My Wish List for Detroit Transit

I wish officials in Detroit acknowledged that transit requires public investment and conversations should involve the public. I wish we had more realistic expectations for M-1 Rail and that we stopped waiting for the proposed RTA to solve all our problems.
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Reserve your excitement -- this wish list is decidedly modest. Rest assured, I have another wish list chock full of sleek rail lines, fast and frequent buses and bustling mixed-use urban spaces. But first things first.

1. I wish officials in Detroit acknowledged that transit requires a public investment. Mayors, councilmembers and policy advisers have kicked and screamed about the city's contribution to DDOT -- as if other cities get their transit service for free. Lately, the conventional wisdom around city hall is that DDOT has not shrunk along with the city. In other words, Detroit has too much transit. That thinking has rapidly plunged Detroit's transit system into the league of Peoria and Fargo and Topeka. As measured in coverage, frequency and span-of-service, commuters in Lansing and Grand Rapids now enjoy more extensive transit options than do Detroiters. Even amid a fiscal crisis, slash-and-burn attitudes toward transit are not helping the city to succeed in the short-term or the long-term.

2. I wish we had more realistic expectations for M-1 Rail. It is a real estate development project first and transit project second. Still, the streetcar has dominated the discussion about transit. Pundits have hung on every rumor and every lofty promise -- while actual transit services have continued to deteriorate. When and if M-1 Rail starts running, it may very well boost activity in Midtown; implemented properly, better transit creates better cities. Mission accomplished? M-1 Rail won't improve access to Wayne County Community College or the hundreds of apartments on Crooks Rd or the Mall at Partridge Creek. In fairness, M-1 Rail "investors" have not claimed that it would. But too many others have postured M-1 Rail as a panacea. Successful transit networks are multimodal systems, not isolated lines.

3. I wish we asked more of SMART. Never mind the shape and scope of SMART's service -- that's another topic altogether. Where SMART falls short is its adamant indifference to transit challenges and transit opportunities. SMART is a regional organization -- even without participation from "opt-out" cities like Livonia and Rochester Hills and Novi. With an ounce of courage, SMART could move real transit solutions forward. Instead, we hear endless excuses for why SMART won't act. Take charge on the proposed bus rapid transit system? Not our job. Revisit concepts for collaborating with DDOT during a severe crisis? That's their problem. Create a vision for the suburban system that's bolder than "survive the next millage vote?" Too political. Occasionally, SMART admits "we'd do more if we had more money." Of course. But more money is something earned through foresight and action.

4. I wish we stopped waiting for the proposed RTA to solve all our problems. We absolutely need a regional authority to coordinate transit. And that authority will absolutely need the right strategies to create viable, implementable transit plans. And those plans will absolutely need adequate funding to get off the drawing board and onto the street. And all of that will absolutely begin life to the backdrop of our current transit morass. That's a long, delicate flowchart. Transit stakeholders are on pins and needles that RTA legislation will clear Lansing. If one piece of this plan falls off course, all hopes are dashed. It's time to introduce parallel processes: there's an awful lot of good work that can take place right now, even before an RTA exists. Who knows? We could even end up with a transit strategy in search of legislation, rather than the other way around.

5. I wish we stopped trying to squeeze profit out of a public service. Privatization improves public services like Wal-Mart improves commerce and community. Promise a product at an impossibly low price. Once the other options have disappeared, raise prices and cut corners. Then, keep siphoning money out of the community and centralize all important decisions to a distant corporate office. To politicians whose hands are full, offloading transit sounds like a good choice. We'd be wise to run the numbers - if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

6. I wish conversations about public transit involved the public. Great transit won't happen because a cadre of powerful people say so. While high-profile support is essential, making transit work is ultimately an act of the people. Commuters. Taxpayers. Hoi polloi who couldn't hope to access smoke-filled rooms where high-stakes conversations about transit are currently taking place. The first question is obvious: what do commuters want from a transit system? The next questions are just as important: what will it take for us to tax ourselves to fund transit? Better yet, what will it take for us to actually use the system? To the extent that we're even asking these questions, we're answering them with guesses and assumptions, blithely optimistic that private decisions (and private dollars) will build and sustain a public asset. As proven in so many others city, it doesn't work that way. It's time to take transit issues out of their silos and into the real world.

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