In the city of Detroit this holiday Season, the city council isn’t taking a vacation.
In the city of Lansing, the state of Michigan is reviewing the books for Detroit. When they are done, the city council may not have a job waiting for them if they leave.
In the city of Washington DC, Transportation Secretary Ra LaHood and other officials of the Obama Administration ponder what would happen if Washington gave money to a city to build a rail system when at any day, the boys in Lansing could slap Detroit with an Emergency Financial Manager, send the city into bankruptcy, or who knows what else. The bottom line here is that despite all the positive news coming out of Detroit as of late (the Lions even have a winning season!), there are serious, serious problems.
One of these positives was that the business community, the Bing administration, the Snyder Administration, and the Obama administration were finally on board with something together: The Woodward Light Rail. Designed to go from downtown to Mid-Town, the light rail was supposed to be a symbol of the city moving forward, a step towards real mass transit, and a new way to move people. Everyone was excited for the light rail. Despite looming concerns that ridership would be low, the development wouldn’t follow as expected, the rail would be difficult to find, etc. people were still fond of the rail idea. There’s been a lot of talk of Detroit changing things for the better. This was a physical manifestation of those efforts.
Then, it happened. The news was announced that the much touted Woodward light rail was going to be scrapped. It was as though every Detroiter was simultaneously punched in the stomach.
The consolation prize? A bus system. Another bus system, on top of the DDOT system that has fallen under heavy scrutiny lately for the gross number of busses that do not arrive on time, if at all. As well as the SMART system, which has problems of its own.
In many ways, the Bus Rapid Transit system makes sense, more so than the light rail. It’s easier to implement, not as costly, and covers a much greater area. Perhaps this is the direction we should have been moving in to begin with. If we had always planned on Bus Rapid Transit, we would be in a position to accept victory and move forward. This project would be a success, and we would be proud to see it going into motion. Instead, we shot for the moon and missed. So the BRT system, which is still a strong step in the right direction, is considered a resounding defeat.
I learned of the news with an email from Megan Owens of Transit Riders United, slamming the BRT for ignoring the economic developments of light rail. She called it an “outrage” and said she was “deeply saddened” by the decision. For many, that sums it up.
Another issue with the bus system is what Detroit thinks of when we think of buses, trains, and automobiles. The Detroiters, the car is the way that we go everywhere, and that you can get there quickly. The car shows that we value our time. The bus is the symbol that you cannot afford a car (or at least cannot afford to park when you get to where you are going), and that your time is not valued as high as others. The train is seen as something that most cities, even the ones that are struggling, have been able to accomplish. It’s seemingly something that most everyone can do except Detroit.
That makes the idea of riding the bus a pill that much harder to swallow. In a city like Portland, Chicago, or DC, the bus is just another method of public transportation to be taken advantage of. In Detroit, it’s widely regarded as the lowest form of transportation.
The Detroit BRT would be formed under a new regional agency from what we can gather thus far. Details are sketchy aside from the area that will be covered, entirely on the east side, and that there will be dedicated bus lanes to allow things to move quickly. Here’s what the route should look like for the tri-county bus rapid transit system, a 34 station setup between 3 counties, with 1/3 of the stops in Detroit and Wayne County, some in Oakland County along the Woodward Corridor and and parts of Big Beaver Road, and in Macomb County along Hall Road and Gratiot Avenue.
That map comes from Ray LaHood’s office. The Detroit news published one, but I felt that it needed to be cleaned up a bit.
The good side is that many areas are going to be covered under the new system. Eastern Market, midtown, Birmingham, 2 shopping malls (Lakeside and Somorset), 2 educational institutions (Wayne State and Baker College), the Zoo, and others have their own dedicated stop. It will provide a method to move more people in and out of the suburbs quickly. In all honesty, I can’t say for certain how well this plan is going to be in the long run. However, this is the new reality. Like most plans, I remain skeptical.
Despite these recent events, many light rail backers are working to keep that project going. Apparently, the business community was completely cut out of this decision from Washington and they’re going to try and keep this going, meanwhile some are pondering how to move the money already reserved for the light rail over to the bus rapid transit project.
Time will tell if either, or both of these projects comes to fruition. In the mean time, I’ll continue to hope for the best.
Preview image of Cleveland’s Bus Rapid Transit courtesy of centerforneighborhoodtechnology on flickr.