Op-ed: Detroit needs better public transit

Tuesday, January 14, 2020 - 12:23pm

Detroit has long been known for its production of automobiles, but the city’s reliance on cars for transportation has become its Achilles heel. That was not always the case. At the end of World War II, Detroit had a public transit system of streetcars, buses and a commuter rail that had an annual ridership of 490 million. Today that number is 36 million. The city needs reinvestment in public transportation to make travel easier for those currently living in the city and to attract talent to the region. 

 

From 1950 to 2010, the city population dwindled from 1.85 million to 710,000. The surrounding suburbs exploded as a result and today the population of the entire metropolitan area is around 4 million. This has led to massive urban sprawl. As Angie Schmitt wrote for Streetsblog, “Homes in the central city were abandoned — and the tax revenues that came from those households evaporated. Detroit, unlike some of its wealthy suburbs in Oakland County, only saw one side of this migration — the losing side. And it was poorly equipped to deal with the fallout.”

 

The typical commute for Detroit workers is 10.4 miles, one of the longest in the nation. And despite Detroit’s label as “The Motor City”, a quarter of its residents don’t own cars. Aggravating this issue is the fact that 77 percent of jobs in Metro Detroit lie outside the city center. These issues overwhelmingly impact people of color and women; 40 percent of Black residents and 43 percent of women do not own cars.

 

Workers who don’t have cars are forced to use two bus systems, one for the city and one for the suburbs. The city bus system has been plagued by unreliability and was given an F rating in 2011. Most of the suburban bus routes don’t go into the city, and the ones that do can’t pick up riders inside city limits due to an old city ordinance. This complicated and unconnected system is a headache for workers who live in the city but work in the suburbs.

 

Some have argued in the past that Detroit wouldn’t be able to handle a larger transportation system because they were failing to maintain the current one, but there are signs of hope. Detroit’s bus ridership increased over the past two years, which goes against the trend of falling ridership nationwide. And in 2019, 76 percent of buses were on time as compared to just 50 percent in 2011.

 

A unified bus system for southeast Michigan would help solve some of these issues. Ideally, it would be a rail system, but the Southeastern Michigan Regional Transit Authority’s rules make it difficult to have a rail system approved. After a 2016 proposal for public transportation failed, the issue has once again been revived as a possible 2020 ballot proposal.

 

Economically, it makes sense. Every $1 we invest in public transportation generates $4 in economic return. A $1 billion investment in public transportation generates an estimated 21,000 jobs. When Detroit failed to make the cut for Amazon’s final HQ2 list, one of the reasons cited was lack of mass transit. So-called business-friendly Republicans in the Detroit suburbs have loved to wage war against public transportation and it has only hurt southeast Michigan. 

 

Metro Detroit desperately needs better public transit. In 2015 a Detroit man went viral for his 21-mile daily commute on foot to work, which was put to an end when a local car dealership gifted him a Ford Taurus. There are 66,000 other households in Detroit without a car and they cannot rely on becoming an internet sensation to solve their transportation problems. A proposed rail link between Ann Arbor and Detroit would make the talent pool from the University of Michigan more accessible to companies in Detroit. The Regional Transit Authority plan should be on the ballot for 2020. Everyone who can vote for it should. Even if you do not use public transportation, there are plenty of people who will, and economically it benefits everyone.

 

Avi Rajendra-Nicolucci is a sophomore in the College of Engineering and can be reached at avirn@umich.edu.