Regine Beauboeuf is head of the Detroit office for the Grand Rapids-based architectural engineering firm Fishbeck, Thompson, Carr & Huber.
More than 100 years later, Detroit once again finds itself looking to upgrade its transportation infrastructure, including public transit, as part of the city's nascent revitalization. If we fail to get it right, we will fall behind faster as rapid innovation continues to accelerate the pace of change.
Thanks to local universities, major automakers and assistance from the State of Michigan, our region is leading the way in autonomous mobility research and development. We should leverage this position and relevant resources to create a 21st century transportation system in our state's largest city to drive economic growth, enhance aesthetic appeal and improve access across the region.
Still, in Detroit today, we see a hodgepodge of transportation modes such as pre-arranged shuttles and short-distance trains, but no overall mobility plan that serves the entire region. Municipal and county buses are now running more reliably, but riders still face long commutes for longer distances to inner-ring suburbs. If available mobility options seem inconvenient and disconnected, many residents who own a car will just continue to drive.
When the city reaches desired population density levels, parking will become costlier, driven by greater demand for finite space. More parking structures will be needed if we remain dependent on cars. But do we really want to use desirable real estate for parking, especially since we are already beginning to see a shortage of office space? The answer is obviously no.
As Detroit restructures, however, the city has a unique opportunity to design a cohesive and tiered modal mix for the convenient and fluid movement of people, goods and vehicles, nonmotorized or motorized, whether driver-dependent or autonomous, creating significant opportunities for diverse communities, demographically and geographically.
A 21st century transportation infrastructure vision should deliver an environmentally responsible, safe, convenient, quick, affordable and comfortable mix of options, as we look to encourage interaction between city and suburbs. It should address different needs to feed the central business district and local airports, while minimizing congestion in and around the city, extending access within a 50-mile radius and helping to eradicate the "us versus them" social dynamic.
The region could accommodate a seamless public transportation system that augments and integrates existing services, such as DDOT, SMART, People Mover and QLine. This new system also could be expanded with additional routes to service areas in Livingston, Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw and Wayne counties, similar to the Metrorail that connects the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.
Importantly, an effective transportation system would stimulate economic growth. For every dollar spent for affordable access to educational opportunities, jobs and commercial districts, particularly in a megalopolis such as Metro Detroit, $10 is added to local and regional economies.
Governments and economic development entities in the U.S. and other industrialized countries are paying close attention to transportation planning in Detroit, because they realize the city has a rare chance to start anew. They are examining not only what will be developed, but also how it will be developed and, ultimately, the nature and impact of social and economic outcomes.
The M-1 Rail is the best recent example of collaboration between public agencies, private enterprises, elected officials, major employers and citizens. Woodward Avenue was almost entirely reconstructed to create a public transit option without disenfranchising existing dwellers or disrupting local landscapes. The new rail line is still being tested and improved, but the process that led to its development is worth replicating for future transportation infrastructure initiatives.
The City of Detroit and the State of Michigan appear to be collaborating and gleaning feedback from residents to develop a new plan that is forward-looking and inclusive. History will likely record the city's approach to recreating its multimodal mix as a revolution, but only if we get it right.
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