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A Modern Odyssey: Part IPrint

Thriving Communities | April 5, 2012 | By James Bruckbauer

After the Greeks won the Trojan War, it took Odysseus about 10 years to get from Troy to Ithaca. He endured violent storms, hardships, deception, and at many points along the way, deep confusion borne of serious information gaps.

Unless you’re in a car or an airplane, getting around Michigan can often seem as difficult.

Travelers Allie Muchmore, Tim Fischer, Hayley Roberts, and James Bruckbauer spent three days on Michigan's transit systems. Photo by Gary Howe (www.glhowe.com)

How do I know? Well, on March 20, a group of us embarked on an Odyssey of our own. We spent three days using only buses and trains to travel to and around our state’s largest metropolitan regions. We ended our voyage at a major tourist destination—Traverse City.

If that sounds like a strange thing to do, you are right.

After all, it is strange that in 2012 it takes more than two hours to get from Detroit Metro Airport to downtown without a car. It’s strange that in order to take a train from Detroit to Grand Rapids, you have to go to Chicago first. It’s strange that motor coach service provider Indian Trails offers free Wi-Fi on its Kalamazoo-to-Traverse City route, while Amtrak does not offer it anywhere in Michigan.

These strange occurrences, and many others, led us to three basic observations about public transit in Michigan:

First, it’s mind-boggling to us that, as I type this, another minute will pass without a well-coordinated regional transit system in southeast Michigan.

Secondly, with bus and train ridership levels increasing rapidly, decision-makers must ensure that we continue to invest in our transit systems.

Thirdly, and most surprisingly, there’s a strong connection between Michigan’s economic competitiveness, transit stations, and beer.

Airports, Transit, and Prosperity

We began our Odyssey in southeast Michigan, where, I was told, a lack of transit coordination was crippling Michigan’s basic attractiveness.

That was obvious to me as I arrived at Detroit Metro from hometown Traverse City.

About 89,000 travelers a day enter or leave the state through Detroit Metro. It’s the world’s 24th-busiest airport, serves as headquarters for Delta Air Lines and Air France, and is the second-largest hub for Spirit Airlines. It is one of North America’s ten busiest airfields, serving over 160 destinations. It’s also Delta’s primary gateway to Asia and third-busiest gateway to Europe.

The bus shelter at Michigan's busiest airport provides no information. Photo by Bobby Alcott (bobbyalcott.com)

Detroit Metro is also the entry point for many of the 15.9 million people who visit Detroit annually. Many of them travel from all over the word and, most likely, they come from places where robust rail and bus networks get them around efficiently and conveniently.

“If there was one destination that should have ample demand for transportation options, it’s Detroit’s airport,” says MLive columnist Jeff Wattrick.

In other words, Detroit’s airport is a world-class operation.

But its ground transportation services simply don’t operate at that level.

Instead, the lack of public transit there turns off many visitors, especially business people. It’s a huge competitive disadvantage for Detroit when the only reliable way to get to downtown from its airport is by car.

It’s no coincidence that cities like Toronto, Mexico City, St. Louis, and even nearby Cleveland rank high in economic recovery, global competitiveness, and overall quality of life: Without exception, these and other robust metro regions have strong transit connections to their airports. You can jump off a plane and, using clearly marked signs, find out where to jump on the next light-rail line to the urban core.

These cities long ago realized that strong public transit connections between airports and other outlying areas and downtowns fuel a powerful economic engine.

No Choice in Detroit

Yet when people visit Michigan’s largest region, which almost single-handedly modernized American transportation in the 20th century, they are left with anything but a choice when it comes to personal mobility.

In our pre-trip research, we found what we thought was one bus line that connects the airport with downtown Detroit: the suburban SMART bus. But finding information about that line was difficult. We succeeded thanks only to some very small print on the airport’s Web site.

Detroit's suburban buses drop riders off at the city border. Photo by Bobby Alcott (bobbyalcott.com)

Once we arrived at the airport, we had to find the actual bus stop for that line. That meant asking a number of airport staff for information; most of them did not know a thing about it.

So we were on our own figuring out where the bus picks you up, what time it arrives, and even where it would take us.

It turned out that, although downtown Detroit is 20 minutes away by car, it’s about two hours and fifteen minutes away by bus. And it usually requires travelers—and their luggage—to transfer to another bus at Detroit’s border.

That’s right: As we approached the city limit, our suburban bus dropped us off at a very busy intersection. We had to walk across a bustling street onto city property, wait about 10 minutes, and then board a Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT) bus.

It was stressful for someone who’s new to the region; it can also be unreliable—a real problem when you’re traveling with bags in hand.

When we finally arrived at Rosa Parks Transit Center, a beautifully constructed downtown Detroit transportation hub, we asked about purchasing a pass to get to our next destination, Birmingham.

But we were told that we either had to purchase a monthly pass, allowing us to use both the suburban and city systems, or go to a different building to buy a daily pass. More luggage dragging ensued.

To sum up: The region’s central transit hub offers little to no information about connecting by bus to the region. Once again, we were trapped in an information gap—one reflecting southeast Michigan’s huge need for regional transit coordination.

Tying It All Together

Such challenges, and along with the crucial importance of having quality transportation in the state’s major city, means that establishing a regional transit authority in southeast Michigan is the logical next step in our state’s game of transportation catch-up.

If lawmakers and public officials fail to act, the state will continue to lose its attractiveness for potential employers, employees, and visitors.

A regional transit authority would plan, coordinate, and administer transit service for southeast Michigan. It would also bring badly needed oversight to the area’s three chronically uncoordinated systems – SMART, DDOT, and the People Mover—and place the region in a better position to attract federal dollars.

There is some reason for hope: Discussions about a Detroit-area transit authority are underway in Lansing, and lawmakers are pushing full-steam ahead to work out details of this critical legislation.

Check out Transportation Riders United’s website for more details about the Regional Transit Authority legislation.

By the way, we did find our bus to Birmingham: SMART bus number 475. The regularly scheduled bus swiftly takes commuters from downtown to Ferndale, Royal Oak, and Birmingham. People on board told us the line is usually on time, reliable, and convenient. It definitely was that way for us.

But, while we headed toward Birmingham, we couldn’t help but wonder why it’s so much easier to leave Detroit than to enter it.

Odysseus was forced to flee most of the places he visited.

In Detroit, that part is easy.

Building a regional transit authority? That part has proved difficult for decades. But getting it done right now is terribly important: It would begin to unify southeast Michigan, make the region far more welcoming to visitors of all sorts, and help rebuild Detroit’s once-booming economy.

To see more photos of the journey, check out the Odyssey Facebook Page.

James Bruckbauer is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s transportation policy specialist. Follow him on Twitter at @jimbruckb. Reach him at james@mlui.org. MLUI is a member of the broad, statewide Transportation for Michigan (Trans4M) coalition that is working to create a stronger Michigan through transportation policy reform.