Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Imagine Flint Without I-475

The humble beginnings of what was once called the Buick Freeway. With no more Buick, does Flint still need the freeway? (Photo courtesy of Thomas Wirt)

I hear a lot of valid complaints about I-475 whenever I return to Flint. It chopped up neighborhoods; demarcated downtown from the cultural center area; and all but eliminated some traditionally black sections of town. (Disclosure: The construction site did provide a fantastically dangerous place to play as a kid.) Today, the worst blight in the city is found along the I-475 corridor.

I couldn't help wondering if all the stimulus money currently being used to repair the highway wouldn't be better spent eliminating parts of it instead. This is purely anecdotal, but it didn't seem like it was getting a lot of use. I-475 felt like a ghost highway within the Flint city limits.

The idea is not unprecedented. San Francisco, Milwaukee and Portland have all removed major urban highways.

The San Francisco waterfront before and after the double-decker Embarcadero Freeway.

The Sheridan Expressway in the South Bronx might be next. Sam Dolnick of The New York Times reports:

The Sheridan carries roughly 50,000 vehicles a day, according to state officials. It provides a route for truckers to reach the major food distribution center in Hunts Point but also acts as a physical barrier between local residents and the Bronx River. 
Removing the Sheridan would open up 13 acres of open space along the river, land that advocates want to connect with some 15 other acres of service roads and riverfront property to create 1,200 affordable housing units, commercial and industrial space, and amenities like playgrounds, swimming pools and soccer fields. 
“This proposal is really rooted in the environmental justice battles that low-income communities have been fighting for decades,” said Joan Byron of the Pratt Center for Community Development, a member of the campaign to remove the Sheridan. “If you look at globally competitive cities, they’re all looking at the spaces they gave over to highways decades ago, and they’re rethinking those decisions.”
I'd love to hear from some Flint residents about the role the highway plays in the city in 2010. How often do you use it? What would happen if it were gone? Traffic patterns matter, of course, but there are also the psychological implications; would this be viewed as another sign that Flint is disappearing from the map?


  1. Wow - I use 475 almost daily; I live off of Court Street. The construction has impacted my daily travel immensely. I would definitely miss it if it were gone. Also, I do think it would make it seem like more of Flint was "disappearing".

  2. Thanks. Just curious what your commute would look like in terms of route and time if the highway wasn't there? Would you have to drive to Miller or Coruna Roads to get to 75, or is there a quicker route I'm forgetting?

  3. Are you kidding? Alot of people heading north on I-75 take I-475 to avoid the bottleneck situation heading through Flint on I-75.

  4. So it's a convenient cut through for non-Flint residents heading from locations south to locations north? How does this help Flint in any way?

  5. Actually, if you were to completely replace I-75 with I-475, and take apart I-75, say from Bristol Road through Coldwater Road, you might have a chance of salvaging something of Flint as a city with a real core. I-75 as designed helped to kill downtown flint....

  6. Never thought of this option. Why does I-75 seem harder to eliminate than I-475...not that either one is likely to disappear.

  7. I agree with the above Anonymous poster. I also live off Court Street and 475 is the quickest way to get anywhere north or south. Taking 69 to 75 or Corunna to 75 is a GIANT pain.

  8. Appreciate the feedback. Without asking anyone to actually go out in their car and time it, how giant is the pain in terms of time and distance? I'm not disagreeing but I'm curious to know what the difference might be. So let's say you live off East Court and are headed to the outlet mall in Birch Run. Let's say you had to drive to the Miller Rd entrance to I-75 instead of the 475 entrance near Robert T. Are we talking 10 minutes extra? 45 minutes?

    Also, how significant is the role of 475 for trips within Flint or even Genesee County? Or is it mainly a way to get out of town?

    Thanks for any feedback.

  9. I attend Mott, and I live north in Frankenmuth. I use 475 frequently in getting to and from school. However, I do own more than one vehicle, and when I take my gas guzzling old truck to school, I usually take Dort Hwy or other "back" roads to get to school. Shooting down Dort is just as fast as taking the expressway, so really it wouldn't affect me too much if it was gone.

    Now this is of course going the speed limit. It's hard to get away with doing 90 on Dort highway.

  10. I would actually love to see them extend I-475, so that it would loop beyond its current southern terminal at I-75 in Grand Blanc Township, and would extend to US-23, probably in Fenton.

  11. It's a big pain. Depending on time of day, it's 10-20 minutes extra just to get to 75. And the 69/75 split is routinely clogged, so you can look at another 15-30 minutes (more in some cases) just to get through it. That's why you'd take Dort (or Saginaw) north to Birch Run.

    You can't tear it out because it's needed for all the grand plans everyone's got to make Flint a manufacturing/intermodal hub... Ironically, the same folks are saying that our glut of infrastructure isn't enough, and have a massive I-475 expansion plan/study in the works that will connect it south to US-23.

    I like the suggestion of abandoning 75 between the splits. It's got some interesting potential. Personally, 475 doesn't present any real great opportunities for Flint the way removing the Alaskan viaduct does for Seattle (you should check that out, they're in the process of getting RFP's), or the Embarcadero did for San Francisco, and Toronto is looking at this as well. These are predominantly issues of regaining water fronts. Flint's waterfront wasn't lost with 475. Significant neighborhoods were and you can't just bring those back the way you can a waterfront.

    I think, if stripped of it's overly sanitized and elite shroud, the High Line is a better example of what's possible. We need to start layoring the bloody hell out of our infrastructure and add pedestrian networks, food production, sewage treatment, energy generation, carbon capture, rain water storage, and a whole whack of other things we've not thought up yet.

  12. I live in Mt Morris and attend classes at UMF. If I take I-475 (@ Saginaw street to Longway)the total time is about 7 minutes (depending on traffic lights) from driveway to parking lot. If I take Saginaw st. north and avoid I-475, I am looking at 16-18 minutes (it's less than half the speed and the traffic lights don't coordinate). For me, spending 2 to 3 times the time and all the stop-and-go traffic with the lights, I-475 is much easier on me. I do feel bad about isolating the north end of flint that seems to constantly get crapped on. If Saginaw could go up to 45MPH and the lights were timed better maybe it would help?

  13. It wouldn't actually make much difference. I live at Bristol and 475 and travel regularly to saginaw, Port Huron, Lansing and Detroit. It really does not make a lot of difference whether you take 475 or 69 to 75. If anything, going north 475 is longer since it head straight north and then straight west instead of the angle 75 has.

    Probably should just take everything 3 blocks on each side of 475 out and plant grass, no big loss.

    also Gordy, did you see the Flint Journal linked this article.

  14. Those other examples (S.F., Milwaukee, and Portland) don't seem to apply as precedents. I-475 isn't damaged by an earthquake, underutilized, unfinished, or particularly reviled. Looking at the map, the placement of I-475 can be seen to impact the city positively for both commerce and convenience, no matter whether coming, going, or just passing through.

    Lacking the time to crunch numbers for alternate routes, I submit a vote for "sorely missed" if it were gone, just based on experience from before it was there or when there is construction.

    It would be neat to have a time-machine and compare driving around greater Flint Pre-I-475/I-69 and now. Maybe the "Pre" version would have more sense of community, but it would be a bigger hassle to get around.

  15. I worked at the tech center for a while and commuted from the tri-cities. there wasn't really an advantage to take either 475 or 75 to 69 to get to atherton road. personal preferences. the timing was minimal, less than five minutes difference from the north.

    475 was always empty whereas 75 had moderate traffic. agreed that flint could use only one main highway and the need for both is dwindling.

  16. As some one who has lived on the south end of 475 for years, I used 475 daily to commute to UMFlint and anything else that I did in the downtown areas. To take another route almost doubled my commute time and that was if I didn't get stopped by every light. I loved that I could jump on 475 and be there in 10 minutes or less. And I hated dealing with construction. Having recently moved and graduated I don't use 475 as often but I do still use it to avoid traffic on 75 whether I am headed north or south. And I tend to agree with another commenter that 75 has actually done more to the down turn in Flint than 475. But you are right nothing will be done to either but it is fun to think about. I like to dream about what it was like to really travel without the use of the expressway system and one day I will do this.

  17. "New York," "riverfront," and "affordable housing" do not go in the same sentence. ;-) Anytime you see someone write "affordable housing" in NY that is a joke.

    I-475 is a ghost highway. I've often been the only car on it. As you stated it was built to accommodate the Buick (and to some degree Chevrolet) traffic, which is all gone.

    I say leave it, and entice some major delivery companies to invest in the $.02 cents an acre Flint real estate. Bring some distribution warehouses to Flint! No cheaper real estate in America!

    Amazon, UPS, anyone?!!?

  18. I live in the southern part of Grand Blanc and every day I travel into downtown Flint via I-475 (church is there, work is there, school is there, family lives there....and wizeguys!!) When northbound was closed, I had to take Saginaw Street from Holly Road all the way up to Court. It would add 10-15 minutes (one way) onto my trip every day. With other people taking that route, the roads were busier and slower. Plus the general speed is 35 mph and there are a ton of intersections that you get stuck at.

    I also like that if I'm in a hurry I can hop on 475 south to 75 when I need to get to the hospital or the movie theater or something. I'm glad to get off city streets and away from the main portion of moron drivers, slow moving cars, traffic lights, and limited speeds.

    I don't mind that 475 cuts thru Flint. Not ragging on anyone, but the gap it makes in our city is the least of our worries. It doesn't bother me but then I don't live down there and wasn't around pre-475, so I can't really say.

    Great article!!

  19. Seattle is removing the Viaduct, a huge, winding, double-decker highway that snakes along the waterfront. It's removal will create some of most expensive real estate in the nation.


    To Gordie's point - this is being done all the time.

  20. Not to knock anyone who uses I-475 and relies on it, but the real question would be "how many people use it and rely upon it?" I used to take I-475 on my morning commute every day, and never once did it even appear busy, let alone like there's a rush hour. I agree about the bottleneck at I-75 and I-69, but it would make more sense to sort out that intersection than to continue maintaining a huge length of highway that really serves no purpose.

    That said, would removing I-475 do anything to help Flint? I don't think anything is going to help Flint (unless it rides in on the coattails of some unimaginable miracle of revitalization that reinvigorates the whole of southeast Michigan). The state does not have the leadership nor the resources necessary to save this place. And I don't see anyone else coming up with any great ideas.

    I think our best bet at this point is to start from scratch and rethink the idea of Flint altogether. And maybe that means we rethink I-475.

  21. If Flint could make the I-475 redevelopment area half as nice as they did in San Francisco, I think all Flint residents would support it!!!

  22. I agree with the concept of removing 75 instead, and making the 475 corridor the new 75. This would bring a boom to the city that would be immeasurable compared to any conceivable alternative dream. Flint's remaining businesses are almost uniformly service industry as it stands, and nothing other than the reputation of the city making people avoid stopping would harm it.

    Signs could be enhanced pointing the cultural center and downtown restaurants at each exit. Businesses would thrive at the Hill Road exit, Bristol Road, Atherton, 12th, Longway,Hamilton, Dort/Stewart, probably not Pierson because the designer of that exit should be shot, Carpenter, Saginaw, etc. Of those only Hill and Bristol have much life, Hill is half empty spaces as it is, and Bristol could be killed by the move of one church, that entire stretch is a dead zone much life the Gulf of Mexico is becoming.

    The biggest problem is that 75 is ALSO US23, and since they never connected it to 475, the entire concept becomes a pipe dream.

    1. Yes it killed a whole entire section of Flint. They abandoned the downtown riverfront project. They killed a entire city. Now all the thinkers and doers are passed on and we have to rethink and rebuild. They tore down the city and forgot to rebuild it. It wasn't alway like this.....👀

  23. When hubby had a job, he would take I475 to meet me after work coming from Oakland County. I was usually at the Hurley Health and Fitness Center on Saginaw at Hemphill and we would decided our fate in the city from there. (he had a membership and used it twice in one year ;( I always hated that stretch of road because it seemed so sad (and was downright dangerous in winter), with no real development or much of any signs of life. I sometimes took it north if I69 was messed up and got off at the Shelby exit to take Pierson across town to avoid the 175 bottleneck especially on holidays or Fridays during summer-this was only from the Hemphill area however. Or I got off at Broadway exit to go visit my mom off Hamilton and Dupont. I would have loved to see a better connection to the west side of the county as the ride to the east side meant either taking 75 to 69 seemed so convoluted. Especially from Flushing. I never ever heard of 475 referred to as the Buick Freeway. It was always the UAW freeway to me. Arent there still signs up saying that? I did a race back in the early eighties, and it was called the UAW Love Run 10K and it was run on the freeway at Labor Day Weekend. (whoever thought running on cement was a good idea is nuts!). Hubby still uses the stretch to get to east side as my brother lives there, but I tend to use Pierson or Carpenter straight across to get to the dam area unless there is construction.

    Question for Shawn Chittle...are you in any way related to the Chittles that lived on Kirk Ave off Concord in Flint?

  24. Slightly off topic...

    I used to listen to the police band scanner. The Vice Squad has interesting code names for various roads and places.

    475 is routinely called "the Ditch" (because of it's depth) and Dort Highway is called "the Music" (after the Music Center)

    See, you DO learn something every day.

  25. Along the same lines, the area behind Applegate Chevrolet is known as "The Village" by the Applegate employees.

    And the more I look at that photo of the Embarcadero Freeway in SF, the more astounded I am that it was ever allowed to be built. In a strange way, it's proof that things really can change in cities.

  26. i think it depends on which side of flint you live on. If you live west of flint, I -475 probably doesnt help you much. But living on the north end or east side like myself I dont use I 75 hardly at all, i rarely maybe twice a year go to miller road. There is so much traffic especially when people are coming and going from up north. Unless you are in your 50's or older you probably dont even remember Flint without I475 and have become acustom to using it and unless you work downtown or go to college downtown most people in the suburbs dont go to flint and getting rid of the highway isnt going to bring more people downtown.

    Fix the crime rate first if you want more people to visit downtown Flint. You may not have Buick anymore but now you have the colleges and the highway is still much needed.

  27. I work on the road, and when I'm routed in Flint, we use 475 nearly every time. Granted, I don't agree with how the freeway was routed (destroying neighborhoods and historical homes downtown), but I think it's a useful tool. I can't imagine trying to get anywhere quickly by taking Dort Highway, or Saginaw Street especially. It may be 'empty' a lot of the time, but that's perfect for the racers who use it as a dragstrip. I'd miss it.

  28. Some practical points:

    1. As others have noted, the neighborhoods are gone and can't be recreated. Removal of 475 wouldn't do anything positive other than employ some construction folks for a year.

    2. At the federal political level, funds for 475 maintenance are reliably available. Funds to tear it out would be hard to get...there's no annual line item for federal highway removal.

    3. Those southeastern Michigan construction folks who live on federal-highway maintenance funding would uniformly line up against the concept that we should tear out a federal highway, whatever the reason. The construction lobby has friends and makes campaign donations.

    4. At the local political level, any such proposal would be a non-starter. There just wouldn't be any voter support for a large expenditure of taxpayer money with the goal of improving matters within the City limits. Many suburban voters consider the City of Flint to be poorly managed, socially dysfunctional and economically hopeless.

    5. There's an excess supply of large urban brownfields in the Midwest. Removal of 475 would pretty much assure that the Buick City property would be unmarketable and would never be used again, since modern truck logistics requires immediate expressway access.

  29. I take 475 to downtown everyday. I live just off the I75 Mt. Morris exit and it is 15 minutes from my home to the office - door to door. I drive 80 mph the whole way between 7:30 an 8:30am; if you even touch the breaks it is a congested day. This is great for me, but 475 is way under used for its design.

    I think my commute would at least double if I had to take an alternative rout; but that is just a guess, since I almost never take an alternative rout.

  30. 475 isn't always jammed, but it isn't always "empty", either. If anecdotal evidence of volume is the measurement for removing freeways, we could tear 3/4 of them out around the U.S. tomorrow. The amount of infrastructure still available, in this case 475, should be an advantage in the future.

    If 475 did disappear, no offense, but what exactly would we want to beautify at that cost, anyway? The near absence of interesting geographical features? The slush in January?

    The freeway did eliminate whole neighborhoods, but what's left in a lot of areas is half eliminated now by abandonment - lack of housing is not an issue.

  31. Boston didn't eliminate a highway but buried it. When the Southeast Expressway was built, it obliterated historic neighborhoods and was a congested eyesore for decades. It's still congested but the city has reclaimed space. I traveled to and fro on 475 to get to high school and UMFlint as well as east/west destinations on 69 many years ago and still prefer it to 75 when I get back to Michigan. It always seems that 75 is in a state of crumbling decay, particularly around the airport - why is that?

  32. meh, I live in Fenton (used to live in Flint) and went to UM. I didn't find 475 closing that bad because I would just take 23 to 69 or when 23/75 was bad I would just go up Linden to 69. Its not that much slower because, unlike LA or the bay area, I can go 55mph or faster on most of the roads I take to into Flint.

  33. The reason I-75 had such a profound effect was and continues to be the fact that there are no exits between Corunna Rd. and Pierson Rd. That is a huge stretch in such a developed area.

  34. I bless your optimism Gordon, but are you serious? What the heck would Flint get but more vacant areas. Its not like there is a shortage of open space there any longer. Have you been there recently? Drive down Detroit St (that's what it once was, it might be MLK now). They have torn down so many houses that its almost more rural than the Flushing area. Chevy in the Hole is a huge blank along the waterfront and they cannot even make use of it. There's plenty to develop without making another dirt spot.

  35. Just revisiting this post after visiting Flint twice in the past year and staying at a friend's place in Grand Blanc. I now see the merits of 475. I would take Saginaw in and out of town when I was in for some sightseeing, but otherwise it was 475 for me.

  36. 475 ruined my old neighborhood just north of Fisher Body #1, not that mean income was all that high to start with. I-475 was meant to provide a conduit for trucks to get parts (mostly bodies by Fisher) to Buick City. Before that the car carriers would take city streets (Remember that?) Its construction coincided with an improved version of I-69, which used to be a simple two-lane affair that took you to Perry Corners and beyond. A lot of factors helped pull Flint down and I-475 sure didn't help. I miss the good old Flint.

  37. to remove I 475 would be a very stupid and costly move. call it the "auto world of expressway" moves to remove it.


Thanks for commenting. I moderate comments, so it may take a while for your comment to appear. You might enjoy my book about Flint called "Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City," a Michigan Notable Book for 2014 and a finalist for the 33rd Annual Northern California Book Award for Creative NonFiction. Filmmaker Michael Moore described Teardown as "a brilliant chronicle of the Mad Maxization of a once-great American city." More information about Teardown is available at www.teardownbook.com.