percent African-American according to the 2010 Census) with a legacy of racism that permeates it to this day. This candor was important because to have an honest conversation about equity in Detroit or anywhere else, we have to be very honest about the historical legacies of our cities and the continuing racial dynamics that impact people’s lives.

In Detroit, you can’t remove a conversation about transportation from the fact that it’s a majority-Black city. This point came up throughout the weekend. One panelist spoke about the continuing stigma of not having a car and the perception of the buses as being “where scary Black people are,” as she put it. Some of the points were difficult to hear, as they reveal a painful reality, but they were a crucial part of allowing Detroiters to share their experiences and perceptions of transit and how to move it forward. They are the only ones who can legitimately frame their experiences on the bus.

Participants brainstormed a definition of mobility justice. Photo: Lynda Lopez
Participants brainstormed a definition of mobility justice. Photo: Lynda Lopez

One speaker talked about loving the bus system in Detroit, but noted that the network is sorely underfunded. She alluded to the uncaring attitude of city officials, but noted that as parts of Detroit experiences redevelopment and attracts new people, there could be more interest in properly funding transit. To me, this raised the question of why it often takes an influx of new people, predominately white and wealthier, before long-underserved communities see investment. And how do we make sure that improved transit access in Detroit and other places benefits longtime residents, rather than largely serving the interests of newcomers and more privileged people? It’s an important question to consider, because in many cities, including Chicago, transit-oriented development has become associated with gentrification and displacement.

Despite acknowledging the shortfalls of their public transit system, Detroiters at different Untokening sessions also voiced their appreciation for it. “I love our bus system. It’s so well designed. It’s just not funded well,” one woman said. Another dismissed the QLine streetcar as being useless to regular Detroiters, but said the bus system “has a strong design.”

I thought it was interesting to hear people talk about the many downsides of Detroit transit, while also acknowledging its value. I think that’s where the real potential for transit equity lies. There are people that rely on public transportation, who appreciate it despite its shortcomings.

All of them spoke from their experiences riding the bus, and I think that’s the key takeaway. How do we center the lived experiences of people who actually rely on public transportation in the planning process to create a more equitable transit future? Listening to the stories of regular people navigating their city is one way to start to figure that out.

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  • I think I biked past the same monstrous highway infrastructure that’s shown in your second photo. I was biking from Corktown to the old Central Station and on to Mexican Town (which I didn’t believe was a real name, so I had to visit it to check it out).

    It disgusted me how much driving infrastructure was built in Detroit, and continues to be built.

  • Todd Scott

    Detroit’s Black majority is much more of a direct legacy of the automobile industry than the city’s land use patterns. Most of Detroit was built when it operated one of the country’s largest municipal transit systems, which the auto industry supported.

  • Carter O’Brien

    This is a tough challenge when it comes to environmental justice issues in the Rust Belt in general. POC inherited formerly-thriving industrial neighborhoods that are a shell of what they once were in terms of jobs and walkability.You would not recognize my old neighborhood in Lake View today, when I was a kid the intersection of Lincoln, George and Lakewood was in the middle of numerous meat packing and chicken processing plants, and in general the train line that served Lakewood supported numerous industries all the way from the Clybourn Corridor up past Belmont. When the train stopped running that was basically the beginning of a slow but steady decline of those factories and plants, as well as many of my neighbors, who all walked to work and supported corner taverns and mom and pop grocery stores and other businesses. In that case the location was attractive for developers due to the L, Wrigley Field, relatively close proximity to the lakefront, etc. But other parts of Chicago and the Midwest haven’t been as fortunate.

    This is where the financial incentives to encourage the move to the suburbs really hurts, both in terms of sprawl and an unsustainable road network and commuting challenges, but also in terms of redlining and how minority communities were literally shut out of that process. Detroit seems uniquely screwed as they were way too overdependent on that one single industry, Daley does deserve some credit for trying to diversify the City’s larger economy amidst globalization forces.

  • David P.

    Yes, it really is called Mexicantown. The photo appears to have been taken from the pedestrain overpass connecting the north and south sides of the neighborhood. Not sure which driving infrastructure you’re referring to that continues to be built – other than new border-related interchange construction, highway infrasturcture has been static for decades. MDOT has an insane plan to widen I-94 through the city, but I’m not sure where that stands. Hopefully dead. There is a real possibility that the I-375 spur into downtown will be boulevardized in the near future.


    Daley (J.) also deserves some credit for the destruction of integrated neighborhoods for urban renewal projects like UIC and the Congress Expressway. Furthermore, his pet project, the Dan Ryan, segregated Bronzeville from his hood, Bridgeport- the widest highway in the world at the time. ‘American Pharoah’ is a great book that enumerates his ‘accomplishments’.

  • Carter O’Brien

    I was actually referring to Richard M., I think it’s pretty obvious to everyone that Richard J. was a lover of concrete and asphalt. That said, I’m not sure the neighborhoods you mentioned qualify as integrated in the sense of the word as used today, Chicago’s ethnic and racial segregation goes back to the days of pushing out the native tribes, WASPs and the Know Nothing party. If you’re talking about socially and economically integrated in terms of residential, manufacturing and commercial land use, that I’d agree with 100%. One of the worst trends in Chicago in my lifetime is the relentless advent of the strip mall and the Big Box and other chain stores that gentrification has brought. I seriously have to stop and shake my head in disbelief at times when I read all of these posts which tend to revolve around the topic of people not being able or willing to walk more than 5m to do anything; be it to shop, get to the train, etc. Less than a mile = totally walkable. Everybody walked everywhere when I was a kid!!! I was riding a bike to school on the streets in the early 80s. It’s no coincidence how as a society we’ve grown more sedentary and unhealthy IMO.

    *Quick edit just to add that American Pharaoh is a must-read. Boss gets all the love due to Royko’s inimitable wit, but American Pharaoh has more meat to it. “We Don’t Want Nobody that Nobody Sent” is also right up there, and “Street Signs Chicago: Neighborhood and Other Illusions of Big City Life” may be the best book ever that nobody has ever heard of. In the latter, the authors were chronicling gentrification in Pilsen in the 1970s!