Exclusive: Music Video Describes Detroit Light Rail Choices, Urges Public Comment This Week

In the course of the Woodward Avenue Light Rail environmental review process, it’s become clear that citizens of the Detroit region need more interpretation of the different transit alternatives at hand to make an informed choice, per their democratic prerogatives. The informational materials provided by the City and consultants didn’t always state things in layman’s terms, and even TransportMichigan’s forthcoming posts on the subject aren’t much more likely to be read by a mass audience than the 149-page Draft Environmental Impact Statement. How, then, to spread the word about the significant safety, speed, reliability, and equity implications of a little-mentioned detail of light rail line design?

A music video seemed like a good bet. As art, it can’t match its local musical or cinematographic inspirations, and it’s twice the length of that recent commercial, but as advocacy in the public interest, we hope it has some usefulness. Like Transportation Riders United, we support the center-running light rail alternative, Mainline Option A. We hope you’ll join us in submitting comments to that effect to woodwardlightrail@detroitmi.gov. They’re due March 14, one week from today.

Faith Leaders Join Obama Call for Transport Lifelines, Ask Aid for “Stuck and Stranded”

MOSES affiliates carry the banner of transit investment
MOSES affiliates carry the banner of transit investment

Religious leaders from around the Detroit region seconded President Obama’s State of the Union call for investing in transportation infrastructure in a statement released late this week. Michigan, they say, “put American transportation on the map.” Yet the U.S. now lags the rest of the industrialized world, and a number of poorer countries, in the state of its transportation infrastructure, particularly rail and public transit. According to the faith leaders, affiliated with regional equity advocate MOSES (Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength), it’s past time for us to give those modes new life.

It’s not just transit that’s suffering. The feds are over a year behind schedule in passing national transportation legislation – popularly known as “reauthorization,” or a “transportation enhancement act” (TEA). Without this periodic infusion of cash, we’re going nowhere. “Federal inaction on a robust, multi-year transportation bill has come at a price of American families increasingly stuck and stranded without affordable, reliable and efficient ways to get to work, school, or medical appointments,” the statement reads. “As gas prices soars over the $3 a gallon mark, citizens will once again be forced to struggle to choose between paying for gas and paying their bills.” The question isn’t whether we can afford to make lifeline transportation investments, but whether we can afford not to make them.

And the answer is clear: no, especially when it comes to the public transit investments that serve our state’s most vulnerable people. As the statement puts it:

“One-third of Detroit residents do not have access to an automobile, relying exclusively on public transit to get to work, school, doctor’s office, or to the grocery store. Smarter transportation investments can unleash the under-realized economic power of communities across Michigan. By investing in transportation projects, America can get people back to work now, lay a strong foundation for future economic growth, and expand opportunity for millions of residents.”

The faith leaders represent each county in the Detroit tri-county region, and include Rabbi Joseph Klein (Oak Park), Rev. Robert Dulin (Southfield), Rev. John Hice (Royal Oak), Rev. Bart Beebe (Sterling Heights), Rev. Darryl Moore (Detroit), and Rev. Charles Williams (Detroit). Co-signators are MOSES Executive Director Ponsella Hardaway and CeCe Grant of Transportation for America, which is leading the fight for transport reform across the nation.

It’s exciting to see congregations taking leadership on transportation; indeed, the statement sets an example for others across the country to follow. For too long, we’ve treated transportation as a technical issue, something for designated planners, engineers and economists to resolve. Yet as Transport Michigan has sought to emphasize, and the MOSES statement suggests, transforming our transportation system is ultimately a moral duty. In Michigan, perhaps more than most parts of the U.S., it requires challenging prevailing norms that immobilize the poor. Change on that level is more than any technocrat can accomplish, as the sad history of public transit in metro Detroit has shown; it requires a common public commitment and grassroots momentum.

Transportation systems structure our lives and change our planet’s very climate. Making them humane and sustainable is a crucial task for all of us in the work of building what Martin Luther King Jr. called a “beloved community,” a society that does right by everyone no matter how they roll. Let’s hope that transportation advocates around the nation take note, and weave moral suasion – not just hard numbers, but truth in the gospel sense – into the very heart of their arguments for change.

Weekly Trackback: Regionalism Still Rejected

Former State Representative Marie Donigan (D-Royal Oak) points out that the “comprehensive regional” part of the Detroit regional transportation plan is “being ignored” in a frank, must-read assessment of the metro area’s lagging efforts. “Our leaders can’t agree on a regional authority to operate and plan a transit system — or if we even need one,” she observes archly. A planner by profession, Donigan doesn’t spare her own kind: she cites authorities’ “top-down” approach to public involvement as another obstacle to progress.

Few news outlets reported on Saturday’s Woodward light rail hearings, and none provided details on the implications of rail alternatives. All the more reason why we need citizen media to fill the gap.

Complete Streets advocates are still out burning up the road, with a major organizing session in Lansing. Their model for effective political advocacy exemplifies “people power.” Now to take that to the regional level!

The Case for Center-Running Transit, Part One: Why Woodward Matters, for Detroit and the World

Woodward as it is. What would we like it to be?
Woodward as it is. What would we like it to be?

Transport Michigan is embarking on a multi-part series making the case for center-running light rail on Detroit’s Woodward Avenue, as against the two side-running rail alignments being considered. The question sounds like a technicality, but not all forms of transit are created equal. Choosing the best one is crucial to making sure that transit in Detroit gets done right, to provide the greatest good for the greatest number of citizens and set an example for the region.

It also has importance beyond Michigan. Given Woodward’s global significance in the development of twentieth-century transportation, what happens on the street could be a bellwether for the twenty-first. We’ll begin this series today with a short review of Woodward’s place in history, suggesting why it matters as people around the country and world strive for a better transportation paradigm.

Woodward got its start as an Indian footpath. But its major contribution to the development of transportation technology came in the twentieth century, when it served as a testing strip for the roadway infrastructure that would define the automobile era. Another rubber-tired vehicle – the bicycle – helped pave the way for Woodward’s transformation into the quintessential American artery for cars. The world’s very first mile of concrete highway was laid along Woodward in 1909, and opened by former League of American Wheelmen leader Edward Hines. The first three-color traffic light followed in 1919.

Widening splits church.
Widening splits church.

Sadly, as locally manufactured cars filled it to capacity, Woodward also came to embody traffic engineers’ devotion to moving automobile traffic at the expense of other modes of transportation, and the fabric of the city itself. Widened to 200 feet, with eight lanes all the way to Pontiac, the Avenue clipped off the fronts of adjacent buildings (the steeple of Central United Methodist Church was pushed back into the nave to preserve it). Pedestrians got pushed to narrow sidewalks on either side of Detroit’s main street, and the trolleys that once trolled it as part of the nation’s largest municipal streetcar system got booted to Mexico in the 1950s.

Woodward’s extension also presaged the abandonment of Detroit and accompanying suburbanization to the north and west. General Motors early on established headquarters in the so-called “New Center,” three miles out along Woodward from the old downtown. Martin Luther King, Jr. and over 100,000 marchers took part in a 1963 Walk to Freedom down Woodward, culminating in King’s first “Dream” speech in Cobo Hall, but by that time the region’s center of gravity had already shifted decisively in the opposite direction along the Woodward axis, as white flight tailed the automobile executives who’d built mansions along the Avenue far from the city limit, and urban renewal wiped out many of the neighborhoods that flanked it.

Shorter church + streetcar. Rebuilding Place, Urb. Space
Shorter church + streetcar. Rebuilding Place, Urb. Space

Today, urban freeways are Detroit’s major automobile thoroughfares. Woodward remains the number-one public transit corridor in Michigan, but bus riders and pedestrians face a hostile environment, without mid-block crossing islands or facilities for bicyclists. As money and people trickle back to the central city, the design of Woodward has changed little in the last half-century. Restoring rapid transit to Woodward offers an opportunity to  return it to its historic status as metropolitan Detroit’s Main Street.

For the sake of longtime residents and newcomers alike, Woodward can be re-imagined as something more than a racetrack monopolized by cars: a transportation corridor that supports all modes of movement, and a space that encourages people to linger in the central city. Just as Woodward led the U.S. and world towards a single-use paradigm of rapid automobile movement and urban decentralization in the twentieth century, so too could it set the stage for a more humane course in the twenty-first.

For why center-running transit would best accomplish that, stay tuned.

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.”


“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.

Kresge’s Rapson Not Amused by Detroit’s Light Rail Choice, but Foundation Still “Committed”

Rapson shows an eye for symbolism. Wall Street Journal
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.

Kresge’s $35 million pledge to the light rail system wasn’t insubstantial. Yet while his stand may play well to Journal readers, Rapson probably couldn’t afford to play the spoiler at this stage. For the head of a major foundation pledged to the “promotion of human progress” and a board member of the influential Living Cities collaborative, threatening to pull the plug on account of a design choice supported by the Federal Transit Administration, transportation advocates, and 91% of the general public just doesn’t look good for the house.

We’re still hopeful that when the rail line opens, Rapson may come around to seeing that center-running rail might have been best for Woodward all along.

Weekly Trackback: Uncertain Path for Light Rail

MetroTimes journalist Sandra Svoboda raises troubling questions about planning, or lack thereof, for light rail down Detroit’s Woodward Ave. Have privately mustered funds for the project actually been committed? Only “in dialogue,” and M1 leader Matt Cullen isn’t talking. Does the City have a plan for getting money to cover operating costs? Well, it might soon, and it’s not talking either. Does regional transportation planning agency SEMCOG have any contact with any of the actors? “I’m encouraged to learn [Detroit] is putting together a plan,” says its transport chief. “No one has said anything to us yet.”

On a more encouraging note,  Grand Rapids transit advocates are planning a free concert, called “Bus Revolution,” to kick off their campaign for a millage funding service improvements and Silver Line bus rapid transit. The festival will take place, fittingly, at the city’s Rosa Parks Circle.

Even as highway widening continues apace in many exurban areas of the state, increasing numbers of Michigan communities find they can live better by reducing the number of lanes on the road.

House Republicans’ deep cuts to federal transit programs could mean trouble for Michigan initiatives, depending on what unfolds in the Senate.

Weekly Trackback: Will investors hold back Detroit light rail?

Admittedly, we probably wouldn’t even be talking about Woodward light rail if private investors weren’t putting up money for the downtown portion of the line. But does their $100 million stake give them the right to dictate the shape of a project that could receive four times as much public money? M1 Rail CEO Matt Cullen thinks so. “We’ll wait to see if there’s a project that makes sense and is viable. Then we’ll be prepared to invest,” Cullen tells Crain’s coyly in an implicit threat to the City of Detroit. The City feels, with TransportMichigan.org, that a center-running rapid transit line would make a whole lot more sense than the slow-moving trolley M1 wants on Woodward. The spectacle of wealthy business leaders picking on a desperate city, at the expense of rapid transit and public safety, is not one we much savor. It also raises questions about the meaning of the federally mandated alternatives analysis process in such public-private partnerships.

Cuts to the Detroit Department of Transportation bus system, already slashed to the bone, are reaching the marrow. After waiting two hours, one rider asks if it’ll take a Montgomery-style bus boycott to save the system. One could question whether or not the cuts are “a tactic to push black Detroiters out,” as she charges, but it is sobering to compare the media’s general silence on the bus cuts with the buzz over Woodward light rail. See the full list of cuts here.

Carfree tenants will receive a hefty discount at some refurbished townhomes in Detroit’s wild and wonderful Briggs/North Corktown neighborhood. Jon Koller has even put together a handy map of Spaulding Court’s bikeshed.

A new map of pedestrian deaths by Transportation for America gives tragic shape to the mean streets of Michigan and metro Detroit, among other places. As the Free Presssuggests (here and here), walking should not be an inherently dangerous activity.

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

Neuner, with another seat in hand. LMB
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.

Weekly Trackback: Movie Madness

It’s quite the week for transit advocacy web videos. Ours is making the rounds at Transportation Riders United and Let’s Save Michigan, among other joints, and “Mad Men” actors are joining the chorus for high-speed rail at FunnyOrDie.com, an enterprise helmed by two Michigan natives.

For its coalition-building work to pass Complete Streets resolutions in cities across the state, the League of Michigan Bicyclists has been awarded the “Winning Campaign of the Year” award by the national Alliance for Biking and Walking. Meanwhile, in Traverse City, debate continues over neighborhood traffic calming.

In Grand Rapids, the Inner City Christian Federation hopes that bus rapid transit will aid a new mixed-income development that could eventually include housing, retail, and a grocery store. The Ann Arbor Transit Authority is moving beyond its traditional service area to roll out an ambitious transit plan to promote sustainable growth in Washtenaw County as a whole.