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Weak Transit Costs Metro Detroiters Dearly

Region spends more on transportation than almost any other

July 12, 2005 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


The average metro Detroit family owns two cars and spends approximately $9,000 a year on personal transportation.

What’s the combined effect of high gasoline prices and a weak public transit system in southeast Michigan? High personal and family costs. Very high.

That’s the conclusion reached by the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a Washington-based transit advocacy and research organization. In a joint study entitled Driven to Spend, STPP and the Center for Neighborhood Technology found that in metropolitan Detroit, which is the largest urban area in the country without a regional public transit system, families spend a higher proportion of their household income on getting to work, school, shopping, and recreation than families in all but two other American cities — Houston and Cleveland. On average, according to the report, residents of southeastern Michigan spend one-fifth of their income on personal transportation needs.

Driven to Spend says that people living in areas with poor public transit pay much more for personal transportation than those living in areas with good public transit. The study also noted that the transportation budget strain on family finances will only worsen as gas prices continue to rise and will disproportionately affect Detroit-area families because public transit options there are so poor.

Those conclusions came as no surprise to Scott Anderson of the University of Detroit Mercy’s Institute for Building Sustainable Communities. “Of course we spend more than others do,” Mr. Anderson said. “There are no viable alternatives to cars in the Detroit area.”

Ben Korhman, the director of communications for the Michigan Department of Transportation, also agreed with the study’s findings that gas price increases will hit Michigan citizens harder than most states because, both in Detroit and statewide, public transit options in all but a few cities are limited. He said that without better-maintained transportation systems — both highways and public transit — the problem would worsen.

“It gives MDOT an incentive to reduce congestion,” Mr. Korhman said of rising gas prices, “because congestion results in gas consumption.”

Delays Costing Metro Detroiters
The study comes as metro Detroit's public transit system suffers through a barrage of bad news. The state Legislature and the Granholm administration have bled millions of dollars from the region's two bus systems, the result of the state's chronic budget deficits. And just last Thursday the state Appeals Court declared that a bid by Governor Granholm and county lawmakers to establish a regional transit agency without Legislative authority was illegal. In 2002, in one of his last actions in office, former Republican Governor John Engler vetoed a Legislative bill that established the Detroit Area Regional Transit Authority, and Republican state lawmakers in 2003 declined to approve a subsequent bill. State Senator Buzz Thomas, a Democrat, responded by promising to reintroduce legislation vetoed almost three years ago by then-Governor John Engler that would establish a regional transit agency for metro Detroit.

The result is that working people have enormous difficulty getting around without a private vehicle, and traffic congestion remains severe. Meanwhile, Driven to Spend also adds to the growing pile of evidence that southeast Michigan’s inability to embrace Smart Growth development principles is pushing the entire region into deeper economic trouble. Michigan has the highest unemployment rate in the nation, while the Detroit region is the slowest-growing major metropolitan area in the country and its roads are among the most congested.

The study indicates that installing quality regional transit could actually save many southeastern Michigan residents thousands of dollars every year. Driven to Spend says that families living in metropolitan areas with well-developed bus or rail systems spend nearly 50 percent less on transportation than those living in areas without it. The study also found that a family with two or more automobiles — typical for many Detroit-area households — that spends 20 percent of its income on transportation can reduce that figure to 10 percent by using public transit frequently and eliminating at least one vehicle. An average metro Detroit family, according to the report, spends approximately $9,000 a year operating two cars.

Driven to Spend found that 96 percent of metro Detroit commuters drive to work. Only Kansas City outranks Detroit in its portion of auto commuters. Unlike Detroit, however, Kansas City will open a new Bus Rapid Transit line this month. In fact, Detroit is alone among the nation’s largest metropolitan regions in just how feeble its efforts to improve public transit are. Nearly 30 other metropolitan regions across the country have built new light rail and bus rapid transit lines since the late 1980s, according to the Federal Transit Administration. Nearly 70 others are in the design and construction stages.

But the Detroit region’s history of trying to improve its public transit system largely involves drawing the bare outlines of fixed rail or bus rapid transit lines, and then allowing the plans to languish so long that they fail to gain significant traction in the political or business communities. The result is that, while the seven-county region’s population has grown by just 100,000 people since 1970, the vehicle population during that same 35-year period increased by more than 1.6 million.

Republicans Point to Free Markets
Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans remain far apart on remedies that could reduce congestion and boost southeastern Michigan’s economy. Governor Jennifer M. Granholm, a Democrat who ran on a Smart Growth economic development platform, has struggled with the Republican-led state Legislature over what direction the state should point its economic development efforts. Just weeks after her inauguration, Governor Granholm and state Republican leaders launched the bipartisan Michigan Land Use Leadership Council, and asked for recommendations that would curb sprawl, preserve the state’s resources and open spaces, and build a sustainable, 21st-century economy.

The Republican leadership has acted on a number of the council’s recommendations, but it has been more steadfast in its pursuit of tax cuts for businesses, sharp limits to state financing of public transit systems and other urban projects, and economic development strategies that generate more sprawl. Soon after his election as speaker of the state House, for example, Craig DeRoche, a Republican from Novi, publicly proclaimed that he “represents sprawl.”

Jason Brewer, the spokesman for House Speaker DeRoche, said his opposition to public transit is driven by a sense that public transportation violates Mr. DeRoche’s free market ideology. “Our citizens have the choice, but they choose cars,” said Mr. Brewer. “We have no need to build new public transit. More public transportation has not been built because the government responds to the needs of its citizens, and those citizens choose cars.”

Other members of that party’s leadership also strongly oppose state support for building a quality, regional transit system in metropolitan Detroit, including State Senator Shirley Johnson, the powerful chair of both the Senate Appropriations and Transportation Appropriations committees. They, too, essentially argue that almost everyone prefers driving.

Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, also a Republican, is less adamant; he decried the appeals court decision to nix the multi-county attempt to establish a regional transit authority. But he also said that transit funding should remain at modest levels. In an interview with the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service, he said he believes that Michigan does not have “quite enough” public transit.

“We will have to play catch-up,” Mr. Patterson said. But, he added, he does not think that public transit is a top priority: “The market simply doesn’t demand it.”

Many See Need, Strong Public Support for Transit
But Governor Granholm and Democrats in Lansing and Detroit assert that building a modern, regional public transit system in southeastern Michigan is crucial to the area’s success and, by extension, the state’s. They point out that one third of Detroit adults do not own cars and therefore lack a reliable, or even tolerable, way to get to the suburbs, where most of the region’s jobs are.

“Better public transit is critical to moving the region out of economic stagnation and on to prosperity,” Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, a Democrat, told the Michigan state Senate several years ago. “The number one reason people don’t have economic independence is not education, but transportation.”

And Tom Barwin, city manager of Ferndale, a suburb on Detroit’s northern border, rejects “free market” arguments like Speaker DeRoche’s.

“Public transit decisions are dominated by a handful of partisan and ideological Republican politicians,” Mr. Barwin said. “The state Legislature misperceives what the public wants.”

Calling market-based arguments against transit “a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Mr. Barwin added that many of Michigan’s elected leaders simply choose not to build public transit and literally force citizens to purchase cars. Then, as demands for more and wider roads increase, the same leaders claim that it this is because the public always prefers driving.

Transit policy experts also reject claims that there is no market for public transportation in Michigan, and say they have the numbers to prove it. Despite significant service reductions that stem from years of budget cuts that have reduced the state’s annual local bus budget by $95 million a year, ridership continues to grow for many systems. In the past three years, for example, SMART’s ridership increased 25 percent; it now stands at 10 million riders per year. Dan Dirks, SMART’s general manager, said many buses actually turn riders away because they become filled beyond capacity.

And citizens are voting for transit with their wallets as well. Officials of local bus systems point to the near-perfect election record that systems around the state gained last summer. Fourteen Michigan communities asked voters for tax support for their local bus systems and 13 approved them, most by near-landslide margins.

Mr. Barwin said the state should allow regions to tax themselves regionally, in new ways, to pay for transit. He proposes a state constitutional amendment that would allow local areas to use sales taxes to build transit systems of any sort, including bike paths, bus service, or even a rail line, as long as voters know exactly what they are voting on. Many transit advocates in the Detroit area agree; they believe a well-organized campaign for a regional transit tax could succeed.

Jeremy Babener, a student at Haverford College, is spending the summer reporting and writing on the Michigan Land Use Institute’s news desk. Reach him at jeremy@mlui.org.

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