Blog: Jim Townsend

Jim Townsend is our guest blogger this week. He is the executive director of the Tourism Economic Development Council, serves on the Board of Directors of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, which he founded in 2002, and lives with his family in Royal Oak. 

Check back here every weekday to read Jim's thoughts about branding our region.

Why a Car Monoculture Needs to Clear the Road for Mass Transit

The State Legislature has begun debate on a bill that would establish a regional transit authority in southeast Michigan. I had the honor of introducing that bill in the Michigan House of Representatives earlier this year. By some estimates, this is the twenty-fourth time that metro Detroit has attempted to create a regional entity that would plan and operate a rapid transit system in the nation's largest metropolitan area that lacks anything resembling adequate public transportation. With such a record of futility, it's fair to ask why. Why has southeast Michigan, a region that before the mid-1950s boasted one of the most extensive transit networks in the nation, struggled so to rebuild its mass transit legacy? While race conflict and our auto-centric identity certainly have played a role, these factors don't provide the full explanation.

Southeast Michigan doesn't have transit because we've spent decades building communities mainly in the suburbs oriented toward a single mode of transportation: the car. Subdivisions with cul-de-sacs and no sidewalks. City plans and codes that require uses to be separate from each other – residential in one part of town, civic buildings in another and shopping strip centers in still a third area and all of them accessible only by car. This is what we built in the last half of the 20th century. This is what many of us feel comfortable with and know best. But this model of development and the assumptions about transportation that underlie it no longer work for our residents or communities.

Making and marketing cars continues to be essential to our economy. But this does not mean that a car monoculture still works for people. Young people want to live in communities and regions where a car is not required for basic living, and they're moving out of Southeast Michigan to places that support that lifestyle. Seniors who have limited transportation options require a reliable method for attending to their daily needs. Our cities are strapped for cash and must find a way to use the land we have more efficiently, create more jobs and more revenue per square mile and get more value out of the infrastructure we've already built. We cannot do this if we rely on 1950s-era ideas about moving people around the region where the lack of transit options forces us to continue devoting acres of precious buildable land to parking and widening freeways that we already struggle to maintain.

There is a better way and many of the metro areas around the country that we compete with for jobs and talent are already pursuing it. It begins with a regional authority that coordinates the existing bus service in Detroit and the surrounding suburbs and establishes a plan for building and funding a regional rapid transit system. Suburban residents will benefit from enhanced regional transit services because our lives and livelihoods are regional. Over 80 percent of workers in suburban communities commute to other cities and counties to earn a living. Offering our workers new cost-effective options for getting around will not only improve our quality of life but will enable our communities to grow revenue as we restore jobs and density to our central city and suburbs. A regional transit authority will be good for both Detroit and its suburbs because it recognizes a fundamental reality: we are all in this together, we have one economy, one labor pool. It's time to move toward a regional approach to providing mass transit that will enable all of our communities to thrive.