I’m not an urban planner by training, but I did take an urban planning class or two as an undergrad. One class, taught by Dr. Jonathan Levine of the Taubman school talked about the relationship between transportation and land use. The connection between transportation and land use should be pretty clear to people in Detroit. Our roads will take you there, but transit may not – at least not in a time and cost competitive manner. The lack of a fixed guideway transit system has led to urban sprawl, suburbs without sidewalks, and abandonment in our urban core. Because we are so spread out and auto dependent, things are less accessible by other forms of transportation. Connectivity and accessibility of places was a central focus of Dr. Levin’s course.
In early 2009, the Regional Transportation Coordinating Council (RTCC) – an entity funded by monies once made available to DARTA (a regional transportation entity that former Governor John Engler vetoed right before he left office), unveiled a transit plan that was the work of a consulting firm based out of Kansas City. The RTCC is led by former Wayne and Macomb County commissioner John Hertel. The plan, proposed some light rail, a lot of bus rapid transit, regional rail, and something they called “arterial rapid transit” (ART) which is nothing but a fancy way of saying buses that don’t necessarily follow single road corridors. ART, as proposed in the plan, would connect key destination points in the region like malls or pockets of commercial density. Most of the RTCC’s plan involved using existing north-south, east-west road corridors, as well as main corridors like Gratiot, Woodward, Michigan, Grand River, Jefferson, and Fort for enhanced transit lines. The RTCC plan covered a 30 year period into the future, and is generally accepted by the “Big 4” (Mayor of Detroit, Oakland County Executive, Head Commission of Macomb County, and Wayne County Executive) as the plan for transit in the region for the future.
Unfortunately, (and this is my own opinion and not that of my employer) there seems to several problems with the plan itself.
1. There was some public input on the plan, but perhaps not enough. There was some input after the plan was designed by outside firm. But do we really want to say in 30 years that our transit system was designed by a firm based out of state? I think the final transit plan for this region provides for greater public input on corridors and amenities.
2. How often do you really know of people who commute from mall to mall? Yes, we do need to connect destinations to one another (like the airport to our convention centers), but how does the connecting of malls really help?
3. Following existing road (NOT INTERSTATE) corridors places some limits on the speed of these systems because of the mix of uses along the corridors and because there would be too many stops along the corridor to make the system really time competitive with driving.
4. The traffic congestion in this region isn’t along those main roads. It’s along the interstates, which implies that “regional” commuting involves interstates more so than roads. Roads are good for local and interlocal commutes, but not for getting from Detroit to Novi or Detroit to Troy.
5. Buses don’t necessarily create density. Using buses only to try to create density is akin to retrofitting our region with an enhanced version of the old interurban trolley lines. They aren’t going to necessarily create the density around stops like transit system in Chicago, D.C., or New York. Bus rapid transit does have potential, but it doesn’t have the permanence of some sort of rail system.
6. There was no consideration for use of interstate corridors as light rail corridors. If these corridors are what people are using and where the congestion exists, why were they not part of the equation? If Denver can build light rail along their interstates and then supplement stops along the rail line with bus and commuter car lots, why can’t we do it? I think we have a good amount of underutilized service drive corridors that could be used, and again, interstates already serve as regional transportation corridors, so why not utilize them.
Now I’m very pleased that the RTCC has tried to advance the development of regional transit, especially with their efforts to create a single transit authority through legislation in Lansing. But the plan that they have put out for the public is soft and doesn’t offer the public a true regional alternative to how we get around now. A new regional transit plan for our region needs to be more robust and involve commuter lots, bus / transit hubs, walkable areas (the median of Gratiot is far from a walkable area), and high-density development. Add real time intelligent transportation systems and the ability to pay for all aspects of the system electronically or with a cell phone, and then we might be on par with Europe or Japan. Simply trying to recreate or extend the rail lines of Detroit’s past is not going to create the density that is needed to increase our property values or persuade more people to use transit. Our region deserves something more modern, more robust, more flexible, and more oriented with the automobile if we are to move people on a regional level in a manner that is time and cost competitive with the automobile.
Furthermore, if we are to increase connectivity and accessibility, we need to closely integrate our region’s key destinations with a modern transit system. Residents in Oakland County should be able to drive to a transit center, hop on a regional rail system, and walk into the auto show at Cobo. Residents should be able to get dropped off at the transit system, get on a train, and walk into the terminals at Metro Airport. Residents should be able to park their car at a transit station, take the train directly to the Palace or Comerica Park or Ford Field or the Joe, and then get back on the train, get their car, and go home. We need to focus on connecting our region’s assets with transit seamlessly, not simply putting a light rail or bus rapid transit or bus line along main roads.
There is no reason why we can’t do this, but it will take bold leadership, the ingenuity of our region’s planners and engineers, and a sustainable revenue source to make it a reality. If Japan, China, and Europe can build modern systems that will last for generations, and New York, Chicago, and D.C. can build systems that create density and property wealth, certainly Metro Detroit can do the same.