Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Article from the New Republic: The Detroit Project

Here is a great article by Bruce Katz (Brookings Institution) in the New Republic called The Detroit Project.

Some good quotes:

"A better return on federal investments will take a functioning local government as well as leadership in suburban counties that is willing to collaborate closely with the city."


"The region’s elected officials should be strongly encouraged to replicate the metropolitan mayors’ caucuses in Chicago and Denver, or a strong metropolitan transportation and land-use agency, as in Portland or Minneapolis."

"This derelict land was as much an economic problem as a physical one, depressing property values and repelling new investments. So these cities reconfigured themselves into denser communities, recycling polluted industrial lands, laying down new rail and transit infrastructure, and investing in projects that created demand not only for particular parcels, but also for the wider urban area."

A New Model for Transportation and Development in Detroit

The auto companies helped revolutionize how we get around, how we live and commute, how we develop or land and infrastructure, and how we access the market. They also influenced our attitudes about other forms of transportation like transit, and they influenced some of Michigan's laws when it comes to transportation funding. The lack of a fixed guideway transit system (and when I say fixed, I mean permanent, right-of-way rail, not buses) has contributed to Detroit's sprawling, one story development dominated, auto dependent society. The negative results of this are evident today - abandoned strip malls in the suburbs, abandoned parcels all over Detroit, crumbling roads, lack of walkable areas, disconnected zoning patterns (which Michigan's home-rule laws influenced as well), and flat property values. Of course other things played a role in how our region developed, but our narrow focus on auto-dependent society has contributed to regional fragmentation, waste of our land and destruction of our environment, social disconnect, and even waste of our personal time to spend growing as humans.

While I continue to drive to work on a daily basis (I promise to use transit once I get an iPhone) younger generations do desire options in how they get around. I've lived in Chicago and DC, and while I still had a car for non work-related activities, I can't tell you how much I enjoyed walking to the transit station, taking the train into the city, walking to my office building, then taking the train home. The experience of living in these areas has definitely shaped my views of the world and Detroit.

The people of Metro Detroit deserve a transit option. While I can't blame anyone for needing to drive to access their job, I feel bad that some folks commute up to two hours a day or more in their car. That's time you can't do business, that's time you can't read something for fulfillment, that's time away from your friends and family. Think about the benefits of being on transit, doing business on your Blackberry or iPhone, or reading a book or newspaper, or (and I know this can disturb others) talking to others on the phone without the risk of causing an accident on the road.

Some leaders in Michigan argue that we do not have the density for transit, and that the cost of building transit is high. They are right that we do not have the density because we are so sprawled out, and yes, the up front capital costs of transit are very high. But think about the subways in places like Chicago where the existence of transit helped drive density, higher property values. These cities also enjoy a constant turnover of young people locating and remaining in the region. And as for the cost of transit, think about how much we spend on roads and the current condition of those roads.

But so what? What can Metro Detroit do internally and from a business standpoint to be a part of a new revolution for transportation, transit, and economic development? Here is some ideas.

Components of a New Transportation Model

1. Build a fixed, right of way, transit system in Metro Detroit. Put the bankrupt auto companies to work in engineering a new technology, deploy it on some corridor, and give the private sector some ownership in it's operation and management. This is one step in transforming the auto companies into transportation companies. Fixed guideway transit corridors represent the spine of the transportation system. We could even build these corridors alongside interstates in some cases.

2. Transit stations need to fulfill the following functions: a) Park and ride for car riders b) Transit hubs for hybrid and alternative fuel buses (charging stations included) c) Encourage denser, transit-oriented development with retail, services, and housing within close proximity of the transit station.

3. The user of the system either drives or walks to the transit station or they take a shuttle to the transit station. They take the transit to their transit stop near their place of business, shopping, etc. Now, let's say the user's place of business is still a mile away from the transit station. Using their cell phone, the user "pages" the transit bus or some other service to pick them up and get them to their final destination. The smart technology in the phone could tell the user where their shuttle might be. The same model applies for the trip home.

4. Transit shuttles will be owned and operated by private entities including businesses near the transit station. The State of Michigan could provide a tax break (perhaps through the Michigan Business Tax) to companies and organizations who own and operate a shuttle for their employees, or whom contract with another shuttle service in partnership with other companies in their immediate vicinity. The employer gets the piece of mind of helping their workers get to work each day. This model should also drive sales of hybrid and alternative fuel shuttle buses, built in America by our auto companies.

5. Information technology and smart phones are crucial to this model. Information must be provided in real time, and phones should be used to pay for transit service and parking. Citizens who utilize this service might be provided additional incentives for saving energy and reducing emissions from operating in a more efficient model.

6. Government leaders in Metro Detroit have to drive this model by working cooperatively with the auto companies to encourage its implementation. That means finding a revenue stream to help build a transit system. The revenue stream is a trick issue, however, because state law limits certain types of taxation and additional property taxes are not politically feasible. Either way, we must come up with a way to match federal dollars for transportation.

7. Government leaders would also have to find a way to reconcile land uses, perhaps through regional zoning ordinances. Our sporadic planning has never been efficient, so we must find a way to engage our leaders toward a common planning vision.

8. We need some type of regional governance, accountable to the people, to drive this model. At the same time, we need to make sure that our transit system is run like a business and should not be exclusively dependent on tax dollars to operate. This requires an efficient, revenue driven operating model for the transit system, and incentives for private business to plug into the model.

Why Drive the new Model?

While the automobile will continue to dominate the hearts and minds of Detroiters, we must recognize that auto dependency is not sustainable from an energy, environmental or fiscal standpoint. Furthermore, without transit, we will continue to lose our college graduates to cities where owning a car isn’t necessary to access jobs and the market. We have an unprecedented opportunity to demonstrate a new model here in Detroit, and sell the model to the rest of America. I've taken a few road trips in my life, and I will always want to own a car to get where I want to go, but we have to think differently here in Michigan if we are going to create a connected and accessible economy.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Can Metro Detroit Really Embrace Going Green?

At this very moment, every state in the country is trying to position themselves to be leaders in the green economy. There is nothing wrong with competing to be the producer and exporter of green technology. In fact, Michigan has some natural advantages because of our manufacturing heritage, our commitment to building quality products, and the sheer amount of engineers ready to build these products.

Yet, we are but a small fish in a big sea of states and countries involved in green manufacturing. Therefore, it is just as important for our leaders to ask how we can act greener as a state and as a region, not simply how can we be leaders in creating green products. This requires us to look inwardly at how we develop our land and commute, how we consume energy, and how we access the marketplace.

Auto Dependency, Sprawl, and Regional Fragmentation


Metro Detroit was built around auto dependency. We have miles and miles of four, six, and eight lane roads, perfectly built one mile apart in a grid pattern. We have a few main arterial roads (Woodward, Gratiot, Grand River, Jefferson, Fort, and Michigan Ave), and a few hundred miles of interstate roads with exits every mile or two. We have one-story strip malls as far as the eye can see, many of which have been abandoned only to build new strip malls just a bit up the road. We have inconsistent and outdated zoning ordinances where residential and commercial building patterns create a hodgepodge of uncoordinated development. We have hundreds of local municipalities, each with their own set of roads to maintain and we have thousands of miles of utilities to support a shrinking, low-density population. We have a cash-strapped, central city that is more than half abandoned, and we have local governments struggling to provide basic services as property values fall. And as we sprawl out farther and farther, we flatten our property tax base, making our local governments more vulnerable to budget deficits.

What we don’t have here in Metro Detroit is pretty clear as well. We don’t have a fixed guideway, rail transit system that crosses local boundaries. We don’t even have a single transit authority, and the transit authority we have for the suburbs is an opt-in / opt-out system. We have a metropolitan planning organization (SEMCOG) that is membership-based, so it does not even represent all the governments of the region. We have no leaders elected on a regional, multi-county level, and besides money raised for SMART and a few taxes on liquor, we have no real regional tax base to build regional assets like transit.

If going green means being more efficient with how we develop our region and how we build our transportation network to move people in an efficient manner, we are, unfortunately, not very green. If acting green means creating transit-oriented development and enhancing the walkability of our downtown areas, we are also behind the curve. And if going green means recognizing that we share one environment and are interconnected as a region, we are not necessarily setup institutionally to make investments in a green future.

The Opportunity Ahead of Us

The good news is that we have an opportunity here in Metro Detroit like no other region to demonstrate a green transformation. Our abandoned areas represent an opportunity to start over and redevelop around the notion of transit-oriented development. We have a plethora of talented engineers with the ability to design and build the transit systems of tomorrow. Each year, we turn out a fresh pool of graduates from top universities that are eager to turn this region around and create a greener future for Metro Detroit. We have automotive firms ready to churn out the next generation of electric and hybrid shuttle vehicles, which represent the “last mile” between a future fixed transit system and the commuter’s final destination. Coupled with intelligent transportation systems, smartphones, and wireless technology, Metro Detroit can revolutionize our world economy and once again sell our innovations to the rest of the world.

In future blog entries, I will present a model of how this might work and what it is going to take from a governance and business standpoint for Detroit to go green. Although it may be difficult for some to accept that the dominance of Detroit-influenced automotive culture may never return, we must acknowledge this as a region and explore new models for living and accessing the economy. We are all in this together, and we can show the world that we can change.