3 regional transit systems Metro Detroit can learn from

It's been an exciting few years for transit in metro Detroit. The Regional Transit Authority of Southeastern Michigan (RTA) has gotten up and running, fostering new cooperation between DDOT and SMART and proposing a regional transit master plan that will go before voters in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, and Washtenaw counties this November.

Detroit remains America's largest metro area without a regional transit system, which means we have a lot to learn from a broad variety of models nationwide. Metromode checked in with experts in three very different American cities—Cleveland, St. Louis, and Los Angeles—to gather some lessons that could prove useful as our own transit system takes shape.

Cleveland: BRT benefits and bungles

The RTA's master plan for Metro Detroit includes a lot of bus rapid transit (BRT), with proposed lines running along Woodward, Gratiot, Washtenaw, and Michigan Avenue. With so much BRT on the table locally, it's only natural to take a look at our Midwestern neighbor Cleveland, which has the top-rated BRT system in the nation.

Opened in 2008 at a price tag of $200 million, the city's HealthLine BRT route runs 6.8 miles along Euclid Avenue between downtown Cleveland and East Cleveland, notably passing through the cultural and medical center of University Circle.

The route has been awarded a "silver" ranking by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy's BRT Standard, which evaluates the quality of BRT systems worldwide. It's the only silver BRT system in the U.S. (there are no gold systems in the country). HealthLine ridership has been strong so far; the line served 29 million customers in its first six years, averaging out to over 13,000 riders per day.

Students from Cleveland State University often ride the HealthLine to class. Courtesy Greater Cleveland RTA.

The line has also managed to spur economic development along the corridor it services.

While Angie Schmitt, a Cleveland resident of eight years and the editor of the national transportation news and advocacy blog Streetsblog USA, says there's some debate about the accuracy of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority's claim of $6.3 billion in HealthLine-related development, she admits changes along Euclid are obvious.

"It's not just little shops and restaurants, although there has been some of that kind of thing downtown," Schmitt says. "There's also some employers who have taken up residence there on land that was formerly vacant and underused."

Despite these potentially replicable successes, Schmitt warns of some "purely political problems" that have arisen in implementing BRT. The HealthLine has never hit its targeted speed, due to programming of the transit signal priority (TSP) system that lines up green lights to clear a bus' path. Although the city of Cleveland is responsible for programming the TSP system, city representatives have not been forthcoming in solving the situation.

"Basically they're prioritizing a few single-occupancy vehicles getting across Euclid over these buses full of people that are carrying 15,000 people a day," Schmitt says.

Cleveland may also provide a good lesson in the importance of maintaining momentum in transit development. Although the city now has an acclaimed BRT system, no similarly innovative developments have followed in the eight years since its opening. While the HealthLine was helped along by Federal Transit Administration grant funding, there's no local funding mechanism for new projects.

Metro Detroit will have an advantage if it approves the RTA's millage this November. B
ut even if it does, continuing the momentum after a possible win is crucial, according to Schmitt.

"Our transportation planning in Cleveland is not very sophisticated," Schmitt says. "We're just not a city that has a long history of progressive transportation work, so I don't think that [the HealthLine has] changed the culture too much or refocused the city on transit."

St. Louis: Connecting divisions

The divide between the city of Detroit and its suburbs has long plagued the Metro Detroit area, as recent objections to the RTA plan from Oakland County and Macomb County representatives illustrate.  

But the similarly divided St. Louis metro area recently sold an expansion of its robust MetroLink by appealing primarily to middle- and upper-class suburbanites.

The MetroLink, which connects Greater St. Louis with Illinois' Metro East area, has expanded slowly since its initial 17-mile stretch opened in 1993. The most recent significant expansion of what is now a 46-mile system arrived in 2006 when an eight-mile extension connected St. Louis' civic center to the southern suburb of Shrewsbury.

St. Louis is well-known for the sharp racial and socioeconomic divide centered along Delmar Avenue, which bisects the city from west to east. The new extension reaches into the predominantly white, upper-class southern side of town.

Sarah Coffin, associate professor of urban planning and development at St. Louis University, says the campaign for the $430 million bond issue that funded the extension was accordingly focused not on commuting, but convenience and leisure.

"The message and the advocacy were all around, 'You can take the train into the city for a ball game. You don't have to deal with traffic anymore. Isn't that awesome?'" Coffin says. "And people on the south side started buying into that."

But Coffin calls into question the wisdom of the southern extension process. Just three years after the extension opened, a stretch of I-64 that closely mirrors a long stretch of the extension route was entirely closed for reconstruction. Coffin notes that BRT could have easily and more cheaply been added on the freeway itself during the reconstruction process while putting more resources into the northern areas that have a greater regular need for transit.

The St. Louis area is currently considering several long-gestating plans for more potential MetroLink expansions, including a northern extension and further expansion to the south. 
As Oakland County has won concessions allowing it to shift potential RTA millage funding to paratransit services outside the RTA's plan if the millage passes this November, Coffin encourages metro Detroiters to consider the similar politics in St. Louis.

"You build the system where the largest financial support comes from," she says. "But there's a real careful balance between that and equity."

Los Angeles: The congestion paradox

LA Metro's Orange Line bus.

The Los Angeles metro area offers a particularly unique example for Metro Detroit in that, on paper, it seems like a transit advocate's utopia. The Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority has built nearly 100 miles of light rail since 1990 and has established multiple BRT routes since 2000. And in an area whose car fetish makes Detroit's seem quaint, voters in both inner-city and suburban Los Angeles County have been remarkably supportive of transit.

"There's a shared concern about congestion, and congestion is a huge motivating factor in voting for these ballot initiatives," says Michael Manville, assistant professor of urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles. "You don't have to convince someone in an outlying suburb that we need to think about fixing regional transportation the way you might if someone is five, six, seven towns out from Detroit and congestion is something they might run into occasionally on the highway but not an everyday concern of theirs."

Manville hastens to note that while easing congestion may be a decent selling point for transit, it isn't necessarily an honest one. L.A.'s congestion still ranks the worst in the nation, and in the top 10 worldwide.

"If you're fortunate enough to live and work along a rail line, you can avoid congestion," Manville says. "But there's a sense that what a lot of voters have in their mind is this implicit promise from transit advocates that says, 'If we build transit, fewer people will drive and the roads will be faster.' But that doesn't happen."

Manville says a more honest reframing of the issue would present transit as a service primarily aimed at serving lower-income people. He admits that's a hard sell with middle- and upper-class voters who want to see transit's hard benefits for them and their communities.
But more importantly, he suggests that L.A., Detroit, and other metro areas around the nation need to be thinking even bigger than funding and building transit. He notes that most metro areas nationwide are still designed to "hide the costs of car ownership from car owners" by widening roads, requiring parking space in new developments, adding turn lanes, and so on.

Manville says he's become increasingly worried that major transit projects are actually "deterrents" to seriously rethinking city planning in a responsible way. The successful growth of L.A.'s transit system bodes well for Detroit in some ways, in that it shows that it is possible for a traditionally auto-oriented region to fiscally get behind transit. But Manville suggests that the more important, and more painful, step is to stop making the already easy choice of driving even easier for metro-area residents.

"It goes back to: what do you want these systems to do?" Manville says. "Simply getting a bunch of people to vote for a sales tax is very different from getting them to get up every morning and say, 'I'm leaving the car at home. I'm getting on the bus.'"

This piece is part of a solutions journalism series on Metro Detroit's regional issues, conducted in partnership with Metro Matters and guided by our Emerging Leaders Board.

This work is funded by the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. You can view other pieces in this series here.
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Read more articles by Patrick Dunn.

Patrick Dunn is the managing editor of Concentrate and an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer for numerous publications. Follow him on Twitter @patrickdunnhere.