At this past Friday's brown-bag lunch, Megan Owens of Transportation Riders United (TRU) spoke briefly about the status of public transportation here in the Detroit region. Since we have been working in the area of sustainability, beginning around 2005, we have never come across such a difficult and complex area as transportation. Perhaps this is because many areas of sustainability require individual effort to change, and thus can inch forward as we all adapt to our own changes. But mass transit is a broader decision, one that must be agreed upon by a majority of interested parties. Historically Detroit, coming from a car-based culture, has had a hard time moving forward in this particular area.
Megan has spent a number of years heading Detroit's version of a special-interest transportation group, TRU. Working with little money and what at times appears to be even less political will, the group has made some strides. Most particularly, the recent passage of the Regional Transit Authority, which unites Wayne, Oakland, Washtenaw and Macomb counties in one united body, is seen as a positive first step. In her talk, Megan described 3 barriers to public transportation:
- Regional coordination
- Political will
A structure is in place to begin to address the regional issue, but the last 2 remain the challenge. The Detroit metro region spends 1/3 of what other major cities spend for transportation. It's difficult to make progress with such a bare-bones budget. Political will might even be more of an issue. Frankly, people need to understand the benefits of public transportation and be willing to fund it. And therein lies a big problem.
Compared with most other large cities, most people who have grown up in the metro Detroit area know instinctively not to rely on public transport for their transportation needs. We budget for a 1-car-per-person lifestyle, and never think that there might be another way to go. I was the same way until I moved to Tokyo for 3 years and suddenly found myself using trains and buses to get around. I fell in love with the system, the freedom from maintaining a car, freedom from driving my teenage children everywhere; even just being with a crowd of others was fun and interesting. I would never have known this had I not lived overseas, and can understand that this topic may not be high on the list for many Detroiters.
It's worth, however, giving this topic some serious thought. Even if you are perfectly content with our car-oriented lifestyle, consider what will happen when you age and can no longer drive, and most people get there at some point. With no public transport infrastructure in place, many otherwise healthy seniors must rely on the good will of family members or friends to get themselves around. In Tokyo, people bent with age still take the buses and trains, achieving longer-lasting independence. Or consider the freedom your teenage children could experience, getting to part-time jobs or friends' houses without you escorting them. Most importantly, think about the cost of running a car for so many in our region who really cannot afford to own and maintain one. And need we mention the environmental considerations of reducing our fleet of cars?
I make this argument because political will, in the end, comes from us. We have to look beyond today and recognize what will be not only good for us but what will be helpful for the Detroit area in the decades to come. Megan and TRU are leading the fight, but they have to have our backing, or the cause is lost before its out of the gate.