Expanding Detroit's One-Trade Horizon

After a surprisingly short 20-minute speech from Bill Ford about all that Ford Motor Company is doing to achieve sustainability - designing hydrogen-powered cars that go 200 mph, dramatic reductions in water and energy use at factories, and building one of the world's largest green roofs on the Rouge River plant - Tom Partridge, a citizen from Washtenaw County, rose with a challenge for the great-grandson of one of human civilization's greatest innovators.

"I challenge you to take the automotive industry back to the future to develop public mass transportation in southeastern Michigan, throughout the state, the Midwest, the country, and the globe," the self-described progressive Democrat said. "I also challenge you to use your education and experience to reverse the trend of increasing unemployment in Michigan and the Midwest by acting as a catalyst for new businesses."

Dozens of cities big and small across America and around the world are studying, designing, building, or expanding public transit infrastructure. That's because, in the 21st century, a wave of interrelated economic, environmental, and social trends favor new alternatives to the automobile. The goal is not necessarily to replace the personal auto. But to provide a greater range of more affordable and convenient transportation options for people of all ages and ability.

The movement could also generate modern jobs and businesses for aspiring transportation leaders like the State of Michigan.

But while Ford Motor Company builds some hydrogen powered busses, for the most part, the auto companies have failed to recognize the opportunity the growing global interest in light rail, streetcars, and commuter trains presents the transportation industry and the communities that depend on them.

In his speech last night on the University of Michigan campus, and in his response to Tom Partridge, Bill Ford, Jr., the executive chairman of Ford Motor Company, acknowledged a new way of thinking about mobility is emerging. And he hinted that his company - motivated by the potential for new technologies, prestige, and profits - is starting to pay attention.

"You raise some very good points," Mr. Ford responded. "One of the fallacies is that car companies are some how against public transportation. In fact, one of the things we absolutely know as we look forward is that congestion is going to be as big an issue as pollution."

"We're challenging the idea of traditional car ownership [with a special study called the Mega Cities Project]," he continued. "The issue is how we get people from point A to point B using an array of things. Public transportation. Cars. Bicycles. Mopeds. Whatever it takes. It might take all of those in a single journey for some people, particularly in big cities where they can't get around."

"We want to be part of that evolution as it goes forward," Mr. Ford continued. "Not to be frightened by it. But to participate in it."