Michigan Odyssey reveals transit realities

By Robbie Webber 

In late March, 15 transportation advocates embarked on a cross-state trip of Michigan using only transit: local and regional buses, Amtrak, light rail, etc. They started at the Detroit airport and traveled into downtown Detroit for meetings. As noted by author Tom Clynes, “Though DTW is one of busiest airports in the world, it is one of only a few major airports with no effective public transit system to serve passengers once they land.”

Detroit’s lack of reliable transit is aggravated in part by the lack of a regional transit authority to coordinate city and suburban transit. Some commuters have completely abandoned transit for bicycles, as Detroit has a rapidly growing network of bike trails and many local roads with little or no traffic. Transit users in southeast Michigan hope that an RTA will finally be formed and funded by legislation pending in mid-April.

A regional bus to Birmingham provided a dramatic contrast to city transit: it was comfortable, fast, and reliable. James Bruckbauer, policy specialist at the Michigan Land Use Institute, commented that this is what regional transit should be, but mused, “…we couldn’t help but wonder why it’s so much easier to leave Detroit than to enter it.”

During a panel discussion hosted by Metromode and the Michigan Environmental Council, Oakland County Commissioner Dave Potts lamented that, “Employers looking at Metro Detroit and southeast Michigan have been turned away because of the lack of transit options. Employers have been saying, ‘We’re not coming because we can’t get our employees to work.’”

The trip from Birmingham to Kalamazoo via the increasingly popular Michigan Amtrak service provided a chance to sample could be the future of intercity travel: an opportunity to use wi-fi and power outlets for work throughout the high-speed rail route. Although parts of this line have the highest Amtrak speeds outside the Northeast corridor, other sections have been plagued by slowdowns. And as blogger Hayley Roberts commented, none of the transit options, or even the transit centers, offered what today’s travelers crave as far as electronic connectivity.

Alighting in Kalamazoo, the group found a model multimodal center, with local buses just outside the door. Following meetings in Kalamazoo, and what one participant described as a “rather luxurious” trip via Indian Trails bus to Grand Rapids, the group heard from local officials about the importance of Amtrak, local transit, and regional bus systems for the health and economic vitality of Western Michigan.

The Odyssey wrapped up in Traverse City, reached by another Indian Trails bus. Through all the tweets, blogs, news stories, visits to local brewpubs, and transit experiences, Bruckbauer summed up the trip with the following conclusions: “First, it’s mind-boggling to us that another minute will pass without a well-coordinated regional transit system in southeast Michigan. Second, with bus and train ridership levels increasing rapidly, decision-makers must ensure that we continue to invest in our transit systems. Third, and most surprisingly, there’s a strong connection between Michigan’s economic competitiveness, transit stations, and beer.”

Robbie Webber is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI. She can be reached at RWebber@ssti.us.