Detroit lost out on the Amazon HQ2 bid, not even making it in the top 20. The primary reason we weren't selected is simple: we lack a modern transit system that can attract and transport the skilled workforce the company required.
So what now? What is the Detroit region doing now, and what should it do, to be prepared to attract the next corporation looking to bring their dollars and employees here?
While there has been some modest progress in improving the area's transit, only through a major investment will we be able to provide the world-class transit that current residents need and major tech investors require.
We can make it happen, but only if our region's leaders eventually work together.
The state of Detroit transit is improving
DDOT and SMART have both taken important steps to improve and expand their bus service. DDOT has added 24-hour routes, enhanced and expanded other routes, and worked hard to become a more reliable and feasible travel option for many (although much work still remains).
SMART launched the FAST express service
that seamlessly connects Detroit with neighboring communities along Woodward and Gratiot every 15 minutes, plus added express service along Michigan Avenue and to Metro Airport every 30 minutes.
The QLINE is here, providing easy, attractive travel along the region's busiest corridor. It's not fast and has struggled with illegally parked cars and inconsistent schedules. But it did help enable $7 billion in development along the Woodward corridor and remains an attractive way for visitors to get around Detroit's sometimes-confusing downtown. Along with MoGo bike share, downtown and Midtown have never been better connected or had as many options for getting around.
(If you haven't tried transit in a while, give your commute a search on Google Transit and see if there's a bus route that might work for you!)
Detroit area transit remains woefully inadequate
While those are useful improvements, Detroit remains decades behind nearly every other big city in providing the reliable, attractive transit options that tech companies, millennials, and locals expect.
Nationwide, 75 percent of millennials want to live in a place where they do not need a car to get around and 66 percent say that access to high quality transportation is one of the top three criteria in deciding where to live next.
Companies like Amazon know this, so if they want to attract the nation's most talented young engineers and designers, they either move to cities with great transit or, like Quicken and Ford, work to help their cities build it.
All is not lost
The best time to make a transit investment is always 10 years ago.
The second-best time is now
Thirty years ago, Denver was where we are. Same with Dallas 20 years ago and Minneapolis 10 years ago. They all started with very minimal transit, then chose to make a major transit investment and are today reaping the benefits of job access and economic development.
The Regional Transit Authority (RTA) has developed a strong plan
that would connect people to jobs in places that are inaccessible today, make transit on our busiest corridors as fast as driving, and provide convenient transit to the airport.
In 2016, region-wide funding of that transit plan
fell a few thousand votes short of passing, due in part to insufficient public education, a poorly-run campaign, and a major anti-tax Trump wave.
With some improvements to the plan and better public education, the funding necessary for great transit could absolutely pass this fall. But only if it's on the ballot.
Best solution: Region-wide transit investment
Since November of 2016, the RTA and the region's political leaders have been debating where to go from here. Yet 15 months later, they still haven't come to an agreement.
Mayor Duggan, Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, and Washtenaw County leaders are strongly supportive of a region-wide solution that would improve the regional transit plan and place transit funding back on the November ballot.
Despite many months of active negotiations, Oakland County Executive Brooks Patterson recently demanded a continuation of the current inefficient patchwork system, and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel seems to think we have to choose between good roads and good transit, instead of investing in both.
Transit champions like Warren Evans continue to work hard to come to a deal because a region-wide solution would definitely be best for everyone. But many are skeptical it will ever happen.
Plan B: Part of the region invests in major transit progress
If Oakland and Macomb leaders refuse to get on board with a region-wide transit plan, Wayne and Washtenaw must proceed without them.
It would be better to make serious transit progress in two counties than none, and with a two-county plan, we could have:
- Rapid, reliable connections between Detroit, Dearborn, Ypsilanti, and Ann Arbor
- Transit access to jobs in places like Livonia, Plymouth, and Canton that are currently inaccessible
- Convenient express service to Metro Airport from Detroit, Grosse Pointe, Plymouth and beyond
- Expanded transit connections in Detroit and throughout Wayne and Washtenaw counties
In a few years, Oakland and Macomb would hopefully realize how much they're missing and join in too. But transit progress can't wait.
Transit supporters need to demand progress now
People in Oakland and Macomb who don't want to be left out of regional transit progress need to speak out to their county officials
and demand transit action now.
People in Detroit and Wayne County need to thank Duggan and Evans for their leadership
and urge them to keep at it until we have the regional transit system we need.
Together, we can ensure metro Detroit finally joins the 21st century and can both compete for top tech businesses and provide local residents reliable access to opportunities to thrive.
Megan Owens is the executive director of Transportation Riders United, a transit advocacy nonprofit.