When we think about public transit improvements, we tend to think big. We picture projects like the $1.7 billion, 11-mile extension line in San Diego
. Or New York City's $17 billion Second Avenue Subway project
. And then, here in Metro Detroit, we shove our hands in our pockets, kick the dirt and say, "Golly, that's a lot of money. Maybe someday."
Fiscal realities may support such wistful thinking, but when it comes to making meaningful upgrades to regional transit in the metro area, there's no need to wait around dreaming for the sky to be Cloudy With a Chance of Billions of Dollars. How could the region dramatically improve public transit on the cheap? As it turns out, plenty of ways.
The odds of an Ann Arbor resident hopping on SMART to buzz around Detroit for the day are pretty low. Even if she has a full fare card for TheRide in her pocket, getting a new card and orienting herself to a new system are inconveniences that can outweigh the trouble of just driving herself around the city.
"Someone is more likely to use public transit if it's easy or if it requires little thought or effort," says Richard Murphy, programs director for Michigan Suburbs Alliance. "The philosophy that go!pass uses in Ann Arbor is that people are likely to try out transit if they already have a card in their pocket."
Imagine if that Ann Arbor fare card in her pocket did work in Detroit, and in Pontiac, and across all regional transportation systems. Imagine if all of those systems shared a single app with real time bus schedules.
"There would be some investment required to make sure everybody's fare boxes can talk to each other," Murphy says. "But by and large, it's a question of getting the operators to hash out the details."
And, of course, commit to a time line. When are the common-sense changes coming? The sooner the better.
Continuous Commuter Routes
For transit commuters in and out of Detroit, it is a daily ritual: stopping at one bus provider's boundary, getting off the bus, and climbing back on the next provider's vehicle to continue down the same major corridor, such as Woodward or Michigan Ave. It's inconvenient, a deterrent to using transit, and, according to Murphy, unnecessary.
"It doesn't really matter if the bus is from SMART or DDOT," he says, "if they are going to serve all of these corridors, they could remove that problematic step of having to transfer for no particular reason."
With the same number of buses serving the same number of riders on the same routes, Murphy says the best thing about this idea is that it would be virtually cost neutral. Coordination and agreements between providers would be the only requirement.
Everyone wants a good, reliable shuttle service. The University of Michigan has a shuttle taking students and staff from Ann Arbor to Detroit. TheRide
offers an airport shuttle service from Ann Arbor. The Detroit Bus Company
has experimented with an airport shuttle. The Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau wants one too.
"At that point you have all these different entities operating similar express systems on similar routes," Murphy says.
By coordinating instead of replicating, all of these shuttle providers - which may have different goals now - might find more common ground than they think. If a single shuttle took a loop including Ann Arbor, Metro Airport, Downtown and targeted regional spots, every provider's needs could be met with one route.
It's not difficult to identify a pretty strong theme in each of these ideas. Collaboration and coordination can lead to legitimate, meaningful transit changes when billions of dollars aren't laying around. Fortunately, with the new RTA in place, the foundation for such partnerships is being built. To turn big ideas into action, Murphy recommends residents reach out to their local transit providers, as well as members of the RTA's Citizen Advisory Committee
"The Citizen's Advisory Committee is a great place to bring up new ideas and explore the opportunities for this kind of cooperation," he says.
He also challenges transportation innovators to think about mid-range projects as well as the cheap ones, such as the Ann Arbor-Detroit Commuter Rail project, which is using existing infrastructure to introduce a brand new service.
"We shouldn't rule out a new service as cost prohibitive," Murphy says. "For something like this, the up front costs are not in the hundreds of millions of dollars."
What could some creativity, collaboration and coordination do for transit in Metro Detroit? From increasing convenience to introducing new services, the potential impact could be huge. And a heck of a lot less expensive than the $2 billion MDOT has earmarked for its questionable expansion
Natalie Burg is a freelance writer, the development news editor for Concentrate and a project editor for Issue Media Group.