For nearly 50 years, I was owner and publisher of newspapers serving the Detroit suburbs. And if there has been one constant during all those years, it’s been the repeated failure – 23 times, according to a Bridge story earlier this year – of the region to develop a reliable, efficient and flexible mass transit system.
We’re one of the few metropolitan regions in the country without a comprehensive mass transit system. The arguments for having one are so compelling they hardly bear repeating.
Metro regions with good mass transit systems (Portland, Seattle, Toronto) are thriving exactly because they are attractive to the young, highly educated, productive folks who want to live in a metro area they can get around in. Conversely, poor people living in the inner city, often trapped by sky-high auto insurance costs, cannot get to the suburbs where the jobs are located without reliable, affordable mass transit.
The Detroit metro area from the 1950’s through much of the rest of the century was the most racially segregated region in America. Even today, the inability of the region to pull together as a unified and collaborative force has been the single most important factor in our persistent inability to punch at our economic and political weight. Without a mass transit system to help pull people in the region together, there is little to counteract the centrifugal forces pulling us apart.
So when the newly formed Regional Transit Authority finally succeeded in getting on next month’s ballot a proposal to create a regional transit system serving Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw and Wayne counties, including Detroit, many thoughtful people said, “It’s about time!”
Why? Simple. Ninety-two percent of the jobs in southeast Michigan require more than an hour’s commute under the current transit system, according to Paul Hillegonds, the chairman of the RTA. That statistic lies behind the calculation that every tax dollar invested in regional mass transit yields at least $4 in economic return – a significant return on investment.
To get to and from work, the thousands of people throughout the region need either a reliable car or an effective transit alternative. Someone living in Detroit who uses the regional bus “system” to get to their job at the Livonia Costco better figure on taking at least two hours getting to work and another two getting home at shift’s end. Taking four hours (on a good day) to get to and from work is a pretty significant disincentive.
Of course, there are some legitimate arguments advanced against a regional transit system.
The population density of the Detroit metro area is relatively low, which raises questions about whether the costs of serving efficiently such a diffuse market area are just too high.
Moreover, historic political and labor relations realities lurking in the background prevented what otherwise would have been a cost-saving move to consolidate two presently separate transit systems, SMART serving the suburbs and DDOT for Detroiters.
More significant is that RTA’s emphasis on “mass transit” (i.e. buses) runs the risk of being left on the wrong side of mobility history as expressed by ride-sharing services such as Lyft and Uber. A transit system that doesn’t address how to get individual customers the last mile between their bus and their home isn’t as customer-focused as it should be.
In the best of all possible worlds, I’d like to see individual ride-sharing welded onto the mass transit proposal now being proposed. An easy way to do this is for the RTA to negotiate redeemable vouchers coupled with ride-sharing services. A careful look at the RTA proposal suggests there is no reason why this cannot be done in the near future. Such a plan would provide in mass transit the spine of a regional mobility system, while ride sharing could be regarded as the fine muscles of a hand.
After 50 years of fruitless efforts to achieve a mass transit system for Southeast Michigan, the time has come to recognize that the perfect is too often the enemy of the good. The RTA proposal as it stands represents what may well be our last, best chance to create the foundation for a comprehensive and evolving metropolitan-wide transit system. For area voters to turn it down would inflict terrible damage to the future of a thriving economic region in southeastern Michigan.
Editor’s note: Paul Hillegonds, chair of the Regional Transit Authority, and University of Michigan associate dean and public policy professor Elisabeth Gerber, vice chair, are members of the steering committee for The Center for Michigan, of which Bridge Magazine is a part.