21st Century transportation

What concerns me most about Michigan’s politics is how much of it, on a bi-partisan basis, seems designed for the 20th Century. We seem to be having a hard time learning what made us prosperous in the past, won’t in the future.

Our fixation on trying to once again make Michigan a factory-based state is at the center of our last century politics. But so is our approach to transportation. In some ways its even worse. As many of our policy makers seem to be ok with returning to 19th Century gravel roads rather than raise the gas tax even with across the board support from the business community for this user fee approach to road funding.

One of the reasons we need a gas tax increase is people are driving less. And this started before the Great Recession. This is not about we can’t afford to drive, its above changing consumer preferences to live in denser communities where they can walk, bike and use transit, rather than drive everywhere often for what seems like forever. Rick Haglund in a MLive article is one of many who has written about the Millennials, among others, driving far less than their parents. Haglund writes: “A new University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute study found that by most measures, driving miles peaked in the United States in 2004, several years before the Great Recession and high gas prices hijacked consumers’ wallets. Michael Sivak, who authored the study, said the decline in miles driven is mainly a result of more telecommuting, increased use of public transportation, people relocating to cities and a decline in young drivers.” (Emphasis added.)

The trend is clear that 21st Century transportation systems are going to need to more balanced. Not just designed for cars, but for walking, bikes, and transit, transit, transit. As we have written before (here and here), in big metros like Detroit that should include rail. Places with this less car centric transportation systems are going to do better at retaining and attracting mobile talent. And places where mobile talent concentrate will be the most prosperous. End of story!

And yet Lansing, if they can cobble together the courage and votes to fund transportation, is proposing to spend nearly all the new funds on fixing and, even worse, expanding roads and doing it in a way that favors rural roads over the roads where people live. If we are serious about building a 21st  Century transportation system there are four steps we should take in whatever transportation funding initiative emerges in Lansing:

  • Fund roads on the basis of population, not road miles.
  • Increase the funding for transit to the state constitutional maximum
  • Adopt complete streets as the basis for transportation design rather than the current policy of ever wider and wider roads to move cars faster and faster
  • Stop major road expansion projects like the widening of I94 and I75 in metro Detroit.

For those interested in learning what a 21st Century transportation system should look like and how to build it I highly recommend Walkable City by Jeff Speck. As Speck makes clear, we know what 21st Century transportation looks like because leading edge communities across the country are building it. Its time for Michigan to join them.





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