Aaron Woolf doesn't deny Detroit was a mess, even before the collapse of the car industry. However, he argues that just as Detroit led the nation in transportation in the 20th century, it could be the model for the 21st century.
"Detroit is an amazing story," he says. "Detroit has lived the highest highs and the lowest lows of our transportation choices."
Woolf's film, "Beyond the Motor City," shows how Detroit was once hailed for its streetcar and railway system in the 19th century. Most of that disappeared as the city's thriving auto factories churned out cars, which reshaped the whole of America.
"I don't begrudge the construction of highways or the car monoculture. I think for the 20th century parameters it made perfect sense," he said. "When oil was $3 a barrel and those Chryslers had those fins, how could you resist? But we are in a new century."
The new century finds Detroit with huge amounts of abandoned land, sprawling suburbs with little or no bus service, and a community suffering because it has lost a sense of connection.
In the film, transit advocates argue the city has to restore itself through a mass transit system.
"This is a major infrastructure project, and our politicians want to tell us, 'Well we can't afford it. We don't have enough money.' Well, how can we not afford it?" one man says.
Of course, any transit system costs money, and the film also points out the realities of finding funding -- particularly on a federal level -- for such projects.
"Five federal agencies administer 108 transportation programs with no single agency in charge," the narrator says.
Then a policy advocate chimes in: "The system we have right now is a little like 'Lord of the Flies,'" says one expert. "Where there is no vision, no real adult supervision, so everybody is just trying to get what they want to their own Band-Aids on their own communities."
Times may be tight, but Woolf says historically similar economic distress has produced some of this country's greatest innovation and change.
"Whether it was the Great Depression, or the Second World War, or even the time before the American Revolution, this country has acted best, and in the most humane and community oriented ways when we were pinched, when we were stressed," Woolf said. "And I think we are in this place now. And I hope that this film and the conversation that ensues after reflects that sense of urgency and that sense that the moment is ours to take."
"Beyond the Motor City" is being presented at 7:30 tonight at Minnesota Film Arts at St. Anthony Main. It's sponsored by the advocacy group "Transit for Livable Communities" as part of Bike Walk Week.
The group's Policy and Advocacy Program manager Dave Van Hattum says he sees the similarities between Detroit's transportation history, and that of the Twin Cities, with the car culture serving sprawling suburbs. He also sees evidence that the Twin Cities transportation mindset is changing.
"Transit ridership is up significantly in the Twin Cities and nationally," he says. "But at the same time driving is down, and that's not just due to the economy. Something else is going on."
Van Hattum says demographic shifts for one thing. He says he hopes tonight's event will begin a larger conversation, with a longer term vision.
Both Van Hattum and Woolf say in the U.S., transit decisions tend to be made on the basis of cost and short term gains, providing immediate gratification. As a result, investment in infrastructure and its upkeep has fallen way behind. Woolf says the Twin Cities became a national example when the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed.
He says he hopes the conversation can change, however, and people can see how life can be hugely improved by smooth and efficient mass transit. He says it's easy to measure success in terms of expense. But he argues there's another, perhaps better way looking at it.
"I think what's hardest to measure is the psychology of things working. What does it feel like to live in a system, in a city, where the systems work, where the movement is efficient, where the stations are clean?"
Woolf says it's a community-changing experience, and one which is already apparent in European countries. Now he hopes it may happen in the U.S.