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.