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Michigan Regions Play Transit Catch-Up

Local leaders, citizens push public transportation to help build livable communities and stable economies

February 17, 2003 | By Johanna Miller
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Pat Owen
  High Quality Livability: Prioritizing people over cars helps Ann Arbor's thriving downtown draw businesses, residents, and visitors.

You know, maybe the conventional wisdom about public transportation is correct: Michiganians love their vehicles so much that there’s no chance public transit — even innovative, fast, and convenient public transit — will ever get them out of their cars and trucks.

Conventional wisdom, though, is usually a narrow measure of what is happening now, not what is coming or what is possible. That’s why it’s often so woefully off the mark. Indeed, after decades of embracing conventional wisdom on transportation and allowing their transit systems to steadily erode, three of Michigan’s most influential metropolitan regions — Detroit, Grand Rapids, and Ann Arbor — have tossed aside the “conventional” and “wised up” to what was lost and can be regained.

This report details a remarkable reckoning with the new century’s need for more economically effective, environmentally sensitive, and community-minded transportation services. Our research found Michigan’s metropolises taking significant steps to rebuild the high-quality, regional public transportation systems that existed 50 years ago. Public transit, The Regional Ride finds, is also gaining more acceptance in the state’s rural regions, which until recently regarded riding the bus as something only the impoverished or those with disabilities would willingly do. Traverse City and Sault Ste. Marie have modest regional bus systems that increasing numbers of citizens and leaders are working to improve.

Embracing public transit as a realistic regional transportation choice in Michigan, as it already is in the nation’s greatest metropolitan regions — New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Seattle — comes not a moment too soon. From Cleveland and Atlanta to St. Louis and Dallas, public transit is becoming the powerful economic engine its proponents long predicted.

In St. Louis, for example, new light rail lines and enhanced bus services helped generate some $2 billion in public and private commitments to new development — including hospitals, retail centers, and high-end housing.

In Atlanta, BellSouth consolidated 75 scattered telecommunications operations into offices near the city’s new light rail system, simultaneously expanding the city’s investment and job base and giving half of the company’s 20,000 employees a new, attractive transportation choice.

Taking Back the Lead
Such transit-savvy regions are powerful reminders to Michigan’s elected leaders and citizens that well-designed, well-managed public transit inspires developers to build homes, businesses, offices, and recreation centers close to transit stops in neighborhoods and cities. Michigan must engage in a serious game of public transportation catch-up or lose its attractiveness for top employees and companies looking for new places to work or do business.

Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm recognized both the peril of doing nothing and the potential of investing significantly in public transit on her way to winning the governor’s office in November 2002. Governor Granholm won, in part, because she promised to “fix it first” before advancing any new highway construction and to “fully fund transit” to the limits of state law.

Public Transportation’s Bonuses

Dallas Area Rapid Transit
Trailblazing Transit: Since 1996, Dallas' light rail system has spurred $922 million in private investment.
New research by Carnegie Mellon University and others shows that a state’s quality of life — vibrant cities, good schools, ease of movement, welcoming public spaces, accessible shorelines, and clean air and water — is the chief factor in attracting the capital, businesses, and jobs that sustain a strong economy.

But in Michigan a combination of government policy and social expectation has instead produced land-hungry, sprawling development: From 1980 to 1995 development for new suburbs consumed land at a pace eight times faster than the state’s population growth. Michigan now has one of America’s highest sprawl rates and one of its lowest population growth rates.

Like timber cutting in the 19th century, sprawl has become an unsustainable, boom-and-bust economic generator. In Michigan, sprawl speculators grow rich by turning farm fields into concrete prairies and by blurring the boundaries between small towns and the countryside with new, congested suburbs.

Meanwhile, everyone else pays dearly in higher family costs, taxes, and stress levels. Distances between home and everyplace else grow longer. Forced to maintain fleets of cars and pay higher taxes to build and maintain ever more miles of roads, families grow poorer. Water pollution, air contamination, and deforestation grow worse. And older, increasingly abandoned neighborhoods grow more decrepit.

Investing in public transportation can reduce many of sprawl’s negative consequences. Using buses and trains instead of cars and light trucks cuts vehicular pollutants that trigger asthma attacks, greenhouse gases that change the climate, and consumption of foreign oil.

Best is Better
On a more personal level, some people frequently say that until a transit system is good enough for people with disabilities, it’s not good enough for the entire community. In the short run it’s particularly helpful to those who are too old to drive anymore — in the next 25 years the state’s senior population will grow by more than 50 percent — and to many of the 17 percent of Michigan’s citizens with disabilities. But in the long run it will take continued, wise investment in public transportation if urbanized regions are to reach their full potential.

Safe, convenient, inexpensive public transit is an unmistakable signal of civic vitality. It’s no accident that cities with excellent public transportation are also the world’s most vibrant.

When Michigan residents once again become comfortable with the quality of life offered in its leading cities, the pressure to sprawl into the countryside will ease. Good public transit is absolutely essential to that equation.

The Turning Point
Transportation innovations are hardly new to Michigan. In 1909 Michiganian Henry Ford paved the way to a new, independent lifestyle when he built the first mass-produced car: The Model T. That same year, Wayne County laid the world’s first mile of concrete highway.

Michigan’s 20th-century leaders supported transportation innovation because they saw a need — and a huge opportunity. Now, in the 21st century, Michigan has another chance to use innovative transportation as a modern economic development tool.

Three of the state’s largest metropolitan regions are following that path. Their success will influence others. Public transit will again help Michigan sustain itself as an excellent place to live and do business. The state, The Regional Ride concludes, really has no other choice.

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