Southwest Detroit resident Yaneth Gutiérrez is fed up with the chronic truck traffic in her residential neighborhood.
“These trucks are really plaguing our neighborhood,” said Gutiérrez. “I’m nervous to have my children walk to school just a few blocks away because large semi-trucks are constantly speeding in the area. My family chose to live in this home because it is walking distance to schools, parks and grocery stores but it almost feels like we aren’t allowed to be walking on our own sidewalks.”
Diesel exhaust is akin to tobacco smoke, according to one scientific paper that reviews the science linking diesel exposure to increased airway responsiveness and greater bronchoconstriction in non-asthmatic and asthmatic people.
Detroiters suffer from asthma at a disproportionate rate — the adult asthma rate in the city is double that of the state, and asthma hospitalization rates are triple. Asthma-related mortality in the city is more than double the average for the state of Michigan.
Despite decades of concern from residents, every day hundreds of semi-trucks speed, idle and emit dangerous pollutants on residential streets in Southwest Detroit, the result of historical zoning, international trade and according to residents, a general disregard for the safety and health of the lower-income Black and brown Detroiters who live there. But many locals say they will continue to fight for their community, their homes and their dignity.
Deb Sumner, a lifelong Southwest resident and community organizer, said she and her neighbors have been asking state and city governments to address the issue for more than 40 years. “Don’t think we as the community haven’t been asking the city for many decades for designated truck routes and better air quality,” Sumner told Planet Detroit. “There’s a healthier way to support business and protect your people. It should be common sense.”
Unlike other American cities with high volumes of truck traffic, Detroit has no regulations when it comes to truck routes. It is completely legal for trucks to drive through business districts, school zones and residential streets, even if they aren’t making deliveries in the area. That’s not the case in other cities, where trucks are routed to minimize impacts on homes and businesses.
“Los Angeles, Chicago and New York for example all have standards in place. There aren’t semis driving around Central Park and Times Square,” City Councilwoman Raquel Castañeda-López told Planet Detroit. Many major American cities do in fact have laws and ordinances that restrict truck routes and parking. In the case of Los Angeles County, many cities do in fact have designated truck routes. In addition to having to hold a valid permit, semi-truck drivers in Los Angeles county must follow strict rules in every municipality for where they are able to drive and park.
In Southwest Detroit, trucks frequently drive down Clark and Scotten streets which run on either side of Clark Park. Maybury Elementary School, Amelia Earhart Elementary-Middle school and Western International High School are also all in the area.
Currently, Castañeda-López and her staff are working with community members to draft an ordinance. While it is still in its preliminary stages, residents are hoping it can be passed before the end of Castañeda-López’s term in January.
At press time, the City of Detroit’s Law Department had not yet completed their review of the ordinance, therefore the Councilwoman’s office would not share details of the ordinance draft at this stage. But Jai Singletary, manager of community and policy for City Council District 6, told Planet Detroit that this Giffels Webster Pre-Final Report with the appendix as well as the University of Michigan Noise Survey both “offer suggested ordinance language and routes.”
The Giffels Webster study includes information on recommended routes as well as other measures that “intend to incentivize commercial vehicle drivers and freight companies to adopt off-peak delivery programs, use cleaner forms of fuel and replace older polluting diesel vehicles and equipment with new zero-emission vehicles and equipment.”
The process for an ordinance to be passed is as follows:
- Ordinance is introduced at the Committee of the Whole (COTW) and referred to a subcommittee.
- The item appears on the agenda in the relevant subcommittee for discussion (in this case, most likely Public Health & Safety (PHS), Chaired by Council Member Scott Benson.)
- The subcommittee can set a public hearing, bring the item back for additional discussion if a member chooses, or approve.
- Once the item is approved by the subcommittee, it appears on the next Formal agenda for a final vote by Council.
While seemingly straightforward, Singletary says the process has the potential to be quite lengthy.
Lifelong Southwest Detroit resident Adriana Zuniga says she has been frustrated watching the number of trucks on residential streets increase over the years. Zuniga believes that the adoption of an enforced truck route ordinance will assist in bettering quality of life for people living in Southwest Detroit.
“The trucks just dominate my neighborhood. Aside from the horrible pollution they emit, they also cause vibrations.” Zuniga told Planet Detroit. “It’s only got worse over the years, so I want to make sure the truck ordinance is passed before Raquel [Castañeda-López] leaves office.”
Clark Street resident and founder of Motor City Street Dance Academy Benito ‘Mav One’ Vasquez told Planet Detroit he and his neighbors are fed up with the constant truck traffic. Vasquez lives across from Clark Park and runs his youth programs in a building on Livernois. Both areas experience heavy semi-truck traffic.
“Having to deal with the noise and pollution is already enough when they are driving and it’s even worse when they sit there running their engines in front of the park,” said Vasquez. “What’s the point of green space if it’s surrounded by polluted air?”
The lack of regulation when it comes to routes also has an impact on the quality of roads and homes in Southwest Detroit. Many streets across the city are riddled with large potholes. In fact Detroit has some of the worst roads in the country.
According to the National Highway Traffic Administration, Michigan has the nation’s highest gross truck weight allowance at 164,000 pounds, which is a whopping 84,000 pounds heavier than the Federal standard. The vibration from heavy trucks has caused structural damage to many roads and homes.
“The reason foundations and porches in the area are in such bad disrepair is not because of people not taking care of their homes. They have crumbling porches and foundations because of the truck traffic,“ Simone Sagovac, a 30-year resident and project director of the Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition, told Planet Detroit.
Many people in the area are constantly repairing and renovating the exteriors of their homes. Thomasenia Weston, who has owned her Southwest Detroit home for 20 years, says she and her neighbors have experienced damage to their homes from the trucks.
“I shouldn’t be forced to move because of what these trucks want to do. They continuously destroy my cement porch from their vibrations. Structures and bodies aren’t meant to be constantly shaking like this,” said Weston.
Aside from long-term structural damage caused by speeding and vibrations, trucks have also caused damage by crashing into homes and sideswiping cars. Since residential streets weren’t built to account for truck traffic, when drivers lose control it’s hard to avoid homes, businesses and other vehicles.
“A woman’s house was hit by a truck and it caused structural damage to her home,” Gabriela Santiago-Romero, a candidate for city council in District 6, told Planet Detroit. She said trucks on residential streets are an issue for many living in the areas where she is canvassing.
“Clark Park and Woodmere cemetery area residents tell me the trucks drive extremely fast, which is a factor in these accidents,” Santiago-Romero added. “If we don’t address this issue we will only have more pollution, more destruction and more accidents.”
International trade drives truck traffic
Like Zuniga and Sumner, many residents of Southwest Detroit are lifelong and remember a time before the invasion of semi-trucks. But in the last thirty years, trucks have dominated neighborhood streets.
“I remember trucks loaded with cars coming down our street growing up because there were a couple of small car plants in the area like the one where my dad worked,” Zuniga said. “I don’t remember semi-trucks, especially not like this, and it makes me so angry.”
The influx in truck traffic is in large part due to the North American Free Trade Agreement which was negotiated in 1992 by President George H.W. Bush and later signed into law in 1993 by President Bill Clinton. According to Steve Tobocman, a former State Representative and the current Executive Director of local nonprofit Global Detroit, increased international trade is in part to blame for the surge in truck traffic.
“As NAFTA trade increased there was no change in capacity at the border,” said Tobocman. “We began to have problems with trucks driving on neighborhood streets due to the absence of designated truck routes.”
Though some trucks are coming from domestic intermodal rail yards and logistical centers, the huge influx can be in large part attributed to the increase in international trade. “The passing of NAFTA has had such a terrible impact on our community. These types of things are passed with no research on environmental impacts or how it would impact the community,” said Sagovac.
The presence of semi-trucks on neighborhood streets also contributes to the array of health issues experienced by residents including sleep disorders, cancer, dementia and breathing issues such as asthma. Sagovac says children in the area experience higher rates of asthma compared to the national average with “children living near truck routes having higher rates than average and children living directly on truck routes having twice as much.”
A recent health impact assessment survey done by Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition in tandem with Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation and the University of Michigan concluded that residents in every age group living in and around trucking routes have statistically higher rates of asthma. Over 16 percent of children under 18 who live within 500 feet of a trucking route have asthma. This is compared to a national average of “between 6 and 7 percent of children ” according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
Zuniga says the health issues caused by trucks and other polluting industries in the area became clearer to her through her work with Community Action Against Asthma, which inspired her to join the board of the Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition.
Community-based participatory research surveys, local organizations, block clubs and the District 6 City Council office have all been instrumental in advising and educating residents about the adverse impact of trucks driving down their streets, Zuniga said.
“Raquel [Castañeda-López] and her team have really come out to the community and educated us about truck traffic. Simone and her team as well as the Hubbard Farms Block Club also help educate the community,” said Zuniga.
Castañeda-López has also used social media to inform residents about the proposed truck route ordinance, the frequency of trucks on local streets and the impacts they have on health and overall quality of life.
Hope for an ordinance
Community leaders agree that the first step in curtailing truck traffic is a strictly enforced truck route ordinance.
“We have been meeting to draft legislation and we are hoping to have a draft introduced to council in October. It is my dream to pass it before I leave office,” said Castañeda-López. “We need legislation regarding designated truck routes citywide, it’s not just District 6.”
The two-term council member is not seeking re-election in November but says the trucks and the issues they cause for District 6 residents and Detroiters as a whole have been front-of-mind throughout her time in office.
Weston says she and her block club advocate not only for designated truck routes, but also measures such as weigh stations and heavier enforcement of traffic laws by local police.
Despite there not being an ordinance for routes, there are sections in the City’s current code of ordinance pertaining to semi-trucks and other large vehicles including section 46-4-19, which states that “Parking of commercial vehicles and other specified vehicles and equipment on residential streets prohibited” and section 46-4-82 which prohibits diesel and non-diesel vehicles over 8,500 pounds from idling. Residents say regardless of the existence of these ordinances, trucks continue to idle and park in their neighborhoods.
“I’m the leader of a block club and we have told several people including the police to put up a weigh station and to give tickets,” Weston told Planet Detroit. There are currently no weigh stations or any other type of checkpoint near Weston’s home in the neighborhood of West Vernor. Weston believes her concerns go unanswered largely due to the racial and economic demographics of her neighborhood.
“They don’t care about us as much because we’re a Black and brown community,” she said. While legislation exists to curtail harm from pollutants in already impacted areas in places like New Jersey, no such legislation exists in the State of Michigan.
“When you look around the country, it’s no accident that border crossings, freight terminals and other polluting industries are located heavily in low-income communities of color, where people have the least economic and political power,” said Tobocman.
Southwest Detroit residents say Detroit’s city government is in part to blame for the decline after years of ignoring neighborhood issues — like the absence of designated truck routes in some of Detroit’s most densely populated neighborhoods — which they say contribute to Detroit’s population having likely shrunk in the last decade, despite mayor Mike Duggan’s public promises to grow the population.
“If the mayor wants the city’s population to grow he needs to work better on preserving the neighborhoods,” said Sumner.
Gutiérrez says she has considered moving her extended family out of Southwest Detroit due to issues caused by the semi-trucks. “I feel like our concerns as residents aren’t being heard. I have considered moving somewhere Downriver and even out of state. I love our community but between not being able to walk in the neighborhood, the trucks parked up and down the street and the black smoke pouring out of the exhaust pipes it’s really difficult to imagine staying here sometimes.”
But Weston is committed to remaining in her neighborhood.
“I’m not going to stop raising the issue and I’m not going to move,” she said.“When it comes to Mayor Duggan I know he has a full plate, but you can’t address only some residents. You are the mayor of all Detroit residents.”
Planet Detroit’s Solving Lead & Asthma in Detroit series is underwritten, in part, by the Erb Family Foundation. This story was produced with support from the Race and Justice Reporting Initiative at the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University.