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 We have inconsistent and outdated zoning ordinances where residential and commercial building patterns create a hodgepodge of uncoordinated development.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.

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