Want more people in Michigan? Fix transit; let’s start with Detroit, says Whitmer

    Michigan’s Desperate Need for Improved Public Transit

    On my 16th birthday, my dad took me to the Secretary of State office to get my driver’s license. It was a moment of pride, especially because my dad had been my driver’s education teacher at Detroit Henry Ford High School. The day after I got my license, I started driving to school, and I’ve been driving ever since. This story is familiar to many Michiganders who have embraced the car culture ingrained in us. However, not all residents share this enthusiasm for driving.

    In recent years, dozens of my friends who grew up with me in Southeast Michigan have moved to cities like Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Charlotte. During a recent catch-up with two friends from Detroit who now live in New York, I was surprised to hear that one of them hadn’t driven a car in seven years. This shift away from driving reflects a larger trend among Millennials and Gen Z who prioritize public transportation over car ownership.

    The reality is that in Michigan, we don’t use public transit en masse because it is inconsistent, unreliable, and inconvenient. The lack of a robust public transportation system affects our population growth and our ability to attract and retain young people. That is why Governor Gretchen Whitmer established the Growing Michigan Together Council, which aims to develop long-term, sustainable transportation and water infrastructure funding solutions. The council is expected to provide recommendations to the governor on December 1.

    Michigan’s population will not grow until we take meaningful steps to improve public transit. Public transportation has been consistently cited as a priority by younger generations. By prioritizing the needs and preferences of young people, we can pave the way for population growth in Michigan.

    To achieve this, we need bold and visionary leadership that acknowledges the inconvenient truths about our current transit system and puts forward real solutions. It’s time to think big and fully connect downtown Detroit, making it easier to navigate between neighborhoods and linking Detroit to the surrounding regions. We must also reconsider how we pay for these improvements.

    The case for expanding transit goes beyond providing the unemployed with access to job opportunities. A reliable and convenient transit system is essential for the economic development of our region. As Tiffany Gunter, the chief operating officer of SMART, the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation, puts it, “Transit is industry, and it is economic development.”

    Creating a world-class public transit system for our city can have generational benefits. It will attract businesses, tourism, and enhance the quality of life for all residents. However, it requires addressing transportation challenges and coming up with innovative solutions.

    One of the challenges is the lack of connectivity between destinations in downtown Detroit. Major freeways encircle and disconnect our downtown area, making it difficult to reach certain areas by walking or cycling. We need to fill these gaps by investing in projects like the upcoming I-375 project, which can connect downtown to the east side. Additionally, the Second Avenue bridge project will link western downtown to the riverfront.

    Expanding existing transit options like the People Mover and the QLine can also contribute to the overall connectivity of downtown. Adding more People Mover stops at key destinations and extending the QLine to different areas of the city will improve accessibility for residents and visitors.

    Neighborhoods must not be left behind in this transit revolution. Fast, reliable, multimodal options like Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) would provide dedicated bus lanes and increased frequency of service on major routes like Grand River, Woodward, Gratiot, Jefferson, and Seven Mile. Enhancing these routes will facilitate faster travel between neighborhoods and spur economic development.

    Connecting Detroit to the larger region is another crucial step in creating an effective transit system. Currently, Amtrak Wolverine is the only rail service in our region, with three trains per day to Chicago leaving from Detroit. However, it doesn’t stop at the Detroit Metro Airport, causing inconvenience for travelers. Establishing a fast and reliable rail connection between DTW, Ann Arbor, and Detroit could resolve this issue and improve regional connectivity.

    While we know what needs to be done to improve our transit system, the challenge lies in finding sustainable funding models. In the past, attempts to coordinate governance among multiple transit systems in Southeast Michigan have failed. However, we can explore options such as amending Michigan’s constitution to allow cities and counties to impose an additional cent of sales tax to fund public transit. This small investment could generate significant revenue, making us eligible for federal grants and transforming our transit system.

    Cooperation and integration among transit agencies are also crucial for a seamless travel experience. Creating a central platform where residents can navigate and pay for public transit across all providers would simplify the process and encourage more people to use public transportation.

    In conclusion, Michigan’s population growth depends on our ability to address the pressing need for improved public transit. By investing in a reliable and convenient transit system, we can attract young people, foster economic development, and enhance the overall quality of life in our state. It’s time to embrace the challenge and think big. Let’s create a public transit system that is worthy of a world-class city like Detroit.

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