Three pages into Daniel Baldwin Hess and Alex Bitterman’s (2008) article “Bus Rapid Transit Identity: An Overview of Current “Branding Practice,” I found myself sporting quite a smirk. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) will never quite jibe with our preoccupation with silver bullets and big, expensive solutions in Metropolitan Detroit. We have been trying to “save Detroit” for over a generation. We have built Renaissance Centers, stadiums, and people movers. Former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick stated in 2005 that we were transitioning from a “manufacturing economy to a casino economy.” Ludicrosities such as Cadillac Centre made headline news. We are a city of loud splashes, grand gestures, and bold proclamations. That said, we have become too small for our britches, and that is a fact.
Hess and Bitterman’s task of assigning a “brand” to BRT in order to sell it to the transit-consuming public is illustrated by this 2011 headline in Yonah Freemark’s The TransportPolitic: “In a Failure of Municipal Ambition, Plans for Detroit Light Rail Shut Down as Focus Shifts to BRT.” Upon reading further, it becomes apparent that the proposed BRT lines are in fact quite ambitious. The proposed M-1 rail line would have provided service to a 9 mile stretch of the Woodward Corridor. By contrast, the proposed BRT system, at a fraction of the start-up cost, is designed to serve over 80 miles of the metro area. Despite the greater functionality and affordability of BRT, Freemark lacks enthusiasm for the concept. One of the takeaways is that BRT is not sexy; it is a bus. Factors such as service area and intermunicipal cooperation are boring.
BRT is not boring. There may be little romance in functionality, but there it is:
The policy implications for regional BRT are attractive. Rather than a single line in the City of Detroit, BRT implementation on Gratiot Avenue, Woodward Avenue, and M-59 would require that the state’s three largest counties and 17 separate municipalities agree on something. It may not be a subway, but such large-scale cooperation between local governments would be an exciting development of its own. Efforts such as the creation of the regional authority that controls Cobo Center and the recent success of the tri-county millage regarding the Detroit Institute of Arts signal that if ever the time was right to attempt large-scale regionalism, that time is now.
Last week, the Michigan State Senate voted for the creation of a regional transit authority (RTA) in Metro Detroit. There are tens of millions of federal transit dollars on the table, but the measure must still pass the House of Representatives. It is time to stop bemoaning the loss of our shiny new toy and get real. BRT is a functional, affordable transit solution that presents itself at a time when we cannot afford to build light rail infrastructure.