How About Something Unsexy.

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.

the proposed M-1 light rail line

the proposed M-1 light rail line

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 proposed regional BRT system

the proposed regional BRT system

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.

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4 Responses to How About Something Unsexy.

  1. Bob Cowen says:

    Regional Transit Authorities have turned out to be bad ideas elsewhere; a better alternative exists. It’s easy to see a disastrous future if you search the Internet for RTA problems: huge cost overruns, long construction delays, broken promises about stops/stations, missed deadlines, service cut-backs of routes & hours, price increases, poor maintenance, overestimated ridership, underestimated operating costs, politicization and cronyism in-spite of the best intentions, due diligence, assurances and oversight. See what happened in Denver, Cleveland, Nashville, Sacramento, St. Louis, Chicago, Atlanta, Tampa, Portland, Los Angeles and elsewhere. Do your own research! Does anyone in Michigan really believe that a Regional Transit Authority can avoid these types of problems and properly serve the public and the taxpayers?

    Years from now, don’t say that you were not warned or didn’t conduct your own due diligence. It’s your money they’re spending!

    A much better solution is to permit entrepreneurs to offer unrestricted transportation services (shuttle, van, taxi, jitney). Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills, introduced a measure (HB 5724) that would prohibit cities from banning the establishment or use of jitneys as a means of public transportation. Social media will very quickly spread the word about who is good and who is not. Low income & seniors can be given vouchers or a BRIDGE type of card. It’s worked elsewhere and well worth a two year test. Put the brakes on a Regional Transit Authority before entwining three or four counties with their layers of politicians into an even bigger SMART type of mess. Unshackle the free market; you’ll be surprised at how quickly two good things happen: much better service for customers and much lower cost for taxpayers! Tell your Lansing Representative to endorse HB 5724.
    Bob Cowen
    Farmington Hills

    • First of all Bob, thank you for your comment (the first ever on this blog!). The problems you cite with RTAs certainly exist. That said, it is not readily apparent that RTAs are a “bad idea.” The cities you mention are a diverse group. It is also true that the transit provided in these metro areas is giving the taxpayers what they are paying for, although Portland’s issues with BMWs running into trains and crucial transit equipment may be a bit beyond TriMet’s control.

      I do not agree that the private sector vs. RTA is a zero-sum issue. The two have much to say to each other.

      For example, Andy Didorosi, the founder of the Detroit Bus Company, has some interesting points to make regarding the influence of his innovations on public sector transit. Despite owning a successful private bus service, Didorosi supports RTA legislation, although he also shares many of the frustrations both you and I have with public transit.

      Private enterprise in transit should have as few barriers to entry as allow for safety concerns to be addressed. HB 5724 seems to be a perfectly reasonable step in that direction. Over the course of my research, transit is one of those areas where public transit benefits from the innovations of the private sector, and private enterprise can benefit from infrastructure that only government has the power to implement. Jitneys should be in operation; they are not a solution to the transit issues that face a metro area of almost 5 million.

      Again, thank you for commenting! as a sidebar, if I were to get into the jitney business (legality pending), I would center my operations around the Dearborn Amtrak. This is one area that is a pet peeve for me: rather than integrating bus and train operations, SMART has busy routes connecting at Fairlane, with no reliable connection to Telegraph Road. This area of Dearborn is a transit hub waiting to happen, and would seem prime ground for the private sector to step in and do it better. Have a good day, and thank you for reading!

  2. Thank you for the mention of our article. Too often the perception of public transportation in the United States is fraught with preconceptions and prejudgements. As you allude to, well-intended city leaders are often searching for a silver bullet, but that never does seem to come along so far as public transit is concerned. Overall, place branding (the application of corporate-like branding practices to cities, towns, and villages) is a recipe for disaster… however, when applied to public transit, branding (when well done) can persuade a skeptical public to consider public transit, at least as an option. Let’s hope that leaders in Detroit are mindful not only of the physical public transit infrastructure, but also the means to encourage riders to use it.

    • Thank you for your comment! My apologies for the (very) late reply! Last July was the beginning of a descent into insanity for me: I was finishing up a fellowship, studying for the GRE, and then began the crazy process of writing essay after essay for grad school applications (and picking up doubles at work to pay for said applications). Now that is over (until class starts in the fall), I am hoping to get some blogging done. I enjoyed your article very much. I have had evolving thoughts on place branding, and have found myself trending toward resignation. When I was first exposed to the concept, I was interested, and a bit optimistic that it could be used for worthy purposes (See my post: How to Say Cass Corridor. My thoughts have evolved since then).

      In the city proper, Detroit has no need to encourage riders to ride. The stats are a bit hazy, but a huge chunk of the population has no access to a vehicle, and an even larger chunk does not own a vehicle. It is suburban leaders that are a bit like herding cats on this issue. We shall see. We are currently about to give several hundred million dollars to a billionaire so that he can construct a new hockey arena and make more billions (zero profit-sharing with the city or tri-county area). We are also about to dump a lot of money into a badly-designed 3 mile stretch of light rail in between said hockey palace and other things. We also voted for a regional transit authority, but did not fund it. I think I heard some sort of progress had been made on one of the BRT lines, but we shall see. Also, because bankrupt. Hope you are having a fantastic day, thanks for the comment, and thanks for the inspiration!

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