Model D Speaker Series on transit recapped

An odyssey, by definition, is a long journey in which one encounters many twists, turns, and delays en route to a final destination. After all, Odysseus of Ithaca took 10 years to reach his home following the Trojan War and faced many trials and tribulations along the way.

On Friday night, a group of transit advocates participating in the third annual Michigan Transportation Odyssey completed a three-day adventure in which they traveled from Traverse City to Detroit utilizing multiple modes of transit: bicycles, buses, and trains.

Like Odysseus, they ran into a few delays before they reached their final destination, Model D's "Transit Outside the Box" Speaker Series event at 1515 Broadway Cafe in downtown Detroit. The riders were delayed over an hour and a half while waiting on a transfer from the SMART bus system to the DDOT system.

While the audience awaited their arrival, a panel of local advocates and entrepreneurs talked about the current transit systems in place in Detroit and Michigan. The panel was composed of Brian Hurtienne, executive director of The Villages CDC; Andy Didorosi, founder and president of the Detroit Bus Company; Angsar Strother, founder and CEO of A2B Bikeshare; and Leah Groya, partner at livingLAB, a Detroit collaborative design studio; and Kyle Bartell, co-founder of Sit on It Detroit. The panel was moderated by Model D's transportation editor Nina Ignaczak.

Metro Detroit's transit system has been fragmented and inefficient for decades, a story that is well known to anyone who casually follows the issue or uses transit in the region. Yet we have seen some headway recently. This year, the state legislature did something that it has been unable to do for decades -- create a Regional Transit Authority (RTA) for Southeast Michigan. Yet questions remain about how this authority will function and how it will help coordinate existing systems like SMART and DDOT -- coordination that is desperately needed as shown by the delay of those participating in the Michigan Transportation Odyssey.

Nina Ignaczak kicked things off by asking the panelists their vision for Detroit transit in 2020. The answers were simple. Angsar Strother, whose company A2B is in the business of creating bike shares in Michigan, said he would like to see better coordination with supplemental transportation options, like, you guessed it, bike sharing, which is "an automated, dispersed, bike rental network that provides green transportation alternatives to communities."

Andy Didorosi said he would like to see a bus route directly connecting Metro Airport and downtown Detroit, which, to the astonishment of many out-of-towners, does not currently exist. "Just a few buses going back and forth to the airport every day can do a lot to change the region," said Didorosi, whose company is hoping to become a provider of such a service.

Kyle Bartell of Sit On It Detroit, a company that builds benches out of reclaimed wood for Detroit bus stops (they also contain books for people to read as they wait for a bus), said he would like to see a culture shift in which we better use existing resources to improve the transit system rather than simply complaining about it.

One of the biggest themes of the evening was the need to transform the culture surrounding transportation in Metro Detroit. "We've got to get people to realize public transportation is for everyone," said Kyle Bartell. "You need to make it cool to catch the bus again."

"Transit needs a really good PR firm," said Leah Groya.

Brian Hurtienne, responding to a question from the moderator about what he would like the members of the newly formed RTA to know about transit in the region, said, "I hope they know how to maneuver our government so that the authority is funded in the long term."

Andy Didorosi talked about the challenges of getting people to realize the importance of a robust, well funded transit system, referencing suburban municipalities who opt out of the regional bus system. "When you've got a majority that's well-to-do, they see transit funding as a leech on their tax dollars."

Towards the end of the panel discussion, Angsar Strother commented, "We need to get to a point where the transit system is so easy and enjoyable to use that the alternative of driving is unappealing."

Audience members who struggled to find parking downtown on a busy Friday night when coming to the Model D Speaker Series event probably would not describe that experience as enjoyable. Yet when the Transportation Odyssey travelers arrived an hour and a half late because of transit delays, it certainly seemed easier to drive.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Matthew Lewis.

Matthew Lewis is a writer and former managing editor of Model D. He's currently the communications officer for the New Economy Initiative.