Arbor Update

Ann Arbor Area Community News

What Detroit can learn from Denver

19. June 2005 • Scott Trudeau
Email this article

Keith Schneider, deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute recently published an article, explaining the lessons the metropolitan Detroit area should learn from Denver’s recent, rapidly expanding public transportation projects.

The success of Denver’s new growth strategy—investing billions in its modern FasTracks public transit system—is a lesson in governance, economics, social values, and politics that southeast Michigan and most of the state’s other metropolitan regions must learn if they are to ever catch up in the global race for competitiveness. It requires a kind of dual regional psychology that understands the urgency of Michigan’s economic condition, but uses statesmanship and patience to improve it.


Meanwhile, back in southeast Michigan, few elected leaders talk publicly about transit’s ability to build a new economy. Tellingly, two of Michigan’s most influential leaders, Republican Oakland County Executive Brooks Patterson and Republican House Speaker Craig DeRoche of Novi, insist that the foundation for economic success in their state—which is among the slowest growing, has the highest unemployment, and drives more talented young people away than almost any other—is more of the same. They’ve both publicly and prominently said they want more highways and more sprawl.

  1. DeRoche is the poster child for anyone opposed to term limits. His idea of political leadership is looking out for himself and his political cronies. Don’t hold your breath waiting for him to do anything that doesn’t benefit himself.
       —John Q.    Jun. 20 '05 - 04:58AM    #
  2. That’s what he’s getting at, I think. Pols like Patterson and DeRoche are some of the biggest the obstacles to fixing Michigan.
       —Scott Trudeau    Jun. 20 '05 - 07:59PM    #
  3. It’s not Patterson and DeRoche. Though these guys may seem to be driving with their eyes firmly glued to the rear-view mirror (or worse), they’re not without a constituency. Don’t forget that in the ‘50s GM was convicted of anti-trust violations in federal court for buying up, and shutting down the transit systems in LA. If you spend any time with auto execs, you’ll find that they ardently believe that the automobile is the transportation of the future. Many will claim that it’s the only form of transportation that’s not subsidized. It’s probably still safe to say that the majority of people around Detroit would hold encouraging mass transit as a form of disloyalty. When these old pols die, there will be a cadre of like-minded folks/fools to replace them.

    No real attempt has been made to win the hearts and minds of Detroiters. Leadership isn’t just somehow manipulating government to do the right thing in the face of the majority’s disagreement. We must educate ourselves. If we can’t create a model of attractive public transportation in Ann Arbor—where there are so many well-educated people who are less directly financially dependent on the auto industry—we’ll never have it in Detroit. As we are now, Detroit will cleave to the automobile until the only option is walking.
       —Al Braun    Jun. 21 '05 - 03:36AM    #
  4. Interesting comments, Al. I wonder, though, if the auto industry is really as much of threat to transit now as it was then. Back then, they were concerned that if Detroit, LA and other places continued to have good transit, there would not be a market for their product. Now that their product is ubiquitous and the built environment supports its use they have little to fear from supplementary transport systems.

    You are absolutely correct that there is a meme that “people around Detroit would hold encouraging mass transit as a form of disloyalty.” But why should they? It’s really just a popular misconception. If anything, encouraging transit would get many commuters off the roads, freeing them up and improving the driving/car experience for those who choose to stay. Some transit riders may opt out of the car system entirely, but most will keep a car so they can drive out to the parks, ski hills, etc. on weekends.

    What DeRoche/Patterson and some constituents represent is the pro-sprawl lifestyle that currently revolves around stripmalls, bigbox shopping, greenfield development and McMansions. If anything, it’s the Pultes and Toll Bros. that might feel threatened. Patterson and DeRoche are ideologically opposed to all this “regional planning & cooperation,” and “New Urbanism,” because it threatens their world of endless building, tight local control, and suburb/city division. The pro-sprawl comments each have made lately is more of a reactionary response to the idea that they might need to cooperate with other communities for smart growth.
       —Chris F    Jun. 21 '05 - 09:33PM    #
  5. Bingo! DeRoche, in particular, is beholden to the development interests.
       —John Q    Jun. 21 '05 - 09:35PM    #
  6. Just like all Ann Arbor leaders, the DDA, and bloggers!
       —Brandon    Jun. 22 '05 - 02:23AM    #
  7. OK- Let’s assume it’s Patterson and DeRoche, or DeRoche and Patterson. Then what?

    It’s critical to frame problems in such a way as there’s some action we can take. We can’t afford to merely be right.
       —Al Braun    Jun. 22 '05 - 02:44AM    #
  8. Brandon,

    Ha, ha, we all get the joke.

    But the truth is that DeRoche is a tool of the development lobby. Like the Washtenaw Homebuilders Assoc., the state Homebuilders have pretty much blocked any efforts to reign in the worst practices of the development industry. It’s not just opposing PDRs and some of the issues that most people have heard about locally. They also oppose standards to make homes safer, more energy efficient, etc. They have tremendous influence in Lansing and have used it to create tax and regulatory policies that benefit themselves at the expense of the general public. They are part of the problem in Michigan a better place to live and javing politicians beholden to their money and philosophy isn’t funny to me.
       —John Q.    Jun. 22 '05 - 04:56AM    #
  9. William Greider wrote a book called, Who Will Tell the People, one of premises of which is that citizens are a bunch of self-interested and self-righteous fools, and that most U.S. congressmen and senators like being beholden to a special interest to give their behavior coherence.

    On almost every issue (not just this one), the fight is between a special interest and the disengaged majority. The disengaged majority loses every time.

    That this or that elected official is in someone’s pocket ain’t news. The question is what to do?
       —Al Braun    Jun. 22 '05 - 09:56AM    #
  10. Metro Detroit may not be the most transit-friendly political environment, but people in Detroit rely heavily on the bus system. My experience is that buses on main routes in Detroit are standing-room-only every weekday from morning until evening.
       —Larry Kestenbaum    Jun. 22 '05 - 01:12PM    #
  11. … I believe there’s something similar from Lansing to A2 … whomever knows more about it should chime in with what’s already on the table … they’re seriously considering switching from buses back to streetcars here in D.C. ...
       —Rob    Jun. 22 '05 - 02:05PM    #
  12. Rob, the A2->Detroit study is the offshoot of the Lansing->Detroit study. That produced a recommendation that “through Ann Arbor” was the most viable general route, and, with that in mind, implementation has to be done from the smallest feasible piece upwards, or some such, so the current scope of work is just A2 / Detroit.

    My own thoughts:

    * Lansing / A2 / Toledo would be perhaps the most useful line in the area, by merit of connecting across three existing passenger rail lines. Here’s hoping A2 / Detroit goes well enough to add on that link next.

    * The best thing I know about Hieftje from a regionalist point-of-view is that, I am told, he’s already worked out an agreement with the Mayor of Dearborn to provide heavy local transit connectivity to their respective stops, should the rail line happen, to maximize its utility/appeal. (Granted, I don’t think Hieftje has much power to make such a thing happen, but good transportation systems are something that need as many advocates as they can get…)
       —Murph.    Jun. 22 '05 - 02:23PM    #
  13. Since AATA is a city agency, the mayor does indeed have some power to assure needed transit tie-ins.
       —Larry Kestenbaum    Jun. 22 '05 - 04:01PM    #
  14. Good points, Al, re: special interest vs. disengaged majority and framing actions. I think we can approach it in a few ways:

    Attack the special interest: Keep an eye on the pro-sprawl pols and their sprawl-housing sponsors; oppose them in elections and get the word out on their true allegiances and the consequences of their policies.

    Engage the disengaged: promote density and transit, choose and promote lifestyle options that encourage such, and let our elected officials know we support such causes. I use AATA, Amtrak and DDOT (even though I have a car), and participate in transit forums so that people like Heiftje know we support the proposed cooridor and regional cooperation with Dearborn, etc. I also encourage and demonstrate to others how easy it is to choose these options, and why they should support these causes. Support pols who get it and make it so they are “in our pocket,” so to speak, beholden to broad community interests rather than self-serving “special” ones.

    That’s just a start. What other actions might we take?
       —Chris F    Jun. 22 '05 - 04:56PM    #
  15. Larry – I had thought (assumed?) that AATA was similar to DDA: independantly incorporated and budgeted, but with a City-designated Board. (Which implies some direct, but very slooooow, power by the Mayor.) What is their legal status?
       —Murph    Jun. 22 '05 - 05:19PM    #
  16. From the AATA FAQ:

    “Is AATA a for-profit, private company?
    No. AATA was chartered in 1969 by the City of Ann Arbor, Michigan, as a special-purpose unit of government. AATA is supported through local, state and federal funding, purchase of service agreements with local municipalities, and fare revenues.

    AATA’s revenue is a combination of local, state and federal funds. The federal funds AATA receives generally do not pay for operating expenses, such as wages, fuel, insurance, repair parts and office supplies. Operating expenses are primarily paid for by passenger fares, local funds (from the cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, the University of Michigan, Eastern Michigan University, and from Ypsilanti, Pittsfield and Superior townships) and Michigan state operating assistance.”

    Seems more like quasi-governmental. I highly doubt they take marching orders from Hieftje, but I defer to the experts.
       —Dale    Jun. 22 '05 - 07:58PM    #
  17. If we want to make much of a difference, we’ve got to get our heads up out of the details, and look at a bigger picture.

    There have been lots of proposals over the years for light rail, and other forms of mass transit for Detroit. The one thing they all have had in common is that they’ve been non-starters.

    In Southeast Michigan there are a group of developers and other real estate types that have a lot of money for politics. There are also a few planners with no money for politics. And there’s a huge—relative to developers and planners—generally apathetic, and somewhat complicit (most all of us want a bigger house and yard) public.

    In this scenario planners are left briefing, prodding and begging politicians who nod just as politely when they’re in the developers’ pocket. You don’t need to see the sprawl to know that the developers are winning.

    If planners want their ideas to be anything more than the imaginings of someone counting on winning the lottery, they’re going to have to lead the public. Any planners up for that?
       —Al Braun    Jun. 22 '05 - 10:31PM    #