Heal the Rust Belt, Heal the World

As America seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, policy-makers need to understand that not all our cities face the same opportunities or challenges.

The form of the built environment – the shape of our cities and towns – is directly related to our consumption of energy and our impact on the climate (PDF). People who live in areas where walking, biking and transit are viable means of transportation – and where car trips, when they happen, are shorter – produce less carbon pollution in their daily lives than residents of more sprawling areas.

Over the last decade, America’s trajectory toward ever-greater suburban expansion has slowed. Cities such as New York, Boston, Denver and Seattle are experiencing an urban boom; in other places, suburban development has angled toward “live/work/play” arrangements in which a car may still be necessary, but is likely to be used a little less.

There is a problem, though. Demand for walkable living in a high-quality urban environment is outstripping supply in a growing number of places. Housing prices in the urban neighborhoods of “hot” cities are skyrocketing, leaving many who might otherwise prefer to live a lower-carbon lifestyle on the outside looking in.

The ongoing battle between housing NIMBYs (not in my backyard) and YIMBYs (yes in my backyard) in places like the San Francisco Bay Area can be relied upon to light up the interwebs on a daily basis. But the world is not the Bay Area. And all of us would do well not to lose sight of what’s happening in a different set of cities, cities where what we now call “walkable urbanism” once existed on a grand scale: the cities of the Rust Belt.

It is hard for those of us who grew up in recent decades to imagine it, but Rust Belt cities once loomed large in the nation’s urban life. In the 1950 Census, Detroit was the nation’s fifth-largest city, followed immediately by Baltimore, Cleveland and St. Louis. Pittsburgh was 12th, Milwaukee 13th, Buffalo 15th. Today, Detroit is still the most populous of those cities, but it is only the 18th largest in the country. Its population has dropped by more than 1 million.

It is also hard to recall that, from roughly 1950 to 1980, there was not a great deal separating the trajectory of Rust Belt cities and some of the cities we now consider beacons of urban resurgence. All were hollowed out to some degree by urban renewal and carved apart by highways. All saw people and jobs migrate out of the city to the suburbs, the flow of capital channelized by redlining and government policies. Boston saw its population fall by 30 percent between 1950 and 1980 – during that same period, Pittsburgh and Cleveland lost 37 percent of their population, Detroit 35 percent. Even Seattle and San Francisco lost population between 1960 and 1980.

It was with deindustrialization in the 1980s, however, that the fortunes of these two sets of cities began to diverge. The dark year of 1982 looms large in my childhood memories as a kid growing up outside Pittsburgh. It was the year when my friends’ dads who were still working in the mills, or in businesses that supplied the mills, got laid off for the last time. By January 1983, the unemployment rate in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area hit an astonishing 17.1 percent. In industrial Beaver County, just down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh, it hit 27 percent. It was a time of desperate protest, existential malaise, suicide, mass departures from the region in search of work, and government cheese.

It also locked into place the handcuffs from which Pittsburgh, among other cities, still struggles to escape. When your city loses half of its population and a large chunk of its industry, it loses tax base and political clout. It does not, however, lose the need to maintain the infrastructure built, and fulfill the pension liabilities incurred, by previous generations of leaders. The cycle of decline, in which the departure of people and businesses leads to collapsed property values and declining municipal services, prompting further departures, repeats over and over until, in some communities, there is very little left.

To be fair, many Rust Belt cities did themselves few favors by funneling money into poorly thought-out economic redevelopment schemes, but even those cities that seem to have figured it out recently – such as Pittsburgh – continue to struggle against this dynamic. For all its recent success and “Portland East” buzz, the city of Pittsburgh remains to this day under fiscal supervision by the state of Pennsylvania. In parts of Pittsburgh and neighboring mill towns, the level of housing abandonment is positively Detroit-esque – as of a few years ago, for example, nearly one in four houses in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood was abandoned.

The newly built suburbs of Rust Belt cities faced few of the cities’ structural problems in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and, as a result, could provide better services and higher quality of life to those seeking to flee the cities. And so you now wind up, decades later, with the perverse result of a metro area like Cleveland – its population stagnant for years – having vastly expanded its physical footprint, leaving it not only with more traffic and pollution, but also with even more physical infrastructure to maintain in the decades to come.

Last week, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf spoke the truth when he said that “the public policy environment in Pennsylvania, and in most places in the United States, is absolutely, positively hostile to cities.” “If we actually had a level playing field,” Wolf said, “the cities would do quite well.”

Transportation policy reform can’t level the playing field entirely, but it can help give cities in the Rust Belt and elsewhere a fighting chance.

Perhaps the most important change is to simply stop making matters worse for our cities by plowing ever-wider roads through their centers. Even the U.S. Department of Transportation now acknowledges the deep damage done to urban communities by highway construction in the mid-20th century. Yet, as we’ve documented in two Highway Boondoggles reports, states continue to propose widening freeways in Detroit, Milwaukee and other Rust Belt cities, despite stagnating regional populations, at tremendous public expense.

Most Rust Belt cities need more highway infrastructure like the winner of a hot dog eating contest needs a celebratory post-match banquet. What those cities need – desperately – is money to fix the infrastructure they already have, to build better balanced transportation networks (often by repurposing existing underused transportation assets), and to restore and augment the bus service that was slashed in the wake of the Great Recession.

Rust Belt cities could also use help in making the most of the new wave of shared mobility services. Hipsters and tech bros in San Francisco and Boston might really like their Ubers, but working class and poor people in our cities need access to the kind of reliable, convenient, affordable transportation that shared mobility can provide. The private sector – for all the welcome innovation it has brought to the scene – is unlikely to prioritize serving these neighborhoods any time soon. It is going to be up to cities, community organizations, non-profits, small businesses and philanthropies to find ways to tap the potential of these new tools, and break the cycle by which our poorest citizens in our most economically disadvantaged cities are forced into an exploitative world of subprime debt just to be able to afford the car they need to hold a job.

What could revived Rust Belt cities do for energy consumption and the climate over the next few decades? Minimally, revival could stop the bleeding of people and capital from city centers to suburbs in otherwise stagnant regions, limiting further sprawl and enabling people within those cities to retain access to viable, low-carbon lifestyles. Somewhat better would be if those cities come to capture a greater share of the growth occurring within those regions over the next few decades.

Even better would be if Rust Belt cities were to regain their economic dynamism and quality of life, providing a viable option for people priced out of places like Brooklyn or San Francisco and expanding access to low-carbon urban lifestyles to millions more people of all income levels. Is it far-fetched to think that, by 2050, the cities of the Rust Belt could be revived? Think back to what the future of, say, New York or Washington, D.C., looked like circa 1980. Sometimes that which appears “impossible” at a given moment really does happen.

As America seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, policy-makers need to understand that not all our cities face the same opportunities or challenges. In our upcoming report, A New Way Forward, we explore how metropolitan areas with divergent histories, economies and transportation systems might approach the challenge of decarbonizing transportation.

The cities of the Rust Belt may well approach that task differently than big coastal cities or the cities of the Sun Belt. Eliminating systemic policy biases that keep Rust Belt cities hemmed in may well be one of the best things we can do to help those cities – and the country – build a more sustainable urban transportation system for the future.

Previous posts in this series:

1. We Can Do It: A Zero-Carbon Transportation System Is Possible

2. Achieving the Impossible: Unlocking the Power of Transformation

3. Can Old Cooks Learn New Recipes? Technology, Institutional Change and Green Transporation


Tony Dutzik

Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.