Like most teenagers growing up in suburban Chicago, I couldn’t wait to turn 16 and finally get my driver’s license. The ability to go wherever I wanted, the freedom of not having to ask my parents for a ride, and just the thrill itself of driving were all things I looked forward to. However, I also loved taking advantage of Chicago’s public transportation whenever I could. I’m a big supporter of cities having convenient public transportation options; I feel this way despite the fact that I’m now an engineer for one of the Big Three automakers in Detroit.
A Tale of Two Cities
I moved to the Detroit area about 3 years ago for a job at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. I knew that there would be some significant differences between Detroit and my native Chicagoland, but the one that would stand out the most is the state of public transportation in each city. Chicago has an extensive public transportation network, utilizing a mix of buses, subways (the “L”, as we know it in Chicago), and commuter rail that serve both the city and suburbs. All these various modes of transport are managed by a multi-county Regional Transit Authority that coordinates schedules and ticket sales.
Metro Detroit, on the other hand, has five separate agencies operating public transportation, and they currently don’t coordinate with each other very well. For example, if a Detroit resident needs to go somewhere in the suburbs, he would have to take a DDOT bus to the edge of the city, then transfer to a SMART bus. Because of the lack of coordination between the agencies, there are many gaps in the network. Even if there is a route that could theoretically get you to your destination, there is no guarantee that a seamless transfer is possible. Because of this, virtually everyone drives everywhere.
I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that public transportation is lacking here. Detroit’s economy is dominated by the auto industry, so anything that dissuades people from buying cars isn’t going to get much support. I myself now work in that industry, so automobile sales matter to me as well. However, I believe that having viable public transportation options is critical for the success of Detroit and many other cities. It is possible to have a successful auto industry while still offering alternatives to people that can’t (or don’t want to) drive all the time.
What’s at Stake
According to the World Health Organization, more than half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas. As metropolitan areas continue to grow, in both population and physical size, transportation needs will grow as well. This will have a significant impact on our resources and infrastructure, not to mention the effect that increased fuel consumption might have on our environment.
Furthermore, our transportation policies can have a big effect on social equity and everyday quality of life. Reliable access to things like jobs, schools, and grocery stores are essential for a successful community, but there are communities that have been left out. Take for example the story of James Robertson, a Detroit resident who walked about 21 miles each day to get to his job, because he could not afford to replace his car and the bus options were very limited. Even in cities with good public transit such as Chicago, neighborhoods with a large minority population unfortunately sometimes have more limited options. As a person of color, I don’t want to see people like me miss out on good opportunities simply because there is no way to get to them. As an engineer, I know it is possible to find solutions to these challenges.
Building a Brighter Transportation Future
Despite all these concerns, there is hope for the future. Ride-hailing and ride-sharing services such as Uber, Lyft, and Zipcar have exploded onto the scene in recent years. Several cities have established light rail and Bus Rapid Transit lines. Auto makers are continuously seeking improvements in fuel efficiency, and investing in hybrid and electric vehicles. There is also a strong push for autonomous vehicles, which could be a game-changer for those who are physically unable to drive, either through private ownership or a ride-sharing system.
Public policy is another area where change is happening. Here in Southeast Michigan, we will be voting on a property tax increase to fund a Regional Master Transit Plan that will bring improved transit options to Detroit and its suburbs. The plan would create several new bus lines, including bus rapid transit, re-establish commuter rail service in the region, and continue funding the brand-new streetcar in downtown Detroit scheduled to open next year. I personally plan to vote in favor of the proposal, because I believe private vehicle ownership doesn’t have to be the only option. Making it easier and more efficient for people to get places leads to better economic opportunities, stronger communities, and a better environment for all.