The Big Picture

Amid renewed interest in rethinking regional transportation, several projects aim to overhaul how we get around in metro Detroit

Deborah Schutt could walk to a variety of amenities from her Bloomfield Township home near the intersection of Woodward Avenue and Square Lake Road. But instead she drives because, as she puts it, Woodward is “more of a highway” than an avenue.

“Once I tried going as a pedestrian and it was such a frightening experience that I was like, ‘I don’t want to do this again,’ ” she says.

That problem certainly isn’t limited to the stretch of Woodward in Schutt’s neighborhood. In her capacity as executive director of the Woodward Avenue Action Association, she recently completed work on an ambitious plan to redesign the main artery of the metro area’s road system from Hart Plaza in Detroit to Pontiac.

Released this past October, WA3’s Woodward Avenue Complete Streets Master Plan is the culmination of four years of work. Funded by a $750,000 grant from the Federal Highway Administration, the plan’s “Complete Streets” moniker refers to a larger theory in transportation design that has caught on nationwide over the past decade.

“The complete street really is one that serves all transportation needs, whether you’re using your two feet, whether you’re in a wheelchair, whether you’re on a bicycle, whether you’re in a car, or on public transit,” Schutt says. “It makes provisions to safely accommodate all of them.”

WA3’s Complete Streets plan has varying recommendations for each of the 11 sections it breaks Woodward into, but the results are roughly the same: reducing car travel lanes and adding dedicated lanes for bicycles and public transit, as well as improved pedestrian infrastructure including walkways, mid-block crossings, and mid-street “refuge islands.”

The plan has been developed with the involvement and approval of all the communities it touches, with the sole sticking point of Bloomfield Hills. But it’s not the only recent project that aims to comprehensively rethink transportation infrastructure across municipal borders in the metro area.

From 2012-14 the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments conducted a study called the Woodward Avenue Rapid Transit Alternatives Analysis (AA), which established a route and station locations for a potential bus rapid transit line on Woodward.

Bus rapid transit systems are rubber-tired but otherwise similar to rail systems, with dedicated lanes and the ability to interact with traffic signals so that the system neither creates nor is hindered by traffic congestion.

On top of that, the recently created Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan has been developing its own comprehensive transportation plan for Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, and Washten-aw counties. The RTA is planning transit systems connecting Detroit to Mount Clemens along Gratiot Avenue, and Detroit to Ann Arbor along Michigan Avenue, as well as conducting an environmental review of the AA’s plan for Woodward.

The RTA is also completing a master plan that CEO Michael Ford describes as “filling in all the gaps” not covered by the authority’s other projects — mostly coordinating service between existing bus service providers to create more cross-county bus routes.

“It’s not about competing with the car,” Ford says. “It’s just giving you options.”

False Starts, New Choices

Between Complete Streets, the AA, and the RTA’s various initiatives, metro Detroit residents will be presented with a proliferation of cross-county auto alternatives — at least in conceptual form. But that comes after decades of failed similar attempts.

In 1967 the Southeast Michigan Transportation Authority was tasked with developing a regional transit plan for its seven-county jurisdiction including Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Washtenaw, St. Clair, Livingston, and Monroe counties. But funding never came together for the master plan the organization presented in 1979, and its other services were subsequently gutted before it was reformed in 1988 as the current Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation, serving Oakland, Macomb, and Wayne counties — and excluding the city of Detroit.

Robin Boyle, a professor in Wayne State University’s department of urban studies and planning, says “deep divisions” between the city of Detroit and the suburbs have played a large part in the slow progress toward a metro-area master plan.

“The complete street really is one that serves all transportation needs, whether you’re using your two feet, whether you’re in a wheelchair, whether you’re on a bicycle, whether you’re in a car, or on public transit.”
— Deborah Schutt

“We’ve never really had a culture in southeast Michigan of talking about a metropolitan or a regional area,” Boyle says. “We revert very quickly to the sort of home-rule mentality of the individual communities in which we live.”

Boyle says the area has also lacked an organization to act as a venue for the necessary planning and discussion.

The RTA is one obvious sign of how that void has been filled, and WA3 has taken a similar role in bringing community residents and government officials together to plan Complete Streets.

But what created the renewed interest in rethinking regional transportation that spawned those efforts in the first place?

Ford says the rise of the millennial generation is one major factor; numerous studies have shown millennials are less likely to own cars, and more likely to utilize alternative transportation, than preceding generations. But he also says metro Detroiters of all generations are becoming frustrated with the limits of the existing transportation system, and seeing solutions in successful transportation projects in major cities like Seattle and Portland, Ore.

“We’re in the 21st century, but transportation is behind,” Ford says. “I think people realize that we are continuing to miss out on opportunities to attract businesses, to keep people here. And without a change in the way we do business and the way we think about transportation, I don’t see us moving very far.”

‘A Generational Challenge’

Wayne State’s Boyle doesn’t see metro Detroit’s infrastructure moving very far under any of the current proposals in the first place. He understands the intentions behind Complete Streets, the AA, and the RTA’s planning work, but they “definitely have the cart before the horse.”

Boyle describes the current work as “a layering on top of a set of individual visions” that lacks a sense of forethought about the metro area’s long-term future.

“I just don’t think these studies undertaken today have really thought long and hard about where people will be living and where they will be working in the next 20 years,” he says. “That’s fundamental. We are investing in the long term. This is not a short-term fix. This is a generational challenge.”

Those behind the current plans point out that their efforts are designed to gel. WA3’s planners waited on the AA to finish planning before incorporating its bus rapid transit solution into Complete Streets, and the RTA is adopting the AA’s recommendations for Woodward.

In response to Boyle’s assertion that the plans lack long-term vision, Ford notes that the RTA’s work will be an “alive plan” that will change and evolve with its surroundings.

Conan Smith is the executive director of Metro Matters (formerly the Michigan Suburbs Alliance), a Ferndale-based policy research and advocacy nonprofit that has been heavily involved in both the Complete Streets project and the formation and promotion of the RTA.

Smith admits that Boyle’s point is “totally fair,” but given limited financial resources, planning for the metro area had to start somewhere.

“We all did what we could,” Smith says. “It’s unfortunate that we don’t have the money to do everything we’d want to, or maybe even should. But the shortcoming is not to the extent that you should dismiss the great work that we’ve done. … Just recognize that it’s imperfect, but also recognize the critical starting point.”

The Price Tag

For all the time and money invested into these plans to redevelop metro-area transit, they remain just that: plans.

The first step toward potentially making some of them a reality will likely come later this year, when the RTA is expected to put a millage proposal before voters in the November general election.

In the run-up to that vote and beyond, Detroit planning director Maurice Cox says the case for long-term infrastructure changes will be “well-served” by the completion of the M-1 rail and community discussion about transit improvements.

“I feel we need to have some tangible examples of how transit is going to change our current reality,” Cox says. “It’s very difficult to convince people of some glossy, aspirational goals that are 20 years out when our community hasn’t shown the capacity to do the five-year reach.”

The price tag on those goals is still indeterminate. Schutt says the Complete Streets plan will be “very expensive,” although the plan does not include a specific cost analysis. And with the RTA’s planning process still incomplete, Ford couldn’t comment on exactly what the RTA might ask voters for in November.

Some changes can still happen without a successful RTA millage vote. This past fall the RTA brokered a deal between the Detroit Department of Transportation and SMART to expand SMART service in the city, and Schutt floats the possibility of putting in a bike lane on Woodward from Six Mile Road to I-696 in the absence of millage funding. But Schutt says any “comprehensive” efforts will take a lot of money — and time.

Her best guess is that it would be into the 2020s “at an absolute minimum for wholesale change,” she says.

Ford says the RTA and others advocating for a new transportation plan have a responsibility to be clear about what their plan is and what it will cost taxpayers. But he’s optimistic that the metro area will be ready to get behind it.

“Some people have not been outside of this region to see how transportation really can work for them,” Ford says. “There’ve been others who come back disappointed because they’ve gone to Europe or they’ve gone to (another) city and they’ve seen how well it works. Once people understand the plan and what’s in it for them and what’s in it for the region, I think they’ll be supportive. I really do.”