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We need regional transit to grow our economy. It shouldn’t be that controversial

A few weeks ago, Amazon announced that neither of Michigan’s major metros, Detroit and Grand Rapids, are finalists for the location of HQ2. Lou wrote about why we at Michigan Future were not at all surprised. For years, MFI has advanced an economic development strategy that would lead to a high-prosperity Michigan based on the reality that a talented workforce is a key driver, and that our population is way behind in being prepared for knowledge industry jobs. Therefore, our focus as a state needs to be on understanding how to raise educational achievement, and how to be a place where educated people want to live and work. It is clear to us that Michigan hasn’t done the work necessary to prepare, attract, and retain the workforce that Amazon is looking for–and we continue to demonstrate that, overall, we haven’t learned our lesson.

One part of what we’ve failed to do, in either metro, is create a world-class regional transit network. In both cities, it’s hard to live a car-free life. Detroit has wriggled closer. We finally created a regional transit authority in 2012—something that took years of effort in the state legislature—but we haven’t funded it. (Without strong support from Oakland and Macomb county executives, a millage failed in November 2016.)

And in early February, at his State of the County speech, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson showed that he will insist on being a barrier to the transit system the region needs. He stated, “I will not force these communities into a plan that will not benefit them,” the Free Press reports. (Rather than support a county-wide millage, he wants individual towns to have the ability to opt in or out of a system, which effectively prevents the system from ever being truly regional). Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel claims his voters want improved roads, not transit.

Whatever else one might find objectionable about their opposition to regional transit, the most practical and obvious mistake these leaders make is clinging to the idea that any communities in Southeast Michigan would fail to benefit from a regional transit system.

The talented workforce moving to cities are choosing an urban quality of life characterized by dense housing, proximity to many amenities, and the option to live car-free. The presence of a robust transportation system is important to them. A survey of Millennials in 10 major U.S. cities released by the Rockefeller Foundation and Transportation for America in 2014 found that 54 percent of respondents would consider moving to a city with “more and better options for getting around.” 80 percent of respondents agreed that it’s important for having a wide range of options, including car- and bike-sharing, pedestrian friendly streets, bike lanes, and public transit.

Even more importantly, it’s critical to understand that an economy is regional, regardless of whatever political boundaries exist between cities and the communities that surround them. Knowledge workers are increasingly mobile and are concentrating in major cities and their regions. Millennials, now the largest demographic in the labor force and the future of the American workforce, show a marked preference for metro living (the delineation of “Millennial” ranges, but is most often defined to include those born between 1981 and 1994). According to our own analysis of 2010-2014 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, 94 percent of college educated 25-34 year-olds with college degrees live in one of the country’s major metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs). Almost half of them—48 percent—live in just the 20 largest metros in the country.

Places that succeed in attracting talent are generating prosperity. Talent is mobile, and where talent goes, high-wage enterprises follow. Talented workers are also entrepreneurial, so their concentrations lead to new start-ups and job creation for everyone. Where you see those concentrations of talent, you also see their spending power ripple through the local economy via increased demand for retail, hospitality and other service sectors. In the past, that local demand for service in Michigan was driven by high-wage manufacturing workers; today, it’s driven by high-wage professionals and managers.

Every community in Southeast Michigan will benefit economically if we grow our ability to attract the talent, and the employers, that work in the knowledge economy. They overwhelmingly are looking for communities with transit. And we’re not going to build that one town at a time.

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Sarah Szurpicki

Sarah is a policy associate for Michigan Future, Inc. and partner at New Solutions Group, LLC, a consulting firm devoted to smart, collaborative, innovative approaches for organizations serving the public good.

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