BLUEPRINT AMERICA “Beyond the Motor City”

BLUEPRINT AMERICA “Beyond the Motor City”

Mon, 02/08/2010 - 10:00pm

Pictured: Michigan Theatre, now a parking garage.

Credit: SNWEB.ORG Photography/Sean Doerr

Will America’s Transportation Future Be Born in Detroit — Again?

BLUEPRINT AMERICA “Beyond the Motor City, a new documentary directed by filmmaker Aaron Woolf (INDEPENDENT LENS “King Corn”), examines how Detroit, a grim symbol of America’s diminished status in the world, may come to represent the future of transportation and progress in America. The film airs Monday, February 8, 10:00-11:30 p.m. on WXXI-TV (DT21.1/cable 1011 and 11).
Narrated by BLUEPRINT AMERICA’s lead correspondent Miles O’Brien, “Beyond the Motor City” asks whether it’s time to fundamentally change the way Detroiters — and by extension all Americans — get around. Detroit is seen as the crucible in which the nation’s ability to move toward a modern 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 it was dubbed the Motor City, Detroit was home to the nation’s most extensive streetcar system. In fact, it was the 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 — which became the envy of the word.
But over the last 30 years, much of the world has moved on, choosing faster, cleaner, more modern transportation and leaving America behind.Viewers are taken on a journey beyond Detroit’s blighted urban landscape to Spain, home to one of the world’s most modern and extensive transit systems; to California, where voters recently said yes to America’s first high-speed rail system; and to Washington, where Congress will decide whether to finally push America’s transportation into the 21st century.
Washington still spends 80 percent of taxpayer dollars building roads. Detroit, perhaps more than anywhere else, has suffered the pitfalls of that policy. Yet amidst Detroit’s abandoned factories and decimated neighborhoods, the filmmakers find many people with new ideas about what a 21st-century system might look like. “If you go to Detroit today and look around, on the surface, you see a pretty dismal picture,” Woolf says. “Entire blocks of buildings are abandoned; highways are falling apart. But if you look at the city’s history, you realize that it has led the way in adapting to different forms of transportation, and if Detroit’s public transit advocates prevail, it may once again lead the way in how America gets around. I can think of no other city where the need for a complete transportation overhaul is as urgent, and that has such a wealth of resources in the auto industry’s engineering and mechanical expertise and workforce.”
BLUEPRINT AMERICA “Beyond the Motor City” shows how the auto industry, which created the transportation system that is now fraught with so many problems, is also the industry that puts Detroit in perhaps the best position to transform itself for the transportation of the future. Current and former auto industry executives explain how defunct auto manufacturing plants are being retooled to build the renewable energy components that will be the building blocks of the new transportation system.
Using CGI animation combined with current footage of Detroit, the film brings the vision of the city’s possible transportation future to life in a sequence depicting a commuter’s ride into the city: He drives an energy-efficient electric “shared” car from his home in the suburbs, purchases a rail ticket from an onboard computer in his car and boards a train that takes him from the suburbs into the city. A network of trains within the city center, running along main thoroughfares, is available to take him to points of interest.
Of course, none of that has happened. O’Brien, who grew up in suburban Detroit, says he’s saddened every time he returns to the Motor City and sees “the ruins of a once great city.” In working on “Beyond the Motor City,” he learned how a new transportation system could play a vital role in rebuilding the city.