Author: John Gallagher, Detroit Free Press
The purpose of a city is to offer a vast range of opportunities — economic, social, recreational and educational. But there’s a catch: A city works best only if everybody can get around to everything.
That’s where metro Detroit falls short. Our over-reliance on the private automobile and our woefully inadequate bus systems deny tens of thousands of residents (and visitors) a reasonable way to get to jobs, schools, shopping and recreational spots.
Cities everywhere plug the gap with public transit networks — buses, trams, subways, bus-rapid transit and non-motorized bike lanes and greenways. Not so much in Detroit. It’s time to change that, and we have a chance on Nov. 8. Metro Detroit voters should approve the Regional Transit Authority measure on the ballot to fund and build out a new regional transit system here.
Earlier this month I traveled to two central European capitals for a brief holiday. In Budapest, Hungary, and Prague, Czech Republic, I found large cities crisscrossed by subways, trams and bus lines. Getting around from the outskirts of either city to the center and back proved easy, cheap and fast.
So, too, in American cities with good public transit systems — New York, Chicago, Boston, Portland and Washington, D.C. One good way to measure the success of a public transportation system is with this simple question: If I didn’t have a car, could I still get to where I’m going in a reasonable amount of time? In Detroit, that answer almost always is “no.”
On Nov. 8, voters in Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw and Wayne counties will be asked to approve a new millage to pay for putting into action a master plan from the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan. The system envisioned would at last connect the region with an efficient transit network. The proposal calls for many new transit options, chief among them multiple “bus-rapid transit” lines in the region. These vehicles operate as a cross between light rail and ordinary buses, providing service that is faster and more efficient. It also calls for upgrading bus service in many areas, adding some on-demand services, starting new service to Detroit Metro Airport, and to the new QLINE along Woodward in downtown Detroit.
Opposition to the RTA proposal centers on the cost. The proposal asks voters in to approve a property tax millage over 20 years. The 1.2-mill measure is projected to cost the owner of a home with a taxable value of $78,856 — the average in southeast Michigan, according to the RTA — about $95 per year. For homes with a taxable value of $100,000, which translates into a market value of $200,000, the cost would be about $120 per year.
But opponents who cite cost don’t count the enormous penalties we pay in metro Detroit for our lack of public transit. We measure that burden in the ever-increasing price for road construction and maintenance, in the toll in lives that air pollution and traffic accidents take, and in the lost opportunity that an urban landscape devoted to parking and vehicle traffic imposes on us.
Earlier in my life I was happy to do without a car when living for a time in Chicago and New York — places where privately owned vehicles can be more of a hassle than a convenience. We may never get to that point, even if the proposed RTA system is built out. But we can add to our convenience and lessen the burden that cars impose on our region by approving the RTA proposal.
Among the many reasons why private vehicles are wrong for cities is the vast amount of infrastructure they require. Parking lots and garages take up far too much landscape better used for housing, retail or commercial space. And there can never be enough parking.
And even in the Motor City, too many residents lack access to a vehicle. Most famously there was the “Walking Man” James Robertson whose daily walk between his Detroit home and job in Rochester Hills was chronicled in the Free Press early last year.
Don’t mistake the proposed RTA system as just a way for low-income folks to get around. It will be a driver of economic investment as new development solidifies around the multiple transit lines planned.
The potential for significant new economic development has a broad swath of southeast Michigan leadership lining up to support the RTA funding proposal: The editorial boards of the Free Press, Detroit News, Michigan Chronicle and Crain’s Detroit Business, as well as the Detroit Regional Chamber, Ford and General Motors, and many more civic and corporate leaders are urging voters to approve the measure.
To return to my recent visit to Budapest and Prague: Even a U.S. tourist like me who didn’t speak Hungarian or Czech could navigate their public transit systems with a minimum of fuss. That’s also true of the many great systems that combine light rail, streetcars, bus-rapid transit, and other modes of transportation in other U.S. cities.
Let’s hope we can soon add Detroit to the list of U.S. cities with first-rate transit systems. But first voters have some work to do on Nov. 8.
*Link to Original Article