Scott Benson Talks Transit, Bikes, Advocacy

Editor's Note: This article is the second in a series of interviews with Detroit's newly elected council members about transportation policy.

DETROIT—Now in 2014, the City of Detroit faces many unknowns and changes. Chief among these are a new Mayor and a Council defined by district. Mode Shift is seeking out the thoughts and opinions of the newly elected and re-elected public officials who will have a hand in shaping transportation policy in the years to come.

When Scott Benson returned from the war in Iraq in 2009, he was shocked by the change he saw in his northeast Detroit neighborhood in the course of only one year.

“My neighborhood was exponentially worse than when I left it,” Benson says. “It was a sea change, the blight. So I said, well, I’ve got this skill set, let me try and actually do something about it."

Benson, who was born in Los Angeles, came to Detroit with the United States Coast Guard in 1992.

“The Coast Guard brought me here, and a beautiful woman kept me here,” he says. He has lived in his Detroit neighborhood for more than 15 years.

After an unsuccessful attempt at running for state representative, Benson launched council campaigns in 2010 and 2012, and finally won a council seat for Detroit’s new 3rd District in 2013.

Located on the city’s northeast side, the 3rd district borders 8 Mile Road to the north and Hamtramck to the southwest. It has a population of 97,082, with 36 percent of households below the poverty line, according to Data Driven Detroit . The average per capita income is $12,561.

Benson believes the new council district model will go a long way toward advancing the interests of residents throughout the city.

“I think one of the reasons you see blight in different areas and a lack of resources being deployed is because certain areas did not have advocacy,” he says. “So one of the advantages of being a district representative is your ability and your responsibility to advocate for the residents of your district.”

An urban planner by training, Benson worked in Detroit as a consultant on projects including property assembly, façade rehabilitation and redevelopment of the Mack corridor. He also owns a private residential and commercial development firm that operates throughout southeast Michigan.

An avid biker, he says he is known for riding his bike to and from meetings.

“My plan is because I’m right off Gratiot here, I will be taking the bus to work, to highlight the need for public transportation and to show that a city officials which have a say on how resources are allocated actually use the system,” he says.

Mode Shift sat down recently with Benson at his office at Matrix Human Services on McNichols, just west of Gratiot Avenue, to discuss his ideas and thoughts about the transportation issues facing his district and the City of Detroit in 2014.

Mode Shift: How do you think bicycle safety in the city of Detroit could be improved?

Benson: Residents of the districts use bikes for transportation. There is a different need for bicycles in the 3rd district than In Midtown, where it’s a badge of honor among the hipsters to ride your bike. In the 3rd district, it’s more out of a lack of access to motorized transportation and the fact that public transit is so unreliable. I think people actually use bicycles out of necessity here.

Number one is outfitting your bike for safety, so a rear taillight, reflectors are important. You don’t see bikes being outfitted properly in the 3rd district, because the needs are so great, and the gap in personal wealth and resources are so great, that people don’t invest in the safety pieces, like helmets, nightlights and things of that nature. But you’ll see people in the snow, in the dead of winter, riding bicycles.

I don’t know yet how to address that. Maybe it’s public service and education that needs to happen, because if you get hit on a bicycle, that’s a big deal, and if you don’t have health insurance, that’s an even tougher deal.

State and city policymakers can also come into play. I know there’s a movement afoot to make bike lanes safer. Maybe its just putting reflectors or bubble bumps to separate bike paths, and public safety announcement. And public education for drivers is needed, too. Like is it legal to drive in a bike lane? People don’t know.

Would it be great to have a dedicated bike coordinator? The short answer is yes, we should look to it, but the long answer is, can we afford it?

Mode Shift: What do you think needs to be done to improve the quality of bus service and safety for riders and drivers on DDOT and the safety of cyclists who share the roads with DDOT?

Benson: I ride my bike down Gratiot and I always look out for the buses, but I haven’t seen a problem with curbing. I’ve never had that experience. For bicyclists that share the road and any curbing problems, that seems to me to be a matter of training for the drivers, as far as sharing the road with non-motorized users.

As far as safety on the buses, the question is what type of resources can we deploy? I’ve been a proponent of the RTA and hope that will help as we deploy more resources and make Detroit and the region for more federal and state dollars. How you solve the problem, I believe, is more police resources on the buses.

In London, the bus drivers are basically in a cage. I hate that optic, but I hate the narrative of a bus driver being victimized even more.

Mode Shift: What are your thoughts on what needs to be done to improve regional transit?

Benson: Atlanta recently tried to fund a tax proposal, which was defeated. The Grand Rapids proposal was defeated initially, but now it passed. Typically that’s what happens. I know people are really hungry for reliable transit, but I haven’t heard how they are planning to fund it: property tax, sales tax, registration on vehicles? It’s tough. How do you crack that nut?

We are going to get regional transit, but maybe not on the first pass. Other people have done it, Grand Rapids did it, and so we can do it. It just takes time, more education, more people saying ‘hey you know what, a BRT would be fantastic up Gratiot and Woodward, and the ability to have buses that run on time and where drivers are safe would be fantastic’.

I’m a big advocate of public transit, I used to work in New York once a month and used to take the bus and the train from LaGuardia to Staten Island, for $4. A cab in Detroit costs $70 from my house to the airport. I would take the SMART bus but that’s a 20-hour proposition and you have to be very strategic, because the bus doesn’t go to both terminals.

Mode Shift: What are your thoughts or concerns about the M-1 Rail project?

Benson: Scott Benson has a hierarchy of needs when it comes to public transit. The foundation needs to be responsive and reliable bus service. On top of that, you build your responsive and reliable bus rapid transit system. On top of that, you build your light rail.

I like the optic of a trolley going up Woodward from downtown to Grand Boulevard, but that’s not going to help anybody in my district. I think BRT that is cheaper and more sustainable is the right way to go before we start getting to light rail.

But you leverage it. It’s fantastic, I am glad the business community stepped forward and said we need this in the downtown area, and once the populace sees it, comes downtown, and uses it, then when the time comes to vote on a regional transit tax, they’ll see the benefit, so maybe we can leverage it that way.

Mode Shift: How do you feel about the debate over the I-94/I-75 freeway widening?

Benson: As an urban planner, with freeway widening, I give it a jaundiced eye. I’m always very skeptical. Growing up in LA, we had seven-lane freeways but there was still always traffic. People think that an extra lane is going to help traffic, but I don’t think that it does, nor do I think that it will.

It impacts the southern part of my district. The residents along the I-94 corridor in my district are overwhelmingly poorer residents and will probably look at the state coming in and purchasing their property as a good thing.

But as for the impacts of freeways on neighborhoods? I mean, I’ve never heard of someone saying ‘oh my property values have increased 1000 fold because of the freeway through here’. Commercial property, yes, but residential, no.

I’m up in the air on the I-375 road diet plan, I haven’t had time to study that and take a position.

Mode Shift: What are your thoughts on prioritizing an update of Detroit’s non-motorized plan?

Benson: I don’t know the entire plan, but I do know (the system) could be made safer. I am not sure the typical citizen is aware of the existing non-motorized transit planning and bike lanes, here on the east side, and we need to do a better job of marketing the Conner Creek Greenway.

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