Is anyone not talking about regional transportation in Michigan right now? It’s not just the transportation people talking about it anymore either. Just last week, I was doing an interview on an energy efficiency program for homes – houses – and the challenges of regional transportation came up. And while the buzz might just be reaching a tipping point locally, the amazing thing is that the conversation has been going on a national scale for some time.
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said earlier this year that Detroit is the only major metro area in the US without a regional transportation system. Wowzers. That’s a little embarrassing. Especially considering there are federal funds out there, ready to help us build one, whenever we’re finally good and ready.
Sooooo…why don’t we get some of that regional transportation? Of course, the reasons are many, but not being able to agree upon what it should look like is chief among them. Though many of the more enthusiastic headlines on the topic include the words “light rail,” when I had the opportunity to interview Founding Director of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, Bruce Katz in 2011, he suggested we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves with all this fancy train talk.
“In some ways,” he told me, “it might make more sense for Michigan to be manufacturing some of the high-speed rail components than to actually build it. Michigan doesn’t have mature short transit systems in its major metropolitan areas. I might make an argument that high-speed bus might make more sense for Michigan than high-speed rail.” *
But buses are booooooring. Right? And don’t we already have buses? Well, the problem is that we’re not using them. Maybe because we think they’re boooooooring. I just spent more than a year following the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority’s effort to become a countywide authority, and a complaint I heard more than once was that those making the decisions about the future of public transportation weren’t the people who actually used it. Who is using it? Lots of people, to be sure, but apparently not the right ones. The failure of the AATA’s recent effort to transform into a u196 authority revealed another group of people disinterested in public transportation: the municipalities outside of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti that would have made the authority truly countywide.
The basic economics of supply and demand imply that not using the public transportation we have is clearly an obstacle to growing a regional system that will serve us better. But before we try to figure out how to break this cycle, I think its worth examining why Detroit has had such a difficult time jumping on the public transportation bandwagon in the first place.
I would suggest that our biggest issue is how integral car ownership is to our culture. We love our cars in Michigan. Driving is a thing here, more so than elsewhere. All you need to do to confirm that is to drive around in another state. Can you believe how many foreign cars people drive in other states? The difference is notable.
And why wouldn’t it be? Car ownership in Michigan isn’t just about having pride in our own workmanship; it’s a symbol of economic success. Auto workers not only get discounts on their cars, but they also can pass those discounts on to their families – for life. How pervasive is that? Well, I don’t work for an auto company, but if I decided to get a car right now, I could choose between getting a Ford with my father-in-law’s discount or a GM discount with my grandfather’s discount. Or, a couple of years ago, I could have used my uncle’s GM discount. Or, many ago, when my other grandfather was still alive, I could have chosen between my two grandfathers’ GM discounts.
These employee and family discounts are closely tied to our idea of the middle class American dream in Michigan. Everyone could make a stable living working for the Big Three, and they could own a car and buy and house. With the upheaval of our auto-based economy and housing market, it’s no small wonder that we’re holding on to our cars so tightly.
But as someone who solidly believes, based on a lot of evidence, that Michigan is on it’s way to recovery with a more diverse and exciting economy than every before, I propose that we begin to let go to our obsession with cars. I mean sure, own a car. We’re all still going to want to own cars. And please own a GM, Ford or Chrysler, while you’re at it. But maybe it’s time we let them chill in the driveway a little more often.
My grand solution? Well, my grand solution is the solution already being chronicled by the two delightful ladies of Two Women, Four Wheels. The bloggers and transportation advocates challenged themselves to ride the public transportation available now in Metro Detroit, in the hopes of helping make it better. Their adventures are a fun read, as well as providing an invaluable first-hand perspective on the challenges and future of public transportation in Michigan — a perspective the rest of us could benefit from seeing ourselves. In fact, it’s one more of us must experience firsthand, if we want to build up the kind of demand necessary for regional transportation to work.
And anyway, buses have motors, right? We can still be the Motor City if we use public transportation. No one will strip us of our title, I promise.
*You may note that this quote does not appear in the article linked above. It was edited from the final version. Yup.