Asking the Right Transit Question In Michigan

Speaking to a select group of members from the state House of Representatives yesterday, Megan Owens, the bright young executive director of Transportation Riders United, a nonprofit group working to improve public transit in Detroit, made a compelling case that aggressive investment in rapid buses, commuter trains, and light rail lines that link residential, commercial, and industrial centers in Michigan is perhaps one of the greatest economic opportunities ever to confront the state.

To which David Palsrok, the equally young state Representative from Manistee, MI, wasted no time responding: "But how do we change behavior, get people out of their cars, and get them to use the [mass transit] service?"

The comment illustrated Michigan's inability to recognize and reckon with the huge forces now reshaping the state economy and culture.

It's not that Rep. Palsrok - a third term lawmaker - and other state leaders fail to acknowledge that modern transit infrastructure - like roads, sewer, or water lines - can propel growth in the 21st century. The nation's history, Rep. Palsrok explained, is full of stories about spurring economic development around stage coach depots, train stations, and airports. So "there's no doubt," he said, that street cars and other public transit services could help stimulate growth in communities across Michigan.

But the question isn't 'how does Michigan change behavior and get people to ride the expensive new machinery,' as Rep. Palsrok suggests. Because the research reveals - and this was the principal message delivered by Ms. Owens and others who testified before the House Commerce Committee - that behavior IS changing.

A perfect storm of global mega trends is fundamentally altering society in Michigan and across the nation. They include:

  • Single professionals, empty nesters, and immigrants fueling population growth in central cities.
  • Increasing traffic congestion, rising gas prices, and the growing financial burden of car ownership.
  • The push to promote green building and sustainable development.
  • Mounting concerns about climate change and environmental protection.
  • Lifestyle changes that favor walking, biking, and healthy living.

Taken together, these trends overwhelmingly favor growth in vibrant metropolitan areas and, by extension, the expansion of clean, safe, convenient, and cost effective public transit.

The question is how long before Michigan responds with new policies and spending practices that manage the change and translate some potentially ruinous threats into real opportunities.