Blog: Megan Owens

Ironically, early auto workers once rode the streetcar to work in factories. This new model year, facing a crumbled rail system and plant closings, the communities of greater Detroit are assembling a regional transit authority. Megan Owens, the executive director of Transportation Riders United, outlines a timeline of transit and what's needed to make the jump from jalopy to streamlined bus service and regional light rail.

Post 2: What a Difference a Decade Makes

It is often said that you can't understand where you're going without looking back on where you came from.  That's especially true for transit in the Motor City.  We've still got a long way to go, but we're on the right track, and wow, have we come a long way!

Detroit once had a great transit system; the biggest municipally-owned streetcar system in the country.  Vibrant, close-knit communities like Ferndale, Mt. Clemens, and Birmingham were built up along train and streetcar lines.  Early autoworkers would hop on the streetcar to go to work or shopping, saving their new automobile for the Sunday drive.  

Over several decades, however, interurban train lines closed, streetcars were sold off to Mexico and replaced with buses, and commuter trains stopped running.  For the past fifty years, transportation investment throughout the greater Detroit area (and most of Michigan) focused almost exclusively on building more and bigger roads and highways.
Since development follows transportation, subdivisions and strip malls popped up like house farms in former farm fields and forests all along the big new highways.  People moved further and further away from the central city, lured by initially quick highway commutes, low building costs, and government housing incentives.  The communities they left behind were stuck subsidizing the sprawl, getting paved over for the big new highways, and struggling to pay for massive infrastructure.
While the new car-dependent suburbs may have worked well for some people, they neglected the needs of many other people throughout the region.  Fully one-third of our population is too young, too old, or physically or financially unable to drive.  Many more just want to have other transportation options.  These include many people in the suburbs, including moms who are sick of spending their lives as kid-chauffeurs, aging seniors who want to maintain independence despite losing their vision, families struggling to pay gas and car payments with decreasing incomes, and many others.  Those are just a few of the reasons that transit is so important!

By the late 1990s, Detroit was providing a lackluster and unreliable bus service that often didn't show up and left people in wheelchairs waiting on the curb for hours.  City and suburban bus service was badly coordinated and even the People Mover had to operate one-way at a time after damage from the Hudson's Building implosion.  Even worse, far too few people understood that things could be different.  Bus service was seen as welfare for people who couldn't afford a car and there was no understanding of the enormous economic benefit other cities were deriving from rapid transit investments.

A handful of local individuals got pissed off at the lousy transit service, and the lack of any real leadership to improve it, and decided to do something about it.  Their reasons for action varied – an environmental lawyer concerned about air pollution, a well-traveled 14-year old who saw the connections between transit and urban vitality in other cities, city residents who just wanted their bus to show up on time – but their dedication never wavered and Transportation Riders United was created.

Over the past decade, the region has changed dramatically.  City and suburban bus services are working much more closely together.  Both have over 80% on-time performance and are actively striving to do even better. 

Active discussions are occurring among key elected officials in Oakland County and throughout the region about expanding transit and eliminating holes in service.  There is broad public support for expanding transit and growing interest in funding transit improvement.  Regional leaders and national experts frequently discuss the enormous economic and revitalization benefits transit can provide in keeping young professionals here, recruiting new economy businesses, spurring redevelopment, and creating jobs.  And our first two rail lines are likely to start running within the next few years, along Woodward and out to the Airport and Ann Arbor.

While we are still primarily dependent on buses and regional leaders continue to squabble over taxing and control, we are fully on the rebound, having reached the nadir and started to climb again.  We've still got a big hill ahead of us to ensure regional cooperation and dedicated transit funding, but I'm pleased to say that we've come a long way, baby! 

Come to TRU's 10th anniversary dinner on November 16 to learn lots more about past transit troubles, the founding of TRU, and the enormous impact we've had over the past decade.

Read my next blog posts for how we're going to get the rest of the way there.