Blog: Conan Smith

Post No. 4

Betting on the Tracks

I have two small pieces of paper from my early childhood, given to me by my grandfather when he was mayor of Ann Arbor. One is a note card commemorating my first train ride, complete with a drawing of engine and caboose. The other is my first driver’s license, authorizing my use of tricycles, bicycles and all other vehicles within the city limits.  

When I was a kid, we were just as likely to take the train as drive to anywhere distant. My grandfather had prepared me for either alternative, but as time moved on, it became evident that the tattered driver’s license would be the more useful piece of memorabilia.

I’m not going to bore you with statistics this time.  There’s nothing numbers can tell you about our transportation system that a 45-minute rush hour commute won’t illuminate with more impact. Rather, I want to share with you what I think we’re missing and what the first steps to reclaim it are.

One hundred and seventy years ago, Michigan's first train took to the rails. Even by frontier standards if must have been an unusual trip. The rails were cut from oak trees. The car was pulled by a team of horses. The route between what is now Toledo and the boom-town of Adrian passed over (and often due to the weather, through) the thick swamp that covered most of southeast Michigan. The forty mile trek could take as long as two full days. Despite the hardship of the trip, it was cause for great celebration. The coming of the rail meant essential things for a community: new residents would move there, new businesses would crop up, the town would be connected in an important and constant way. 

More than a century and half later, these things are still true. 

Most people who live here, however, are rightfully skeptical that that transit could ever be successful. In large part, we don’t know where we’d get on and if it would take us where we need to go. In truth, most jobs in the region are scattered an unreasonable walking distance from any transit stop, existing or proposed.  

For 50 years, as the individual freedom offered by the automobile increasingly captured the American imagination (not to mention huge quantities of the federal budget), we have ignored the sinister consequences of a new kind of development: exploitative, segregationist, and unsustainable. Harsh words. Understand, it’s not the fault of the car. That’s a marvelous machine.

The machine at work here is political, a careless interaction of short-sighted public policy and selfish social mores. It has torn apart our region with grueling efficiency.

Restoring vibrancy to SE Michigan requires some keen attention to what John Elkington called the “triple bottom line,” a commitment to economic prosperity, environmental sustainability and social equity. For too many years we have allowed our culture to fall out of balance, relying on the strength of our auto industry economy to overshadow increasing social inequities and declining environmental quality. Now that our economic prospects aren’t so strong, these companion weakness are being thrown into glaring light. Our regional renaissance must recognize the unavoidable interplay between these three essential elements.

Not coincidentally, there’s a regular drumbeat call for transit in southeast Michigan. We are, after all, the only major metropolitan area in the country without a comprehensive mass transit system. And transit is a powerful development tool that serves the triple bottom line.  

The economic benefits of transit are well-documented. Not only does it elevate personal economy by reducing individual transportation costs, but business located along transit lines appear to thrive whether they are large or small. 

According to the US EPA, most air pollution in our region comes from automobiles. While technology is slow to advance, transit provides an effective foil against toxic emissions. 

Heaster Wheeler, Executive Director of the Detroit NAACP, has noted that transit is an essential equity-builder in our region. And he notes the need for white leadership on the issue. He and I agree that skeptics should not be empowered to declare transit a problem of “urban” (read black) or poor communities. But if transit is to work for everyone, people must have places to come from and places to go.

One way to begin is by rethinking the shape of our neighborhoods. We need to design places to live that are intentionally communal – that foster interaction and interdependence. These places respect our natural resources by using land efficiently and ensuring that water pollution is effectively mitigated. They concentrate our economic power into self-supporting cycles allowing more dollars to stay in our region.  And they help us defy the desire to separate, segregate, and leave others to their own devices. 

Enter “transit-oriented development.” This neighborhood design model integrates mixed-use development and pedestrian-scale designs to support transit and advance economic development.  

There is no doubt that we need transit. We need transit-oriented development even more. It is a strong and underutilized building block for community revitalization and redevelopment. If our region is to survive, to compete globally and nationally in the next 20 years, we must draw residents and businesses back into the fabric of community. To do that, we need neighborhoods that will support their values and meet their goals. Transit-oriented development gives us options that our region simply does not have right now.  

It’s far past time that we should be prioritzing transit and transit-oriented development. By giving these investments the time and attention they deserve in our stumbling economy, one day our own grandchildren will have the opportunity to trade their tattered drivers’ licenses for that note about the train.