Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Edsel Ford Expressway

The Edsel Ford Expressway, better known as I-94, is one of the oldest urban interstate highways in the country. When the United States entered World War II, construction began on what was then called the Willow Run Expressway; a stretch of this four lane divided highway was ready in time to get workers from Detroit to the new bomber plant that opened near Ypsilanti in 1942. Extended and renamed over the next decade, first as the Detroit Industrial Highway and then the Edsel Ford, this expressway helped shape the region’s history.   Today, the Edsel Ford Expressway is a small segment of the I-94 freeway that travels 275 miles across Michigan’s southern Lower Peninsula from New Buffalo on Lake Michigan to Port Huron at the southernmost point of Lake Huron. 

While World War II had devastated Europe, America was physically intact and began to prosper after the war.  Returning GIs were intrigued by the sports cars they saw in Europe.  Impressed by European highways he saw during the war, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Act in 1956, which created the nation’s highway system.

Although the new interstate highways made urban expansion possible and contributed to suburbanization, they were often devastating to the urban neighborhoods they displaced.  At least 17,000 Detroit residents, most of them inner city urban poor, were displaced by Detroit’s new expressways. Civil rights activists charged that the displacement was disproportionately targeted to African-American neighborhoods. 

The completion of the Edsel Ford Expressway during the mid-1950s helped launch a Detroit Streets and Rails (DSR) campaign to win back lost riders.  They proposed a high-speed rail line to operate along the center median of the expressway, but it was never built.  Instead, the incorporated a number of “bus interchanges” or boarding stations along the Edsel Ford Expressway. Coaches would exit the expressway via the exit ramp, follow a special lane leading to street-level boarding stations to board passengers, and then merge back onto the expressway.   For a time, such plans made Detroit an innovator in public transportation, but they could not withstand budget cuts and a dwindling number of riders. 

The Edsel Ford Expressway was better suited to individual riders in cars, as more and more people moved from the city to the new suburbs the interstates made easily accessible.  Today, the Edsel Ford Expressway remains as it began, an engineering feat with economic and social consequences beyond the province of highway planners.      

Written by Bernice Brown