Sunday, July 24, 2011

UAW Shifts on Fuel Economy, But After Thirty Years, Big Three Remain Slow Learners

Not good business. Associated Press
This blog rarely delves into the innards of the automobile. To build a better transportation system, we've got to do more than tinker with what's under the hood. Still, there are times when attention must be paid.

In a historic break with the past, the United Auto Workers has declined to join the Big Three's latest campaign against higher fuel economy standards. Instead, UAW President Bob King joined the heads of other leading unions and environmental organizations in a letter supporting "strong fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas standards," and publicly criticized the automakers' radio ads against the proposed 56-mile-per-gallon average. For that, he's earned the ire of some of the Big Three's purported defenders, including the Detroit News' Nolan Finley, who says the standard poses an "existential threat" to the industry and its workers. Greener vehicles, Finley argues, are a Trojan horse for environmentalists "openly hoping the industry chokes to death."

Recall that Finley is making this argument less than three years after oil price spikes almost choked the Big Three to death absent any help from environmentalists, the companies having successfully blocked fuel economy standard improvements in passenger cars for two decades beforehand.

Michigan would do better to mind a Christian Science Monitor column by Pat M. Holt. "While Detroit has been lobbying Congress to postpone and stretch out better fuel economy standards," Holt observed, "the Japanese and Germans have been meeting those standards." Unfortunately, while foreign competitors seize market share, the American auto industry "is acting as though it ought still to be reaping the rewards for inventing mass production and the Model T."

Holt's column was published in 1980.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Transport Advocate Neuner Running for Lansing City Council, on Heels of Complete Streets Win

Neuner, with another seat in hand. LMB
Rory Neuner, vice-chair of the League of Michigan Bicyclists and project coordinator for the Transportation for Michigan Coalition (Trans4M), is seeking an at-large seat on Lansing City Council. If elected, she would be one of the most seasoned advocates for transportation transformation to hold office in the state.

A growing number of people across the state have been agitating for Michigan to reclaim the mantle of transportation innovation by fostering alternatives to the automobile, but few have been more energetic than Neuner. Active transportation advocacy has been her particular focus. With the LMB's John Lindenmayer, she masterminded the successful passage of Michigan's Complete Streets law last year, a coup that garnered national recognition. In coordinating the up-and-coming Trans4M coalition, she'll be leading the charge for the even broader policy reform the state so badly needs.

Neuner's campaign website cites her work to pass Lansing's Complete Streets law, but transportation isn't the focus; her decision to run was prompted by Lansing Council's rejection of tax incentives for urban redevelopment. Her day job has greater consequence for how the state gets around. Still, if elected, Neuner would be in a good position to help along a number of exciting local projects, including a Lansing-East Lansing bus rapid transit line. And, if the Auto State is destined to produce its own Earl Blumenauer or Jim Oberstar, Neuner is a strong candidate for the role.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Kresge's Rapson Not Amused by Detroit's Light Rail Choice, but Foundation Still "Committed"

Rapson shows an eye for symbolism. Wall Street Journal
Just as Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and the Federal Transit Administration signed off on a compromise center-running light rail plan last week, M1 Rail partner and Kresge Foundation head Rip Rapson made his displeasure clear in the most public of ways. On July 2, one day after the final plan for the line was officially published, Rapson's defiant visage appeared on the front page of the Wall Street Journal - standing in the middle of Woodward, no less, as if daring the trains to run him down. Still, according to an MLive report today, a Rapson deputy suggests the foundation remains committed to funding the line.

The Journal article focused on Rapson's frustration with Mayor Bing's handling of the Detroit Works Project, but called the light rail dispute "the latest flare-up." Rapson complains the City didn't notify him and other private investors before signing an agreement with the Federal Transit Administration for the center-running line, though the City's Norm White says otherwise. According to the Journal, Rapson "began to rethink Kresge's funding" as a result, even though the City consented to give M1 all five Midtown light rail stations it sought, rather than the two its own Department of Transportation had called for. From the article:
"Are we going to pull our money out? We won't just because we're annoyed," [Rapson] said, adding that the parties were discussing the issue. He feels good about his bargaining position. "Everyone knows that Kresge is the do or die for the line."
The city, of course, has been in a delicate dance with M1 Rail for more than a year now. According to one individual familiar with the process, Rapson put his foot down and flatly refused to put up money for a center-running rail line at a meeting in the Renaissance Center some months ago. Even if he was determined to dig in his heels, it seems unlikely that the City would have moved forward with the center-running alignment had they not received support, however grudging, from most of Rapson's fellows at M1. Never a very cohesive bunch, the group hadn't met in many months as of this spring. It hasn't always bothered to field reporters' inquiries, and while both President Matt Cullen and Vice-Chair Dan Gilbert did make some recent remarks favoring the curbside option in recent weeks, the group had no comment on the final choice.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

New Film Samples Detroit Bicycle Scene

What better week than this to celebrate independence from oil? In a breezy 14-minute video, "Detroit Bike City," Alex Gallegos has captured the breadth of the Motor City's expanding bicycle culture. From the East Side Riders to Critical Mass, from The Hub to Corktown Cycles, people are taking to pedal power as a way to save money, lose weight, and just get around in style. "I actually started riding when gas prices got too high," says Stacy Jones, seen trolling the RiverWalk with a giant stereo, fishing pole, and canine companion on a pink Schwinn, "and I just fell in love with it."

Detroit Bike City from Alex Gallegos on Vimeo.

"We try to teach the kids, 'don't go the way that we went,'" states the East Side Riders' Mike Neeley. "We want you to go another way." He's speaking of staying in school and out of trouble, not transportation choices. Still, it's tempting to wonder whether Detroit, after giving the world the automobile and suffering so much from the momentous changes it brought to the metropolitan landscape, may yet point Michigan and the nation towards a wiser transport model as well.

If you enjoy this piece, also make sure to check out Matt Dughi's marvelous time-lapse film of last fall's Tour de Troit.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

With 91% in Favor, Detroit Opts to Bring the Trains Down the Middle

Woodward Avenue's new (old) look. Light Rail Now
It's official: The City of Detroit has chosen to give light rail trains their own lanes in the middle of Woodward Avenue, all the way from Eight Mile to downtown. The release of the Final Environmental Impact Statement last week confirmed the compromise between the city and the M1 Rail private investors which has been whispered about for some months. Bowing to the investors' interest in Midtown Detroit real estate, the plan includes five stations on Woodward between I-94 and I-96  I-75, instead of the two originally proposed, but they will be located in the median instead of along the curb. That's good news for Detroit, and for democracy, since more than nine out of ten public comments on the issue supported the center-running plan.

The compromise plan. Detroit Free Press
Downtown, the trains will take a compromise route different from the alternatives previously proposed. Instead of heading straight down Woodward to a terminus near the riverfront, or detouring to the Rosa Parks Transit Center en route to that site, the trains will run down Woodward to stop near Cobo before doubling back to the transit center in a "hockey stick" pattern. (We'd rather not have seen the transit station shunted off Woodward at Campus Martius to begin with, but what's done is done, for now.)

The Detroit Department of Transportation and the Federal Transit Administration deserve credit for Solomonic judgment in a tight spot. They've managed to respect the popular demand for rapid transit while still offering plenty to M1, short of the bizarre curbside alignment which would have left pedestrians scrambling to cross the street and left trains at the mercy of traffic congestion. Despite recent comments by M1's Matt Cullen and Dan Gilbert, Transportation Riders United believes most of the group has come around to the compromise. Transport Michigan thanks the many, many members of the public who submitted comments favoring the center-running plan. There's power in money, but also in people, thank goodness.