Regional Transit, Infrastructure, Colonialism and the Meaning of Auto/Mobility in Accra and Detroit

Sometimes my research life and my daily life intersect in surprising ways.  I realize that organizations that inspire local innovation and community engagement like Detroit Soup inspire the emergence of new Accra Soup networks in Ghana.  Or I get to meet and spend time with the Chief Justice of Ghana, Georgina Wood, when she arrives at Wayne State to negotiate long-term relationships with our Law School.

Our hosts at the July Accra Soup meeting at the Ghana Institute of Journalism.
As a historian who writes about and is interested in infrastructure, mobility, technology, urban planning, and development, it’s unsurprising that the politics I study in Accra would also manifest in Detroit.  Viewed through the lens of industrialization, Detroit and its close associations with the early history of industrial development and later post-industrial decline seems like the polar opposite of Accra, the capital of a country that provided the resources that fueled the industrialization in the West under British colonial rule and that has struggled to achieve some degree of industrialization and economic diversification in the decades since independence in 1957.  And yet, both of these cities are positioned in what political scientist Stephen Marr describes as the “urban periphery”, subject to remarkably similar development regimes that seek to address shared challenges rooted in limited resources that characterize diverse forms of global marginalization.

That is not to say that Detroit is “third world”.  Rather, it is to highlight that these divisions between “first world” and “third world”, “developed” and “undeveloped” obscure more fundamental continuities in development and planning discourse.  These “global” development ideologies–modernization, neoliberalism, etc–are often manifested in systems and policies that are heralded as solutions to development challenges and implemented in settings as diverse as Accra, Dar es Salaam, Brasilia, and DetroitAs I’ve written elsewhere, systems like Bus Rapid Transit have become one-size-fits-all solutions, implemented without serious consideration of highly localized mobility practices and values or histories of public transport infrastructure and development.  By embracing these strategies, local governments end up throwing away money on expensive systems and restructuring urban landscapes and infrastructures in ways that fail to adequately address the most pressing social and economic problems–problems that might be shaped by global processes but which are profoundly local.

This week, news in Detroit was dominated by debates about a proposed Regional Transit Plan, which would create an interconnected public transport system that crossed municipal boundaries across the four counties that comprise metro Detroit–Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, and Washtenaw (and extending as far as Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti).  The multimodal plan, which was released in early June, took a year to develop, funded by the Federal Transit Administration.  The system, which integrates existing bus systems into newer networks of commuter rail, light rail, bus rapid transit, airport express bus lines, and the 3- mile Q-Line, which is currently under construction, will cost an estimated $4.6 million.  These networks seek to connect workers, businesses, and communities across the metro area, create public transit networks in previously inaccessible areas (an issue that came to national attention last year through the story of James Robertson), and provide much-needed public transit opportunities at the Detroit Metro Airport.  Advocates hailed the plan as a much needed first step toward a reasonable public transit system that would connect the entire metro area and provide the foundation for greater and more equitable economic growth–a significant accomplishment after 26 failed attempts to create metro public transit over the last 50 years.


There are reservations about the system, which are valid–particularly those concerns about whether existing bus networks, which are already painfully inefficient, will be able to maintain adequate service expectations necessary to make this system function.  But, in debates about whether the four affected counties would support a $2.9 million millage, which would collect funds through an increase in property taxes to build and run the system, opposition to shared funding has engaged in a much different argument.  Executives in Oakland (Brooks Patterson) and Macomb (Mark Hackel) counties have opposed the millage, arguing against collective funding of a system that they insist not everyone will use.  These counties have long formed the core of opposition to a more substantive public transit system, including, most recently, the debate over the full extension of the Woodward Avenue light rail.  This time, two weeks before the deadline to put the millage on the November ballot, Patterson and Hackel rescinded their promise to back plans to fund the system.  As several people have noted, the timing of this announcement is curious, particularly given the central role they have played in negotiations about the RTA since it was created by the State Legislature in 2012.  Oakland County representatives turned in 19 pages of complaints and objections.  But the content of those grievances was curious and objectionable, not only for what they say about the particular executives involved and the interactions between the city and suburbs, which are rooted in long histories of inequality and discrimination.  But those objections also stood out for their remarkably similarity in language and logic with much older critiques of calls for public transit.

The 50-year struggle to secure public transportation in metro Detroit highlights that the local history of these logics has deep roots.  But what struck me most was the extent to which these arguments reminded me of debates about public transit in a much different time and place–the colonial Gold Coast.  In Accra and throughout the colony, British colonial officials in the first several decades of the 20th century consistently ignored public pleas for a substantive public transit system.  Much like 21st century Detroit residents, Africans in the colonial Gold Coast understood comprehensive transport networks as a necessary requirement to guarantee their full participation and success in the economic life of the colony.  For colonial officials, however, transportation infrastructure enabled the free movement of people and goods across boundaries–boundaries that were essential to colonial understandings of spatial, social, and economic segregation and the responsibilities of government.  As an “economic colony”, British officials understood infrastructure in the Gold Coast as a necessary input to transport and export primary commodities like cocoa, gold, and timber.  People who lived in rural areas or who sought to create new opportunities for themselves in ways that defied colonial expectations of defined roles and access to resources were marginalized by and excluded from infrastructure systems that British officials viewed as “lines of occupation” that should served the interests of governance. Infrastructure priorities reflected segregationist policies, which privileged urban areas over rural areas, zones of European settlement over African neighborhoods.  While European neighborhoods in the capital city, Accra, had access to high-quality roads, piped water, and electricity and European houses had indoor plumbing and large gardens, African neighborhoods even in relatively affluent communities suffered for years with unpaved roads and inadequate access to water and electricity.

When Africans complained about their lack of access to roads and petitioned for their construction and maintenance, colonial officials justified their lack of investment and their inaction on financial grounds.  Motor transport, they argued, required collective (i.e. colonial government) funding.  Whereas railways were funded through fares that effectively taxed users to compensate for the cost of construction and maintenance, motor transport users could not be easily taxed.  Constructing motor transport systems and building and maintaining roads were a wasted investment that did not pay for themselves.  Instead, they argued for a form of decentralized development, mapped onto the political system of indirect rule, in which rural areas, governed by chiefs, were largely responsible for constructing and maintaining their own roads (called “chief’s roads” or “political roads”) and creating and regulating any existing transport services (largely through the movement of wooden-sided mammy trucks).  Chiefs could raise their own taxes and mobilize labor to build this infrastructure in their own community or individuals could invest private capital in infrastructural development.  In some cases, individuals and communities did take on this task.  Akuapem people, for example, invested 47,500 pounds in a road, built by a private Italian contractor.  When other chiefs built roads to connect their villages to government-maintained trunk roads, the Governor recognized the chief’s efforts by presenting him with a car.  However, that degree of support varied greatly based on the priorities of the particular Governor in power, rather than a broader political commitment and vision (despite colonial “civilizing” rhetoric that justified colonial rule through promises to “improve” the social, cultural, political, and economic circumstances of indigenous people).  For rural people, these roads were social, economic, and cultural lifelines.  For chiefs, roads not only provided possibilities for their people but also had political implications as they sought to solidify and consolidate their authority.  In urban areas, where public transport in the form of a municipal bus system, was considered an important investment, bus routes followed major roads, drawing people from residential areas to work places, rather than reflecting the histories and cultures of mobility, sociability, and economy that were central to the spatial histories of the cities and which often predated European arrival.

ghana on the go
African entrepreneurial mobility is the subject of my forthcoming book, which features a mammy truck, driver, and passengers on its cover

In the Gold Coast, Africans often created their own infrastructure in the absence of European investment (in the financial, political, social, and cultural sense).  In Detroit, that’s likely harder for small business owners, given the high cost of technology and the extensive regulations governing public services.  What stands out more are the ways in which the same kinds of colonial logics of segregation and self-interested investment, which served to privilege elites and foreigners over working-class Africans–a logic that people widely recognize as flawed and unjust (at least if my conversations with students semester after semester are any indication)–continue to permeate our conversations about 21st century infrastructural development in a city like Detroit, which is part of a seemingly different history of urbanization, governance, and mobility.  In some ways, this is a function of capitalism, built into the very structures and systems of exchange, which shape not only our economic interactions but also the political and social and cultural structures and values that govern our lives (something that has been widely debated in this year’s presidential campaign, for example).  But the narrative of industrialization in Detroit is a narrative of relatively democratic growth, exemplified by Henry Ford’s desire to pay his worker’s enough to buy his cars and create new forms of spatial organization like suburbs that would make the car not only desirable and convenient but increasingly necessary.  The exploitative nature of capitalism is laid bare in colonial Accra in a way that is obscured by Ford’s consumerist orientation and clever marketing and the economic boom that the auto companies created and served.  The more recent history of inequality, racial tension, segregation and discrimination in Detroit, however, highlights that this narrative of industrialized democracy and democratic mobility was far more complicated in reality.  And, as the strength of the industrial economy and the opportunities that it provided for working class families has receded in Rust Belt cities like Detroit, those tensions and complications have, perhaps, been laid bare in ways that we have still not come to terms with.  Even as narratives of racial segregation and economic inequality circulate to explain why, for example, there are no extensive bus services in affluent suburbs like Birmingham or Rochester Hills.  Even as people increasingly protest what the “New Detroit” means, who is included, and who benefits.  Even as these same counties agreed to pass a millage to fund the DIA–a symbol of elite cosmopolitanism for suburban visitors (even if that is not the DIA’s mission)–but declines to fund a comprehensive regional transit system that would provide widespread economic opportunities and most predominantly benefiting working-class people.

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