3 things that could transform metro Detroit in 2016

2016 stands to be a big year for metro Detroit. Here are three of the issues that have the potential to transform the region that we will be watching closely this year.

Funding the Regional Transit Authority in November

One of the most important questions the people of metro Detroit must answer in 2016 is whether or not they want to to finally invest in a coordinated, comprehensive public transportation system for all of southeast Michigan -- one that will lead the development of the region's first ever rapid transit routes. The Michigan legislature created a Regional Transit Authority at the close of its 2012 legislative session, a landmark accomplishment that had eluded lawmakers for nearly four decades. The RTA has the power to coordinate the activities of existing transit agencies across four counties (Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, and Washtenaw,), including the Detroit Department of Transportation, the suburban SMART bus system, and the Ann Arbor Transit Authority.

But without funding the RTA is impotent. If voters in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, and Washtenaw counties don't approve a millage that the fledgling transit agency hopes to get on the ballot this November, we're back to square one and doomed to at least a few more years of fragmented transit.

Last February, the Detroit Free Press broke the story of James Robertson, a Detroit man who had to walk 21 miles each day to and from his job in Rochester Hills because of gaps in the region's public transit network. Mr. Robertson's story captured the attention of metro Detroit, and thousands of people from around the region and beyond donated to a GoFundMe campaign that eventually raised over $360,000. A local car dealer even gave him a brand new Ford Taurus.

But the generosity of thousands of metro Detroiters, while dramatically changing the fortunes of Mr. Robertson, did nothing to address the inadequacies of the region's public transit system. Will voters make the connection in November that funding transit through tax dollars will not only help individuals like Mr. Robertson, but also increase the economic prosperity of the region as a whole, or will they balk at the ballot box?

Once the question of funding has been decided, we can move on to the fun stuff, like deciding what kind of transit we want to see on our major regional corridors.

Bridging the gap between Detroit and Silicon Valley

For years, metro Detroiters have gotten used to disparaging comparisons made in media and policy circles between the unglamorous "old economy" of Detroit (blue collar, unskilled automotive manufacturing) and the sexy, high-tech "new economy" of Silicon Valley, which makes use of a highly educated workforce and promotes a culture of innovation. But with a pair of recently announced landmark partnerships between two Detroit automakers, Ford and General Motors, and two Silicon Valley giants, Google and Lyft, 2016 may be the year where we see the gap between these places bridged.

Yahoo Autos reported at the end of last year that Ford and Google are launching a joint venture to build a fleet of self-driving vehicles -- Google will be responsible for developing self-driving car software, while Ford will lend the partnership its manufacturing expertise. The details of the partnership will be announced this month at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Just this week, General Motors announced that it was investing $500 million in the San Francisco-based mobility startup Lyft, one of the fastest growing rideshare platforms in the U.S., taking a seat on that company's board in the process. A press release announced GM and Lyft's plans to create an "Autonomous On-Demand Network" of vehicles they hope will become "part of people's daily lives." They will also be working to create rental hubs where people who don't own cars can rent vehicles in the short term to work as Lyft drivers.

The development of autonomous vehicles is exciting not only for Detroit, the world's auto capital, but for the future of cities in general. It will be exciting to watch partnerships between tech giants and Detroit automakers deepen in 2016.

Sprawl on, or reinvest in our established communities?

After a long period of sluggishness following the Great Recession, the economy of southeast Michigan is finally gaining a head of steam. Home sales are up across the region, and median sales prices reached 10-year highs in 2015.

While this is no doubt a good thing, it also means that we'll soon begin building houses again at rates that mirror or exceed those of the pre-recession era. According to Crain's Detroit Business, 2015 marked the sixth consecutive year of growth in the number of new residential building permits issued across the region, though that number is still less than a third of the 25,328 permits issued in 2004 during the housing market's peak.

As we approach pre-recession levels of new residential construction, we must ask an important question: "Where will these new houses be built -- on greenfields on the edges of the region or as infill in our established communities?" If gas prices remain low and our development policies remain the same, we fear the answer will be the former, not the latter.

Many of Detroit's established communities, in particular neighborhoods within the city of Detroit and near suburbs like Ferndale, which Crain's reports led the region in the percent change of home sales between 2014 and 2015, are increasing in popularity as places where the people of metro Detroit want to live. We hope that trend continues in 2016.

Matthew Lewis is Metromode's managing editor. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjlew.

Photo by Doug Coombe.
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