Take Shape, v. 2: Commute
Journal Article, 2018

In response to a call for articles addressing the daily commute, I wrote an article that discusses two radical infrastructure projects for Detroit designed in the early 1970s by the architect Gunnar Birkerts. I offered these projects as models for the kind of visionary thinking that is increasingly necessary after decades of deferred maintenance and disinvestment has decimated transit infrastructure in some cities. They show that the infrastructure and transportation systems we have inherited are in no way inevitable—opportunities for dramatic rethinking do arise, and we must capitalize on them if we want to create more equitable and appealing urban environments. The seemingly imminent rise of autonomous vehicles offers exactly this kind of opportunity, and these projects show how radical we can and should be, particularly in chronically underserved cities like Detroit. Both Birkerts projects were in a sense “driverless.” They freed commuters from the tyranny of other drivers—by relocating them underground, or by raising commuting lines above the fray. In recent years, autonomous vehicles have captured imaginations and investment dollars, and Detroit is again an important location for technological testing. But despite the long history of driverless technology and debate about transit priorities, this testing has so far been framed both ahistorically and apolitically. The article revisited two forgotten cases, hoping to reopen possibilities long foreclosed by political “realism.” The visionary alternatives these projects offered remain potent images for radical urbanists.

Scale Model of Gunnar Birkerts and Associates’ Dual Mode Transit Study for Detroit. Photograph by Balthazar Korab.