According to Nov. 13 Metro Times, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is pushing for the construction of a state-of-the-art $45 million public transit center in downtown Detroit’s Times Square. The center would coordinate the city’s existing mass transit and handle light rail. Ultimately, Kilpatrick would like to see the city move away from buses to rail.

Although the transit center is just a proposal and has yet to even reach the planning stages, Kilpatrick’s support is an encouraging sign that Detroit is serious about creating the viable mass transit system that Metro Detroit so badly needs.

Cities like Chicago and New York have extensive and efficient mass transportation systems that not only provide easy access throughout the city, but also connect them with their suburbs. Detroit, on the other hand, has a disorganized and inadequate bus system and the dilapidated People Mover. Save for a handful of bus routes, inter-city transit between Detroit and its suburbs is nearly impossible without a car.

Detroit’s structural problems are well documented: White flight, business abandonment, economic transformations and deteriorating infrastructure have all contributed the city’s present condition. Detroit residents are thus faced with what urban planners call “spatial mismatch.” Without adequate mass transit, suburban jobs are unavailable to many Detroit residents who have no means to get to those jobs. And since a majority of the jobs are located in the suburbs, Detroiters often struggle to find any employment at all. Mass transit would help alleviate this problem by allowing Detroiters to commute to jobs in the suburbs.

Mass transit provides a host of other benefits. It reduces auto-emissions pollution, discourages sprawl and provides a way to decrease the traffic congestion that plagues the state’s highways without wasting money on inefficient solutions such as widening existing roads. Providing better access to the city would encourage businesses and industry to locate to the city.

At this juncture, Kilpatrick’s proposal is simply that: a proposal. It does not include a comprehensive plan to fund or create even a light rail system within Detroit. But it does make the option available, which is an important first step in encouraging Metro Detroit to embrace mass transit.

Today, the biggest impediment to mass transit is a lack of funding and poor cooperation between Detroit and its suburbs. The suburbs – especially outlying ones – have been unwilling to invest in public transportation.

Kilpatrick’s proposal signals that Detroit is ready to move on the issue, whether or not the suburbs are willing to move with him. It would be a shame if they didn’t. Metro Detroit’s future sustainability depends on regional thinking and planning. Mass transit is a wonderful issue with which to begin.

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