Public Transit: Panelists weigh in on challenges and progress

Birmingham, Mich. — The definition of odyssey is “a long series of wanderings or adventures, especially when filled with notable experiences, hardships, etc.” or “any long eventful journey.”

So when I attended the Metromode and Michigan Environmental Council’s speaker event tied to Michigan Transportation Odyssey (a three-day trip from Detroit Metro Airport to Traverse City from March 21-23 using only Michigan transit systems and the statewide passenger train service), I knew the conversation would focus on the long and arduous journey that has begun in changing systems and thought patterns around how we get around the Motor City and beyond.

The evening involved a panel discussion called “Linking Regions in Prosperity.” Panelists included Birmingham Mayor Mark Nickita, who also served as moderator; David Potts, Oakland County Commissioner; Michelle Hodges, Troy Chamber of Commerce Executive Director; Dennis Schornack, a Snyder Administration Senior Advisor for Strategy (including transit); and Laura Trudeau, Kresge Foundation’s Detroit Community Development Senior Program Director.

“If we had European priced gasoline, it would have long ago been resolved and we’d have state-of-the-art transportation.” - Oakland County Commissioner David Potts

While the intention of the dialogue was good, and I supported the messages that came out, I experienced a knee-jerk reaction to the lack of diversity among the panelists. Since the conversation involved how the health of the region hinges on connecting city and suburb, it seemed like Detroit and representation from counties other than Oakland and Wayne should have been at the table.

Detroit players were clearly absent and that left a void in the conversation when it was about regionalism. If it was intended to just be a conversation among suburbanites, it still was not reflective of the diversity of our suburbs.

But I decided to shelf this disappointment and see the panelists for the assets they brought: they were politicians and foundation and civic leaders who had track records for making things happen and getting things done. And, they were not blind to how our transportation woes impact young people. In fact, two of the panelists often cited issues through the eyes of their adult children, all of whom had ditched Detroit for cities with effective and efficient public transit.

Here are some themes that emerged from the discussion and what the panelists had to say:

Community Economics

“It [the transportation system] is more than a social expression … it’s good business, and it’s an economic indicator.” - David Potts

“It’s a common denominator for strong communities to have a strong transportation base.” - Michelle Hodges

“Quality of life drives economic opportunity.” - Laura Trudeau

One Region Under All

“We [The Kresge Foundation] don’t think growing at the edges and not growing at the core is a good idea.” - Trudeau

“We’ve become a reverse-commute city. More than 100,000 people who live in Detroit work outside the city.” Dennis Schornack

“We need to connect our modes, and we need to connect to each other.” - Hodges

“It’s starts with us not being afraid to say we’re from Detroit. What are we afraid of? Call it Detroit, not southeast Michigan.”  - Mark Nickita  (note: this comment received hardy applause)

Past & Present Pitfalls

“Even though we’re the Motor City, we’ve had too much focus on one kind of transit.” - Trudeau

“The system we have is broken. I’ve taken the transit system from Birmingham to Detroit. It’s not nearly to the level it needs to be.”  - Nickita

“If we had European priced gasoline, it would have long ago been resolved and we’d have state-of-the-art transportation.” - Potts


“More recently, people are coming to see Detroit in a positive, unique way. It’s not to gawk. It’s to engage in the problems we have and to contribute solutions to fix them.”  - Nickita

“It doesn’t do us any good to talk about the dysfunction of the past … we have seen people coming together and a momentum is building. There are more organizations around transportation than I can count.” - Schornack

“The transportation system is gaining steam and gaining ground. It’s a different day.” - Nickita

Appealing to the Younger Generation

“Transit is about freedom. For my generation a car is freedom. But when I drove into D.C. and couldn’t park, I was a prisoner in my own car.”  - Trudeau

“Driving is a distraction to texting.” - Schornack

“I was born the year the streetcar system was dismantled in Detroit. We’ve had a generational change. People get really excited about a rail option. The time is right for mass transit and other options.”  - Trudeau

“Detroit’s success is driven by economics and the mandates of the next generation.” - Potts

All of the panelists were “for” a good public transit system for our region, clearly realizing that good transportation not only improves quality of life and helps us retain and attract younger folks, the economic implications are the bigger driver in improving the viability of our region.


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