Category Archives: Public Transportation

Michigan's Spending Priorities Through the Eyes of a Young Expat

What’s sadder guys? The fact that the powers that be in Michigan think widening I-94 and I-75 will help their economy, or the above Youtube video? Tough call, I think.

Michigan expat Erica Flock is allowing us to publish this letter she wrote to Rob Morosi at the Michigan Department of Transportation regarding the Detroit region’s plans to spend close to four billion widening two highways.


Dear Mr. Morosi,

Last month during a visit to my family in Michigan, I stood on RiverWalk overlooking the Detroit River. I don’t recall ever seeing the river up close and was delighted by how blue and crisp it was, much like the Great Lakes system it feeds into. After years of living in Washington DC, I’m used to the brackish brown color of the Potomac River. Don’t get me wrong. I love the Potomac River: the majesty of Great Falls National Park, kayaking under the historic Key Bridge, the forests that line its shores.

But when I look into the Detroit River, or walk the rolling dunes of Lake Michigan, or search for Petoskey stones with my nieces and nephew on the beaches of Lake Huron, I feel such an ache for the unique beauty of this state. The designation “pure” is appropriate. Despite the pollution I know is there, despite the invasive muscles and carp and shrinking water levels, “pure” is the precise word that comes to mind when I look at the horizon and see blue glacial lake meeting a blue sky. There is no place like this on earth.

My feelings toward Michigan’s built environment are another thing entirely.

When I was a kid, I didn’t know that the way American cities — and particularly cities in Southeast Michigan — were designed was unusual from a global perspective. It seemed self-evident that the only way to get around was by car.

But when I visited Ireland in 2003, I was surprised to discover that many of the Irish 20-somethings I met had never gotten a drivers license. Their compact cities didn’t require it. Years later, I envied the Japanese and Germans their beautiful, widely used, and efficient public transit systems: the yellow trams quietly criss-crossing Berlin, the humming bullet train from Nagoya to Kyoto. And then I saw incredible videos of rush hour bike traffic in Copenhagen and learned that 63% of the Danish Parliament gets to work by bike every day.

The US was supposed to be such a rich country. Why didn’t we have this stuff?

I later learned that some US cities did in fact, have this stuff (sans bullet train): Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle, San Francisco, etc. They all had rail and bus networks that put my home state to shame.

When I moved to Washington DC in 2012, I sold my car and joined the 37% of DC residents who get around solely by Metro, buses, bikes and walking. Within the next year, we’ll also have a new streetcar, a new Metro line and bikeshare stations extending to more cities (the system just celebrated 5 million rides). Despite the explosive growth of the DC’s population, its car count has remained relatively steady because of the many options we have to get around. Metro DC certainly has its own well-known transportation problems, but it’s undeniably easier to live here without a car.

In light of this, my twice-yearly family visits to Michigan always frustrate me. I can’t see my friends in Canton or Ann Arbor without borrowing a car from my busy parents. I can’t walk to the grocery store or bike safely to the nearest rail-trail. There is no pedestrian traffic to enliven the center of my hometown. There is no center of my hometown. The many lakes scattered about Waterford provide some semblance of public space, but that’s only by nature’s fortuitous accident. Thoughtless sprawl has left huge blemishes like the empty Summit Place Mall in Pontiac on our landscape.

Having been spoiled by transportation options in other places, it seems so obvious to me where Michigan should be putting its resources: into a robust rail and bus system that would seamlessly connect Detroit and its suburbs, zoning laws that encourage mixed-use, infill & pedestrian friendly development, traffic calming measures, and green infrastructure.

SEMCOG echoes these observations in their 2040 Regional Transportation Plan:

“One of the guiding principles of the Plan is that transit service in the region must be significantly improved in order to attract the same levels of ridership that exists in thriving metropolitan areas across the country. There are several reasons for this principle including: the need to attract and retain young professionals, the need to connect people to jobs, and the need to address the challenges presented by a rapidly increasing elderly population.”

I’m happy to see that SEMCOG is making some inroads here with M1 and the Detroit-Ann Arbor commuter rail. But when the same agency approves a $4 billion dollar highway-widening project for I-94 and I-75, I question their commitment to such a vision.

I hear MDOT leadership saying that “expansion” is a mischaracterization of the project. If that’s the case, why are lanes being added to these highways? Michigan’s population, jobs and vehicle miles driven have all fallen over the last decade and multiple studies have shown that widening roads does not ease congestion.

What will the price of gas be in 5, 10, 20 years? At what point will driving become a financially crippling choice? For 25% of Detroiters, it already is: they don’t own cars despite the poor service provided by the region’s bus system. Energy prices are sure to rise in the years ahead. Our current system isn’t designed for this unavoidable scenario, and yet MDOT and SEMCOG continue to spend precious resources propping it up.

SEMCOG has pointed out that Metro Detroit ranks 22nd out of 25 metro areas in terms of transit operating funds and 23rd in transit service. Now that we have a regional transit authority, we have a great opportunity to re-define our future.

As a Millennial and an expat from Southeast Michigan, I want to add my voice to the scores of residents who have already movingly expressed their opposition to the I-94 and I-75 projects. This region is in desperate need of a new transportation paradigm, one that matches the vibrancy of its people and natural resources, and these highway projects will only delay that vision, at great social and financial cost. Please reconsider going ahead with this development.


Erica Flock

Washington, DC (Formerly Waterford, MI)

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Filed under Politics, Public Transportation

Shared Responsibility for Detroit's Woes


As a Michigander for the past 21 years, I’ve heard my share of Detroit criticisms, jokes, and put downs, both from within and outside the Great Lakes State. While fingers can be  pointed at the lack of past civic and political leadership in Detroit, our collective actions (or lack thereof) can certainly share in the responsibility. Some may scoff at such a notion, but here’re a few reasons why:

  • As a nation we elected leaders who adopted a tax code and laws that advocated, promoted, and accelerated flight from cities and suburban sprawl. Many in this nation continue to support such policies. Granted, this affects every city, but that doesn’t mean it was beneficial for them unless they had scads of excess land for new subdivisions or the ability to annex freely.
  • As a nation, we collectively turned our backs on inner cities and the residents thereof many years ago, only seeing fit to reverse course when the notion of revitalization became profitable.
  • As a state, Michigan has some of the most arcane home rule laws that created thousands of 36 square mile “kingdumbs” (pun intended) that fight with each other like cats and dogs and seldom do the right thing.
  • This nation very nearly turned its collective back on the auto industry due to political self-interest.
  • As a state and nation we allowed expressways, poorly placed factories, urban renewal projects, sports stadiums, and other projects to carve up and displace perfectly healthy inner city neighborhoods, leaving a tattered and disjointed landscape.
  • Residents/politicians living in outstate Michigan from Detroit would short-sightedly say, act, and vote as if Detroit was not their problem too.
  • In Southeast Michigan, leaders and residents alike outside of Wayne County often could care less what happened south of Eight Mile.
  • One of the best interurban transit systems in the nation was torn up and replaced by diesel-belching buses that have as many endearing qualities as a lump of coal.
  • Corporations ran away from the city in the ’60s and ’70s…with some finally seeing the light of their actions and returning to Detroit in the ’00s and ’10s.
  • Half of Detroit’s professional sport franchises left for the ‘burbs with one, the Pistons, still playing practically closer to Flint than Detroit.
  • Far too many lenders and insurance companies red-lined inner city neighborhoods.
  • Shady lenders who offered inner city loans foreclosed on homeowners the first chance they got.
  • Absentee landlords let their properties decline into disrepair and blight.
  • Politicians shied away from making the tough decisions, and rhetoric replaced reason in far too many discussions and decisions concerning Detroit.
  • Too many people in Southeast Michigan acted like the city was an island unto itself, when, like it or not, their collective futures have been inexorably linked to Detroit’s fate.
  • Up until recent years, the national media tended to solely focus on the bad news  about Detroit. There are many great things about Detroit, and piling on does nothing to reverse problems: it only reinforces misperceptions and stereotypes.

Shall I go on?

– Rick Brown


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Filed under architecture, Crime, Economic Development, Featured, Great Lakes, Politics, Public Transportation, Race Relations, Real Estate, Sports, sprawl, The Media, U.S. Auto Industry, Urban Planning, Urban Poverty

Imagining a Dream Rapid for Cleveland

By Christoper Lohr

In March, The Atlantic Cities featured a map by Baltimore resident Chris Nelson that showed every Subway Restaurant as an actual subway stop arrayed nicely into a transit network that extended throughout greater Baltimore. Skip ahead to a few days ago and Business Insider wrote an article on the NYC Subway system plan from the 1970’s that never ended up being built.

These articles inspired me to create what I called the Dream Rapid. Rather than base it on existing Subway Restaurants or plans from decades ago, I instead set out to base in on plausible rail and interstate corridors that could accommodate transit.
A few days ago, I posted the initial Dream Rapid map to Facebook and got a good response. Much of the feedback asked for an even more ambitious map. The next day I posted Dream Rapid 2.0 featuring a beltway line that traced the path of I-480 and I-271 as well as extension of the lines further afield. Recognizing the limitations of a static schematic map, I worked to transition the schematic over to a street map that can be zoomed and panned.

Image: Christoper Lohr

Dream Rapid provokes two simple questions:
  1. Why doesn’t this exist already?
  2. Why aren’t we talking about making this a reality?
In a time when the Cleveland and the state of Ohio are spending upwards of a

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billion dollars on mega-projects for cars (Innerbelt Bridge #1, Innerbelt Bridge #2, Opportunity Corridor) and wasting millions on unnecessarily repaving I-90 on the west side, I think we deserve to at least have a debate on how best to use our transportation dollars. Hopefully Dream Rapid can start that conversation.

Blue Line – Avon Lake to Willoughby via Downtown serving Westlake, Bay Village, Rocky River, Lakewood, Detroit Shoreway, Ohio City, Asiatown, Hough, Collinwood, and Euclid. Also has commuter rail connections to Ashtabula and Lorain.

Red Line – North Ridgeville to Willoughby/Collinwood via Downtown serving Berea, Euclid, and existing Red line route. Also has commuter rail connections to Ashtabula and Elyria. 

Green Line – North Ridgeville/Euclid to Downtown serving I-271 and I-480 corridors and existing Green Line through Shaker Heights. Also has commuter rail connections to Elyria.

Orange Line – Berea to Aurora via Downtown serving Stockyards, Slavic Village, Solon.

Yellow Line – Strongsville to Macedonia/Twinsburg via Downtown serving Middleburg Heights, “The Brooklyns”, Tremont, Central, Slavic Village, Garfield Heights, and Bedford. Also has commuter rail connections to Medina.

Purple Line – Brecksville to Orange/Warrensville Heights via Downtown serving Independence, Tremont, Beachwood, and existing Blue Line route. Also has commuter rail connections to Akron.

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Filed under Featured, Public Transportation

Three dumb things people are saying about the "Opportunity Corridor"

Here’s a handy guide to not putting your foot in your mouth when discussing Cleveland’s “Opportunity Corridor,” a $350 million highway-development scheme that will displace 90 families on the Southeast side. Don’t, under any circumstances, say the following things:

1. “The Forgotten Triangle” …

Can we just stop using this patronizing, culturally biased term? Pretty please? As my friend Akshai pointed out, who exactly “forgot” about these neighborhoods people live in? Was it the people that live in them? Did they forget they live there?

This bs term is being used to make the case for clearing parts of these neighborhoods for a road. (Mansfield Frazier calls this “planned abandonment.”) Would it be so easy to seize people’s homes as agents of the state if we were to call these places by their rightful names, Central or Fairfax, proud neighborhoods with many assets? Of course not! Stop using this term immediately if you don’t want to sound like a jerk.

2. This project is decades old (as if that is a good thing)

When this project was dreamed up, gas cost 98 cents a gallon, Enron was a blue chip stock and everyone thought Full House was a good show. Here’s the thing: we’ve learned a lot since then (or have we?) MAYBE, just maybe, projects dreamed up during an era of different energy and economic realities aren’t appropriate decades later! Go back to start!

3. This project will help transit/support transit oriented development

Excuse me, but … LOLZ! Building a $350 million highway right next to an underused rail line is not doing transit any favors, let’s be honest with ourselves here. Passenger rail and driving are competing modes, they’re not complimentary, in case you’re confused. If we start offering everyone who drives to work daily a $50 prize that won’t help transit and this isn’t all that different.

The idea that this will help support transit oriented development is just as perverse. The thing about transit oriented development, that is a term that is not synonymous with “any development by transit.” The only kind of development a $350 million piece of car infrastructure will support is car-oriented development, not to be confused with transit oriented development, which necessarily requires a REDUCTION in car infrastructure.

Also this project has no transit elements whatsoever. This project is transit oriented development a lot like the widening of 271 is transit oriented development, in that IT IS THE OPPOSITE OF TRANSIT ORIENTED DEVELOPMENT. If it is in fact Opposite Day, however, continue calling this exorbitantly expensive road project transit oriented development. 🙂


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Discussing Cleveland's "Opportunity Corridor"

Cleveland is planning to spend $350 million on a three-mile road that will cut through some of its poorest neighborhoods and establish a neat path from I490 to the Cleveland Clinic. Hello, 1966!

I had a chance to sit down to discuss this project with some of the smartest people in Cleveland recently, including writer and entrepreneur Mansfield Frazier, Sierra Club organizer Akshai Singh and NAACP executive director Sheila Wright. I think it was a pretty interesting discussion (aired Sunday on WTAM).

Anyway, wanted to share these recordings because I think it raised some important questions.

Here’s the first part:

Here’s the second part:

And here’s the third. We’re only on part of this.


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Repurposing “streets with no name”


In a number of cities, there are certain derelict streets that are nearly denuded of dwellings or businesses. Desolate and forlorn, these streets resemble something out of a post war apocalypse. Detroit may be the poster child du jour of such stark and sad emptiness, but there are many other examples across the Rust Belt and elsewhere. What to do with neglected streets has long been a source of planning discussion and conjecture. In some instances entire abandoned neighborhoods have or are being converted to urban agriculture or community gardens. However, this avid bicycle commuter has another suggestion for a few of these lowly streets without names – repurpose them to active transportation byways.

Quite often bicycle routes consist of abandoned railroad corridors, canal towpaths, or shared lanes in a sea of motor vehicles. I, like many other cyclists, am not necessarily enamored with having to pedal cheek-to-cheek with four-wheeled motorized metal missiles. Seems no matter the efforts to stave off accidents and injury, the metal missiles will always win the contest. The other problem is that there are a finite number of old railroad or canal corridors to choose from, so many populations go un or underserved.

Hence, if a street is already underutilized and virtually desolate, then why not just finish the job? Why not consider purchasing or re-accessing those land uses that have currently sole access to the particular street and then repurpose the entire street into an active transportation byway serving bicyclists, pedestrians, joggers, roller-bladers, Segway users, and others?

In certain instances, “streets with no name” could be converted to mass transit corridors akin to busways. Needless to say, not every desolate street or remnant neighborhood would be appropriate for such a transformation, but I would be willing to bet that in certain cities and in certain locations, there are some excellent opportunities just waiting for foresighted leaders to actively pursue this idea.


Converting an existing street would also seem to be an easier/effective/efficient/economical way to expand a city’s active transportation infrastructure rather than wholly design, acquire, and build a completely new route. Given the extent of economic decline that would precipitate a “street with no name,” it would be hard to imagine any land acquisition costs being a significant impediment. Lastly, necessary public utilities along the byway along the could remain accessible for care, maintenance, and serve the revitalized


The short-term goals of establishing active transportation byways are to:

· enhance the city’s and region’s active transportation resources;

· reduce the city’s and region’s carbon footprint;

· improve overall community health and fitness;

· reinvigorate the sense of place;

· to rebuild community pride; and

· infuse economic energy and cultural vibe.


In the longer-term, the goal of such a repurposing enterprise would be to effectively stymy and then to reverse the decline found along these desolated streets and their adjoining neighborhoods by utilizing active transportation corridors as the conduit.

Am I missing or overlooking something here? Any thoughts or feedback on these ideas would be appreciated.

– Rick Brown

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Filed under architecture, Art, Economic Development, Featured, Good Ideas, Public Transportation, Real Estate, the environment, Urban Farming, Urban Planning

Are Michigan and Wisconsin missing a golden opportunity?

Since reading the book Aerotropolis several months ago, the topic of intermodal logistics has been on my mind. One logistical issue that routinely comes up in the Great Lakes Region is the congestion and delays that take place in and around Chicago. Being a chokepoint for numerous rail lines and highways at the south end Lake Michigan, the Chicago Region is critical hub for cross-country freight movements. With the rapid growth in just-in-time delivery, containerization, container ports, and intermodal facilities over the past few decades, any bottlenecks and/or delays here can spell big trouble for those firms depending on their goods being transported by rail or truck through Chicago.


As a result, it seems to me that Michigan and Wisconsin may be missing a golden opportunity to take advantage of the routine bottlenecks in Chicago by developing a set of bypass container ports on either side of Lake Michigan for the un-congested transport of those goods moving cross-country. The container ports could be constructed at either Milwaukee, Racine, or Manitowoc on the Wisconsin side of the lake and in Muskegon or Ludington on the Michigan side. Granted this option would not be practical for all goods moving through Chicago, but those items moving towards the Eastern Great Lakes, Northeastern United States, and Eastern Canada could easily flow through these lake ports, be off-loaded onto rail cars, and/or and then be shipped eastward from there by rail or truck. Likewise for goods shipping westward to the Western Great Lakes, Northern Plains, Rockies, and Pacific Northwest. The trans-shipment across Lake Michigan could also serve as a back-up in case of a national emergency.

Some may scoff at this notion and issue of low water levels would need to be resolved, but I believe there is real merit in at least considering it as an economic development option. One only need to look at the growth of container ports across the globe to see the huge potential. Where rail cars were once shipped across the lake, could containers be a 21st Century option?


Consider this:

  • According to a recent (2012) New York Times article, trains are delayed by as much as 30 hours when passing through the Chicago bottleneck. For some of the 1,300 freight and passenger trains, this extent of delay could provide an open door to the cross lake option, if planned and designed properly. According to and, a fully loaded, medium-sized container ship can be loaded and unloaded in mere hours (10-12). Combined with the four hours for the lake crossing itself and you have a total of
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    14-16 hours. Many corporations would be thrilled to get their goods 15 hours earlier than if they went through Chicago.

Seems that an intermodal operation could be a golden opportunity for some savvy shipping firms, Lake Michigan harbor communities, businesspeople, and states of Michigan and Wisconsin to consider more fully. While shipping rail cars may not be competitively feasible as it once was (see photo above), moving shipping containers across Lake Michigan could be a whole other story. Just a thought that perhaps both states ought to at least consider and analyze, if not pursue.

Rick Brown

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Filed under Economic Development, Featured, Great Lakes, Public Transportation, regionalism, Urban Planning