The Red-Blooded, Gas-Fired Future of Midwestern Energy

I attended a forum on DTE’s Integrated Resource Plan Tuesday. The state’s public service commission, an entity that seems to exist under an aggressively anti-regulation governor mostly as a formality, requires this sort of forum as part of periodic outreach. My typical response to these sorts of shindigs is a shrug; color me underwhelmed.

Marketing on a Fortune 500 budget can even make Zug Island sexy. (DTE Energy)

First, the majority of the people there were staff, which indicates that the outreach efforts were severely limited, given that it was smack dab in the middle of the largest city in Michigan– and at a community college, no less. Second, and this is just me being bitchy, they had “catered” food from Subway, so, apparently cheese and crackers. I need my daily fix of yoga mat chemicals, people! Maybe it was the fact that they were a “local” business (located about ten feet away in the basement of the WCCC commons space)? I don’t know. It certainly wasn’t an open bar kind of shindig.

After perusing the various offerings– get pocket change in rebates off a multiple thousand dollar boiler upgrade, get DTE to install aerators on your faucets because mother earth, come work at a leading company if you have an MBA or an engineering degree- I spent the majority of the time talking with one gentleman in particular who delivered a number of gems, including:

“I can’t drive a hybrid car because I live in the country!”

“We can’t invest money in unproven technology like microgrid, PV, or wind!”

“How are you going to power your grid with solar when it gets dark at night?”

“If low-income people want to have lower utility bills, they should finance their own energy retrofits!”

Chicago isn’t part of the PJM.” (Yes, they are.)

“DTE doesn’t have a facility on Zug Island.” (Narrator voice: “They do.”)

Claiming erroneously that Germany is building new coal power plants because their grid’s supply isn’t resilient enough with their high-renewable gen mix, he also delivered some apparently completely made-up factoid that there were 15,000 abandoned wind turbines in Canada, so we should instead invest in natural gas. I couldn’t find anything about this and, as someone who follows North American energy and sustainability news fairly closely, I would probably know about it, though I did find one article about a decomissioned, older wind farm in Alberta, which, also, Alberta.

The story with Germany is a bit more complex. They’re committed to phasing out coal, but the widely available, cheap lignite (braunkohl) is being replaced by imported bituminous and anthracite coal. Europe is still generally struggling to figure out how to address Angela Merkel’s Energiewende given the continued widespread European reliance on dirty coal.

But they’re doing the damn thing. In Germany on the POCACITO trip, I saw a lot of crazy things.

Q: Why did you feel the need to spend millions of euros on a superconducting, subterranean power line to supply your municipality?

A: Uh, I don’t know, because technology? Because we could?

Also maybe the fact that a superconductor can handle the same electrical load that a much thicker set of power lines can, and with no conductive losses.

Maybe this will be important when we have to, say, move electricity from wind farms in Iowa and Minnesota to Chicago. Or West Texas to the Gulf Coast. Etc.

But the “because we could”– that’s what’s important here: Experimental technologies need to be tried out so they can be proven. Proven technologies need to be deployed in pilot projects to see how they can be scaled. And scalable projects can be implemented grid-wide through a partnership between a nimble, well-capitalized private sector, forward-thinking local policymakers, and nonprofit community liaisons to connect the dots. Often, the context is as interesting as the projects themselves. The Hamburg Energy Bunker, for example, is a World War II memorial slash solar thermal district heating plant slash wedding venue and café.

I could go on about POCACITO forever, but this post is already longer than I wanted it to be. I have three simple ideas here for a starting point. These are things that could be produced through mostly bipartisan legislative initiatives, could be produced jointly between citizenry, utilities and energy companies, and governments, and could be fertile ground for a public-private partnership extravaganza that could help Michigan and beyond improve the resiliency of electrical grids while generating overall net gain for the economy.

  1. On-bill financing to allow customers to affordably amortize the cost of energy efficiency retrofits, namely building envelope retrofits to residential buildings. This would
  2. Regulatory incentives and disincentives to encourage energy waste reduction at the industrial level and to discourage heavy-polluting production, whether in terms of generation or industry. This would best done in the form of a carbon tax. High-carbon production is usually also high-particulate (petrochemical and steel mills are among the biggest and are certainly the biggest here). So, while Amp Rand at the forum believed that DTE’s sole responsibility is to sell power and that’s it, I reminded him that the monopolistic nature of monolithic power generation meant that a massive industrial facility can’t simply move or go to another provider. The problem is obviously political feasibility. People in Michigan would riot if anyone tried to impose a carbon tax because it would interfere with their God-given right to drive their F250 Super Duty as far as they can to as many strip malls as they can. But short of a carbon tax or a carbon tax paired with a cap-and-trade system, there are still oodles of affordable regulatory and tax incentives that could be used to reduce energy waste at the industrial level, push renewable generation toward parity with (frankly heavily subsidized) fossil fuel sources, and, in decentralizing production, make grids work better.
  3. Proof-of-concept programs and pilots to test and demonstrate the viability of experimental, emerging, and, over a large sample size, profitable energy technologies that can increase grid resilience. The success of a large-scale deployment of Tesla’s Powerwall, for example, proves that this is possible. DTE has some experimental pilot programs with residential-scale CHP, for example. But they don’t talk about it, and I don’t really think CHP is going to prove terribly practical in the long term for residential applications given how increasingly effective the double whammy of solar and battery technologies are becoming. It can easily be done at the municipal level, where savings on hundreds of dollars a month in utility bills have a down-and-dirty line to, say, electoral popularity. But the Duggan Administration in Detroit has been too busy cleaning up messes of decades of disinvestment to focus on ambitious strategies to push the adoption of new technology in this realm. Departing Michigan Governor Rick Snyder isn’t going to do much with it, but it’s easy to conceive of ways utilities could work with both city governments and the state to get this sort of thing done.

DTE’s stock was up several points on improved earnings guidance by the end of the day Wednesday, equivalent to, you know, the cost of building several hundred new wind turbines.

Posted in Coal, Energy Efficiency, Energy Poverty, Environment, Environmental Justice, Renewable Energy, Urban energy, Utilities | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Whomst Should Bear The Cost? Mobility and the Workplace

I figured I could kick off Detroit Mobility Week with some exploration of a debate currently simmering in my office over the term, used in reference to employment, “must have access to reliable transportation.” The term is used by HR professionals to ensure that interviewers don’t ask prospective employees whether they own a car, which is usually not allowed in employment law. “Reliable transportation” could therefore be a bus, a bicycle, or, in the case of that famous Detroiter who walked five hundred miles and walked five hundred more just to get to his nine-to-five, a pair of feets.

Or so I thought.

On my first day of the new gig, I was called into the principal’s office.

“I’ve been doing this for 20 years,” the baffled assistant director explained, “and I’ve never had someone hired who didn’t own a car.”

In a city where a quarter of the households don’t own vehicles— three times the national average- no city inspector had, in recent memory, been hired without one. I told him that I had a valid driver’s license with no points, nor doubts that I would be able to fulfill the requirements of the job. I had access to a car (typically GM’s own Maven carshare, which, apart from a monstrously annoying Android app, is actually super convenient).

I was then called into HR. They were similarly miffed. The abbreviated version of a ten minute conversation that ended with me filling out a form that says that I have a car I can use.

“In the interview, you told us you had a car,” one HR person said.

“I didn’t. I said I had access to reliable transportation and a valid drivers license.”

“Fair enough,” they said, more or less. I remembered the interview quite well. They had asked me whether I had parked in the Larned Street garage. I would not spend the money for the garage for an interview so close to my house– I had taken a MoGo bike and rode the bus home.

Back at my desk, professional reality sets in: Approximately five days a week, I am told, I will need to be doing site visits– inspections of property under development, vacant property, and rental property, mostly falling under the mayor’s new initiative to improve the availability of good housing stock by ensuring that rental units are well-maintained,  and to incentivize maintenance of vacant lots. Though this wasn’t exactly the professional direction I saw myself taking, I wrote about why this was important many moons before I took the job with the city.

So, site-to-site, year-round. A regular bike won’t work, and the bus definitely won’t work (see below). So, everyone tells me, I need to get a car. It’s the Motor City, they say, thumbing their noses at Detroit’s rich history of bicycles and public transit that deteriorated with the city’s economy in the mid to late 20th century.

The ancient and honourable 3 Grand River DDOT bus takes a full hour to make the trip up to the farthest-flung neighborhoods of the west side, Grandmont, Rosedale Park, and beyond.

Upon seeing my bike helmet and gear, the typical response from my colleagues, who are mostly men in their 50’s and 60’s, is a slightly bemused but reasonably good-natured laughter. I’ve often worked in office environments that find it endearing that this cute hipster rides his bike to work. I grew up in a compact city riding a bike around town with parents who both rode bikes to work or, in my dad’s case in the 80’s and early 90’s, rode to the train station (Intermodal Before It Was Cool). It was cheaper. Parking was rough and often expensive. Exercise is good for you. The list goes on.

But plenty of people ride bikes in the hood, too, and in Detroit, this is a widely prevalent mobility solution for people who can’t afford the outrageous insurance premiums and need more flexibility than is offered by the infrequent DDOT routes. When a right-wing gubernatorial candidate says that he’s probably going to get on board with Detroit’s Democrat mayor in a lawsuit over insurance, that’s when you know times is hard.

Last year, I ditched my car because I didn’t need one. That, and I got in a pretty nasty car accident, the victim of a hit-and-run, that left me $9,000 poorer and with absolutely no interest to again spend that much more money on an extremely expensive piece of equipment that I only used once a week. I was mostly okay, physically, but seriously shaken up. I was also pissed off at Progressive and the Detroit Police, who first accused me of fleeing the scene of an accident that I hadn’t caused (because it took them hours to show up and so I walked home and went to bed), and then accused me of causing the accident, but only after ultimately failing to retrieve any video footage.

I had bought the car because my last job had told me I needed one to drive around town, period. Yes, Nat, it’s cute that you ride your bike to work, but we can’t afford to furnish a vehicle. They never ended up settling mileage reimbursements in a timely fashion, and, in my Amortization Of All The Things spreadsheet (don’t judge me), I reckoned that this automobile cost me an average of $31.60 per day for its short lifespan of a year. $11,534 represented 26% of my annual salary.

There was $8,000 down the drain, plus the $1,900 in insurance I had paid, $750 in registration fees, plus $250 after the accident to a towing company that is mysteriously owned by ex Detroit city cops who tote .45’s and accept payment in cash only and can’t be found in Google Maps or public directories (sketchy? never!). I couldn’t afford the $400 a month that Progressive, Geico, or AAA wanted to insure the car with the collision coverage that would have reimbursed me for the whopping $9,000 repair tab I got quoted.

Over the next year, even though I wasn’t making much money, I managed to save– because I wasn’t spending a grand a month on a car. I upgraded my bikes, got a winter bike set up, and bought a needlessly fancy used road bike. And still saved money.

It’s ultimately about cost. In the at-will employment hell of an economy that we live in, workers have few rights, and cash-strapped employers can’t afford to provide fleet vehicles, so they simply push that cost onto the employee.

I am not spending much time weighing into why that isn’t fair. We already allow highway infrastructure, congestion, car accidents, and pollution from cars to cost several hundred billion if not into the trillions of dollars per year– who cares if employees are inconvenienced to the tune of 25-40% of their salaries?

Is it feasible for me? I looked at a few options.

OPTION 1: A NEW, DETROIT-MADE, ELECTRIC CAR

At the most extreme high end, I look at buying a new electric car, thinking about fossil fuels, Demonstrating to Mr. Market That There is Demand For This Product, and saving a baby seal, whatever. (They’re also assembled in Hamtramck and Metro Detroit!). But Chevrolet prices its albeit well-reviewed electric cars, the Volt and the Bolt, in the stratosphere, to account for the $7,500 tax credit. The margins are therefore way– and unnecessarily higher (and they’re wondering why on earth sales have plummeted). $38,000 for a car that should cost– magically, minus the tax credit- $30,500? Financed, that’s about $750 over five or six years, depending on what rate you get. Insurance in Michigan will run you a few hundred a month– maybe $350 or $450. We’re already at almost $1100 a month now– comparable to the short-lived Prius C.

OPTION 2: THE SPORTS UTILITY JALOPY

Not a problem, my folks say, you can buy our 1993 Volvo 850 if you want. With a Kelley Blue Book of $1,750, it still costs $200 a month to insure. Gas would be exorbitant for a vehicle that gets a maximum of 26 miles to the gallon on a good day and whose exhaust smells like a mildewy paint spray booth until the engine warms up. Not a win, no matter how you slice it. But there are other pros, including that it has heated leather seats, a sunroof, and I could fill it up with as much scrap copper as I wanted, while being a trendy northeastern dad in the 90’s and playing Pavement on the tape deck (!).

If this doesn’t epitomize sex appeal, I don’t know what does.

OPTION 3: THE VINTAGE TRENDSETTER

Not a problem, my plumber says, you can buy my Buick Reatta, a cocaine-in-the-80’s-white sportscar of yesteryear that featured a touchscreen and the legendary Buick 3800 engine. Older car will be cheap to insure, right? Nope– same minimum of $200 a month, plus the lower mileage. Same story. Silver lining is that I could wear my vintage red leather jacket and rock the Joe Keery As Steve Harrington In Stranger Things hair.

But, seriously. All three of these options translate to externalized cost for something that the employer is counting on me providing for myself. The starting wages of a city building inspector sat in the 30’s and 40’s from the 1990’s until the past year or so, when they were inflation-adjusted to the low 60’s. I figure that a car costs $9-12,000 a year including purchase, maintenance, depreciation, gas, and insurance, roughly in line with AAA’s estimates and controlling for Michigan’s sky-high insurance rates.

I’m supposed to sacrifice 14% of my pretax takehome– or as much as 23% of my aftertax takehome- for an ungainly, polluting piece of machinery that I won’t use outside half of the workday, possibly as few as three or four days per week? Simply because our system of employment is at-will?

I’ve since thrown out all of these options, deciding that I can, in fact, handle the job without the car. The little guy on my shoulder, the collective hundred-some-thousand-strong Facebook group known as the New Urbanist Memes for Transit Oriented Teens, has convinced me to push for a solution that involves a pair of wheels rather than four wheels.

I’m assuming that for longer distances that require faster trips, I can’t use my 1985 Panasonic DX3000, a heavy, beater of a bike, which has cost me probably $1000 over the past ten years and thousands of miles (1-2% of the cost of owning a car and it can go most of the places a car can go).

So I looked into eBikes that are suited to riding, street legal, up to 28mph, and can handle weather. At the highest end, I looked at the OptiBike R15C, which costs $13,900 and is basically an electric dirt bike, and at the lower end, I looked at the Elby 9-speed for an affordable $2,999, respectively US-made and Canadian-made.

The R15C is to a mountain bike as a Tesla Model S Performance Edition With Range Extender is to a Sports Utility Jalopy with faded body paint and to’ up ceiling upholstery. It’s also fourteen grand.

Both can go a steady, street-legal 28mph for at least the length of an inspector’s daily route. Both have removable batteries that can be charged at my desk at work (no gas costs). Combine with a city-subsidized DDOT monthly pass that allows me to speed around the city with the courteous, comfortable service of the transit agency for less than the daily cost of my owning a car, here’s what I end up with:

Note that while I’ve calculated this on a five-year horizon and have assumed a lower cost of operation for the new Chevrolet, it seems likely that I would burn through some percentage of the permanently installed battery capacity within those five years. GM says this isn’t likely, and, to be fair, my Honda Civic Hybrid lasted almost a decade before its hybrid battery crapped out. But if it does, it’s supposed to be about $15,000 to replace.

The kicker here is that I could buy what is probably among the top five fanciest electric bikes on the market as well as a more, ahem, proletariat model, and still save money over five years versus the cheapest car option of driving Option 2, the Sports Utility Jalopy. If the Sports Utility Jalopy even makes it five years, which seems unlikely, as it’d be 30 years old, more than three times the average lifespan of a car in today’s day and age. Comparing lifespans, my bikes include the Panasonic (33 years old), a 1998 Trek road bike (20 years old), a Trek mountain bike (10 years old), and a Raleigh CX bike, a 2013 model that has thousands of miles on it and has had no maintenance issues.

I’ve determined that the ebike option is both preferable in terms of cost and in terms of not being beholden to a terrible, broken, and ultimately extremely expensive paradigm of mobility. Supplemented with affordable car share if necessary, I am 100% committed to exceeding the requirements of the job without owning a car. I’m also interested in demonstrating that it’s a win for both me and for the city (which then saves money on mileage reimbursements, which could be worth up to 5% of my pretax salary).

So, toward new paradigms of mobility– paradigms Metro Detroit and the Duggan Administration have indicated their strong commitment to discovering.

And I will keep my loyal readers posted.

My opinions and comments are my own and do not in any way represent the positions of the Duggan Administration or the Buildings, Safety, Engineering, and Environmental Department of the City of Detroit.

Posted in Cycling, Public transit, Transit infrastructure, Urban Planning | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Chromatics of Commonwealths And Then Some

Fair warning, folks– this post is borne largely of jetlagged travel musings.

I was recently struck by the idea of contrasting color schemes from city to city after traveling from the US to Canada to Ireland to the UK and back again on my first trip to those two countries. I’m not the first to think about this subject, though I’m taking a slightly different tack here.

When I arrived at Toronto Pearson, I was noticed a sea of proud red logos emblazoning the Air Canada jets on the tarmac. The symbol is fairly ubiquitous in the land of the rising maple, a testament to Canadian national pride, and it’s not as though I don’t see a lot of it already in Windsor or Toronto when I visit. The Canadian flag is a relatively new one, though the maple leaf was used in early iconography for the Canada of yesteryear in both French eastern Canada and Upper Canada alike. Quebec ultimately opted for the fourfold fleur-de-lis, harkening to its French heritage, referencing the decisive French victory at the 1758 Battle of Ticonderoga, and eschewing the British red in favor of a white cross on a blue background. This sat solidly in the realm of religious iconography in the heavily Catholic province that succeeded Lower Canada, but Quebec’s flag and Canada’s maple leaf flag are both essentially pretty modern, mid-20th century products that drew from 17th to 19th century roots.

Flag of Quebec.svg

Quebecois flag, adopted in 1948.

I had meanwhile recently been enjoying TURN: Washington’s Spies, which features some great costumes from the 18th century, when Freed’m was first invented by exclusively and extremely virtuous landowning white men with pure and virtuous motives, duh. By that time, English soldiers had been rocking the iconic red for at least a century, possibly more like two, since it clad soldiers of Elizabeth I in a couple of 16th century conflicts– though the exact origin of red specifically is a bit unclear.

Is this uniquely British? The article I linked above largely avoids mention of red, instead talking about cities in terms of their built environment– London’s iconic, offwhite brick, for example. (I’ve certainly noticed this in St. Louis between the red of the flag and the red of the brick.)

Aside from military uniforms, Britain has embraced the red-on-white St. George’s Cross for the better part of a solid millennium, which I’m thinking is probably a more logical point of origin, since that forms the basis of the Union Jack. In addition to the fact that red is a common color for a cross (representing the blood of Christ), red has also historically been a fairly affordable pigment in comparison to things like gold or ultramarine (think lavish Renaissance portraits with the Virgin in blue, halos in gold, or what have you).

So, looking at how this is manifest– or correlated, at least- in public color schemes and urban legibility: In London, we all know the iconic double decker red buses. Transit enthusiasts also are probably familiar with the sleek, red trains that move through much of the London Underground. The Docklands Light Rail, a newer route that I also enjoyed exploring, similarly– largely- rocks a red color scheme, though the iconography for the signage is in blue and green.

Contrast this to when we arrive in Dublin: Airport buses are a pleasant aqua green while the rest of city buses are mostly yellow and blue. Red isn’t a common color in public schemes in these parts. Nor does Ireland, first referred to as the Emerald Isle in the poetry of William Drennan (1754-1820), have red in the flag: The green versus orange, bridged by the truce color of white, is meant to represent the Catholic majority versus the Protestant minority (William of Orange– you see what they did there). Green was also used in previous flags and iconography in the context of Irish self-determination and independence.

Posted in Art & Design | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

There Is No Public Transit Across One Of The Busiest Border Crossings In The World And That’s Kind Of Problematic

The corner of Wyandotte Avenue West and Patricia Road in the west end of Windsor, Ontario, is an odd nexus, a literal and figurative intersection between residence, commerce, international exchange, and industry. A 7/11 serves a motley crew of patrons at all hours, not the least of which are a global assortment of university students. On the way out, I hold the door for a young woman wearing a hijab and cross in front of a Chinese couple in a silver Toyota in the parking lot.

But I’m not here for late night fried food. I’ve already enjoyed my weekly– likely beyond weekly- calorie quota from my Monday night trivia session at the old Victoria Tavern on Chilver Road in Windsor’s Walkerville neighborhood, a few kilometers to the east across town. Rather, I’m actually waiting for a cab to take me home across the Ambassador Bridge, the privately owned border crossing that connects Detroit and Windsor.

And now, it’s time to head home. But how?

“Hi, Nash,” a text message flashes on my cracked phone screen. “Your driver is on the way. You can now track your Vets Cab  number 24 by clicking here […]”

Nash, huh? That’s a new one.

Why am I taking a cab across the border?

For TheHUB, I’ve been working on a stakeholder engagement survey that delves into the regional transit question currently dogging Metro Detroit. I want to understand exactly why we have such an underdeveloped transit infrastructure. I wan’t to understand why it’s so hard for us to get things done as a region. I am not from these parts, as one might say. My understanding of “normal” was being able to take a bus to the train station and having my pick of ten Amtrak trains in either direction per day.

“Well… you can’t get there from here,”

Not so in Detroit, where the Amtrak crawls the 40 miles to Ann Arbor in just under an hour. “It’s the Motor City,” goes the common refrain. “What do you expect?”

TWO MOTOR CITIES

Like Detroit, Windsor, the Other Motor City, embraces a heavily automotive paradigm. But while Windsor boasts some excellent amenities– cultural diversity, a vibrant, increasingly diversified economy, and a world class food scene, to boot- it lags in progressive thinking about how to move into the next generation of mobility. While Detroit debates just how aggressive it should be getting about its new complete streets initiative, debates rage in Windsor over how to spend limited city funds to create more parking in the dense downtown, as though the availability of widespread, free parking is the make-or-break determinant of a vibrant economy (spoiler alert: it’s not).

Though Windsor is smaller than Detroit, the two cities are twinned in an important economic symbiosis surrounding, at least historically, the automotive sector. Jobs in one city are necessarily dependent upon the other, and this goes well beyond the city limits through the whole Great Lakes manufacturing nexus. The Chrysler 300, “Imported from Detroit,” is made in Brampton, a few hours up the 401. When Detroit’s auto sector takes a hit, so, too, does Windsor (and the rest of Ontario). Exchange rates affect the economic viability of automotive trade through steel, machine tools, and parts.

For the most part, this connection works– for tourism (in addition to Caesar’s Windsor Casino and the city itself, Essex County boasts a wealth of natural areas, wineries, and charming small towns), for healthcare (Canadian nurses working in Detroit hospitals), and for workforce (Canadian automotive engineers employed in Metro Detroit). If you draw boundaries around a hypothetical international Detroit Metro area in Ontario– that roughly mirror the boundaries of the Combined Statistical Area that includes Flint, Ann Arbor, and (US) Metro Detroit- our Canadian brethren account for about 13% of our greater metro area (this includes Sarnia and Lambton County, Chatham-Kent, Essex County, and the city of Windsor, but it’s a similar percentage if you compare Windsor-Essex to the 3.7 million people of metro Detroit).

But in the insular imagination of many Southeast Michiganders, Windsor is that place that Detroiters go when they’re 19 to get drunk and then forget about. Evening descends on downtown Windsor’s Ouelette Avenue, bringing a nefarious condition that a Canadian friend once called “hoochie night time,” and the strip is populated with young Michiganders eager to enjoy a Long Island Iced Tea for $3– and at those favo(u)rable exchange rates, too!

This betrays an unfortunately limited cultural connectivity in the present day between the two cities, which share centuries of history.

I’ve long been a hype man for the city and its weird, gritty charm and diversity, having been jokingly called Flavor Flav to Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens‘ Chuck D (though I have admittedly never met or interacted with the man). So, as a regular international man of mystery who is also carless as of December (shoutout here to Progressive Insurance for paying out all of zero dollars and to the red light runner who totaled my yellow Toyota and then drove off into the night), I sometimes have to get creative about how to get around in a border town.

Taxis are exorbitant (there’s a $20 CAD surcharge on any trip across the bridge, and kilometers rack up on the meter way faster than miles). There is no bike connectivity between the two cities, except on the tunnel bus, which can carry up to two bikes on a front rack. One man– the hero we need, though perhaps not the hero we deserve- once did try riding his bike through the tunnel to get to a Steely Dan concert, of all places. (It didn’t end well.) And buses haven’t historically been terribly reliable in Detroit: Between limited frequency and limited reliability, one basically has to plan on 45 minutes to an hour and a half to get anywhere.

To get to Windsor, a car trip, door to door, takes five to fifteen minutes with favorable conditions at the customs plazas. Rush hour takes longer, and delays can make that trip take up to an hour. I can’t get a Nexus card for expedited entry because CBP has apparently deemed me a threat to national security (I’m not kidding).

HISTORICAL CONNECTIVITY VS. MODERN INTERNATIONAL BUREAUCRACY

The two cities used to be more interconnected, and you don’t have to go back to the ferry era, nor the era when rum runners drove across the frozen Detroit River (they usually made it). Farecards used to be able to be used for transfers between Transit Windsor buses and DDOT, thought at the time to be the first international farecard compatibility among municipal transit systems in the world, according to Transit Windsor Executive Director Pat Delmore.

But that stopped during Detroit’s 2013 bankruptcy. Lawyers got involved, as they do, and decided that because the structure of Detroit’s insurance had changed, Transit Windsor could theoretically be held liable in the event of an incident on a bus in Detroit involving a ticket purchased in Windsor, and the connectivity ceased. How can one get around without a car?

“Just drive,” the prevailing logic suggests, of course– since every man, woman, and child in Southeast Michigan and Southeastern Ontario is expected to lease a new, Ford F250 Super Duty.

Windsor’s Wyandotte Street makes for a convenient bus connection for my standing Monday night appointment in Walkerville.

Crossing the Detroit river in the days of yore, when acrid, black smoke chugged out of the stacks of river steamers that had to brave ice and snow! When men were men, women were women, and a good cigar was a smoke, as my father would say.

But now, for several hours each night, while the tunnel is under construction, there is no public transit connecting Detroit, Michigan, and Windsor, Ontario. Let’s rewind for a minute: For several hours each night, there is no public transit connection between one of the most important international border crossings in the world. And, the roughly twelve thousand cars that pass through the tunnel every day, buses only come hourly, and the cars make up about 98% of the tunnel traffic, according to the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel Authority. Most of those cars have a single driver, too.

Here’s why that’s problematic:

Windsor and Detroit comprise one of the most important international border crossings in the world, connecting the most important player in the global economy with its most important trade partner, which, for most intents and purposes, functions more like a giant, 51st state, than it does like a foreign country. If Detroit’s economy collapses, Windsor collapses. If Windsor’s economy collapses, Detroit takes a huge hit.

Focusing in on the physical configuration of the border, almost half of the truck traffic between the US and Canada passes across one bridge, and one bridge alone. (Trucks can’t go through the tunnel.) Limited transit and choke points for car and truck traffic make congestion a huge problem. $100 billion in trade crosses the bridge per year, which generates about a billion dollar per year of revenue to the Moroun empire– to say nothing of the impact of the thousands of Canadian workers who cross into the United States every day through the bridge and the tunnel (likely also in the billions).

The Ambassador Bridge, which Forbes’ Joan Muller has called an “economic umbilical cord” between the two countries, is a privately owned monopoly, the only private border crossing in the world. It’s also falling apart. These two conditions have been the subject of increasing scrutiny by international governments as well as the companies that rely on the bridge to transport what amounts to about a quarter of all trade between Canada and the US.

A substantial chunk of the bridge’s traffic is expected to be diverted to the Gordie Howe bridge when it is completed some time in the distant future. The notorious owner, transportation mogul Matty Moroun, facing the threat of losing one of the most profitable monopolies in American history, has fought tooth and nail against the new bridge, ranging from allegedly waging disinformation campaigns in Delray to rally residents against the new bridge, to suing based on every conceivable or inconceivable legal remedy.

(TheHUB has provided coverage of the bridge, both from an economic perspective and from a ground level neighborhood perspective within Delray, and the Free Press did a bleak, poignant, and frank portrait of the neighborhood in December, illustrating the ubitquity of blight and health problems from poor air quality.)

Truck traffic won’t be affected by transit, but the diversion of car traffic from the tunnel to the bridge means not only delays, but also additional strain on infrastructure. The tunnel is already undergoing a multimillion dollar renovation, and doesn’t have the political leverage power to readily influence public transit expansion on its own.

“When you get right down to it, we’re really just a piece of road,” Detroit-Windsor Tunnel CEO Neil Belitsky told us.

Transit Windsor’s Pat Delmore says that Transit Windsor has worked closely with US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) throughout the process of the tunnel closure and says that, unfortunately, there wasn’t the ability– or even the will, perhaps- to accommodate bus traffic across the bridge during the closure.

The Ambassador Bridge and customs plaza is a roughly 60 acre (24 ha) puzzle of ownership and responsibilities shared between a monopoly and two federal governments. The spaghetti of highway infrastructure and adjacent vacant land comprises a bit less area in this picture, owned by a similar patchwork including the City of Detroit and the State of Michigan.

This is in part a matter of how the space is awkwardly set up. Since the bridge monopoly owns a consequential portion of the 62 acres comprising the plaza, roadways, and other surfaces, CBP is, at least to some degree, at their mercy (see “Why Monopolies Are Bad, For Dummies”). The ire that has gradually developed over the years, carried by a coterie of international entities frustrated with Mr. Moroun’s antics, has largely given way to a disenchanted kind of resignation, and most simply hope that his son is more magnanimous in dealing with the border issue.

For scenarios in which the CBP has to assume additional responsibility for, say, processing busloads of passengers, it can engage in what is called a “reimbursable services agreement.” This would involve juggling a portion of its 1400 statewide staff of agents, inspectors, and administrative support. But, according to a CBP spokesperson, that hasn’t come up with Transit Windsor.

“We’re always open to ideas of providing services,” spokesman Ken Hammond said, “and any of our facility operators who want to talk expansion… there’s never an issue where we won’t listen.”

Pat Delmore doesn’t entirely agree with that assessment. He said the CBP ultimately was unable to provide a solution to process potentially busloads of passengers at its facility, which is substantially smaller than the tunnel processing facility, so the service was simply cancelled during that window. Pitting a local Canadian transit agency against a US federal agency against a monopolistic business enterprise whose sole interest is to make as much money as possible at the expense of both parties involved, one could look at the Condorcet Paradox, a classical problem that illustrates how, although three separate parties may prefer one option to another, they are unlikely to achieve an optimal outcome in scenarios where one choice must prevail.

Transit Windsor Executive Director Pat Delmore says the CBP and the Ambassador Bridge company failed to provide a solution that would have allowed the agency to safely operate a bus across the border.

So, forget tourism, forget the international workforce: You can’t get there from here. (The Ambassador Bridge company, unsurprisingly, did not return multiple requests for comment, and the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority, a Crown corporation tasked with building the new Gordie Howe bridge, declined to comment.)

Certainly, forget equity, a topic that has come up frequently in the transportation dialogue: If you don’t have a car, well, tough. This is a border for cars and cars only! A pedestrian and bike ferry has been proposed, but this is only at the drawing board phase at this point, and seems mostly limited to the bike communities on both sides of the river.

Asked whether he would be in favor of the RTA proposal to expand transit in Southeast Michigan, Delmore said: “Any time that you have an ability to connect more people with transit, you’re doing a good thing, whether you want to look at convenience, the social aspect in providing social opportunities for people being independent, or for the environment.”

He says that the RTA expansion, especially if it improved connectivity with cross-border transportation options, could be a boon for both sides of the region. Still, he acknowledges that this is as much as cultural problem as a political one, citing the University of Windsor’s UPass, a bus pass given to students, as an example of how to affordably provide transportation access while also facilitating awareness about transit– even if not every student uses it. “Half the students may never even pick up their pass, but it’s no different from them paying for a sporting facility that they’ll never use,” he says, and adds that, for the students who do use it, it is an invaluable asset to get around town. This issue has come up recently in CBC coverage with nearby St. Clair College, where a large influx of carless international students coming for summer classes have struggled with accessibility of transit.

As far as the RTA, Delmore thinks it is possible, so long as the narrative is packaged and sold effectively. And, given that transit is a hot-button topic in Michigan, that’s a big if, but, “once they get it, they love it,” he says. Transit Windsor has been actively considering expanding its Detroit-side connectivity, and just recently dispatched its first Tunnel buses bound for the Little Caesars Arena, although a direct relationship with the RTA is fairly limited.

A summer sun sets over Southwestern Ontario in July 2016 as viewed from the windows of the Via Rail (that’s Canadian Amtrak, for the uninitiated).

Neil Belitsky, of the tunnel authority, hopes that the tunnel will continue to facilitate public transit connectivity.

“We’ve hosted Transit Windsor for many years and plan on hosting them in the future,” he said. Asked whether increased bus service wouldn’t hurt their bottom line, he said that buses pay a different rate from cars anyway, but a decrease in car traffic might mean less wear on the infrastructure in the aging tunnel itself.

One other certainty is that a spike in gas prices would be a huge incentive to create better transit infrastructure, especially urban-to-suburban infrastructure in this case, and would have a huge impact on demand. While still below their 2011-2014 high marks, oil prices are up more than fifty percent in the past year, which makes commuting ever more spendy (as an aside, Ford ironically seemed to think this was a great time to get out of the small car market to sell gas-guzzling trucks).

The US Department of Transportation has noted that transit ridership increases in correlation to gas prices fairly quickly, and Ontario has seen modest increases since Hurricane Harvey last fall (gas in Ontario is more expensive than US gas, between $3-4 USD per gallon). It’s unclear whether the distance commuters from Windsor to Detroit would be quite as affected by that, particularly those automotive workers in higher income brackets who clog the tunnel every day for rush hour in single-occupant vehicles toward suburban jobs. Economists call this a question of “elasticity”– that is, if the price of gas trends upward, how much and how quickly does it stretch demand for transit? How far would it have to go up to change commuter behavior?

This is yet somewhat of a wildcard, and the uncertain prospect of increasing gas prices are by no means a safe bet for the RTA moving forward. It’s also unclear what will happen with the RTA, but, as far as buses home after trivia night at the Vic, it looks like I will just have to wait until the tunnel completion to resume evening bus trips.

Asked what he thought about the RTA proposal and whether he thought the car culture of the region wasn’t at odds with the idea of an expanded regional transit program, Belitsky remained stoic, but suggested that anything’s possible. “Listen,” he said, “I grew up in New York City. I didn’t know how to drive a car until after college.”

Posted in Urban Planning | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Activist Investing in the Era of Mass Murder

I don’t usually write about gun control, but in this case I’ve found the nationwide response to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting in Florida notable.

Blackrock recently announced demands that gun makers to respond to the Valentine’s Day shooting that left 17 dead and a nation again debating gun control. The massive asset manager, which effectively controls percentage points of the entire global economy, isn’t playing around. Nor were Delta, United, and others playing around when they ditched their respective NRA discount travel programs. It is perhaps unsurprising in this case, but nonetheless notable, for large companies to weigh in on such a controversial issue, but it’s telling in thinking about the distorted relationship an industry has with policymakers and with the broader market.

First off, follow the money.

The Trump era has been nothing short of a disaster for gun sales, with FBI NICS data released in January showing the largest ever year-over-year decline, sending shares of American Outdoor Brands tumbling (formerly Smith & Wesson before they rebranded to become more family-friendly and less associated with, ya know, their famous handguns).

The market is speaking in two ways– first, gun nuts aren’t buying as many guns because they’re no longer paranoid about That Muslim Slash Socialist Barack Obama taking their guns. (A salesman at Cabela’s once told me that he heard– on the internet- that Obama was training a Hitler Youth-like army to disarm Americans and that was the reason for the widely lamented circa 2016 shortage of .22 long rifle ammunition.)

The stock market is responding accordingly, and gun stocks are probably not a great buy these days. American Outdoor Brands (NASDAQ: AOBC) has lost more than three quarters of a billion dollars in market capitalization (i.e. total value of share price times shares outstanding) since the summer of 2017 and the slightly larger Sturm, Ruger & Co. (NYSE: RGR) lost less at $304.5 million. The larger and more diversified Vista Outdoor (NYSE: VSTO) lost more value  from its peak price last summer($1.82 billion, but peaked in the summer of 2016, since which time it has lost 65% of its value), and continues to lose money.

American Outdoor Brands (NASDAQ: AOBC) has taken a beating, losing more than half of its market capitalization in less than a year while the rest of the market has seen huge gains.

In the context of the broader market, these three gunmakers lost 39-68% of their capitalization while the S&P soared about 20% and Amazon shares are up 300% in two years (yes, you read that correctly, and it’s stupid, but the stock market is stupid). That’s pretty bad. But the gun fervor that punctuated the Obama era died away as soon as Trump took office, because the perception that Obama and the gun-grabbin’-libruls would come and take everyone’s guns away evaporated, as most nebulous conspiracy theories eventually do.

The second way the market is speaking is that investment managers like Blackrock and well-known consumer brands like United, Delta, banks, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Symantec, and others, are responding to widespread consumer demands to ditch the NRA. It is not in Blackrock’s interest for these stocks to lose most of their value, nor is it in the interests of these companies to lose millions of customers. Or tax breaks, which the Georgia state government has threatened to rescind on Delta, treading into dubious ethical territory, in response to Delta’s decision to break with the gun rights organization.

But sometimes it’s important to stand up to an industry that is tiny in comparison to its massive lobbying power. The NRA’s millions of dollars raised from donors paranoid about losing their second amendment rights are disproportionately powerful; similarly, the $15-20 billion gun industry in the United States is tiny in comparison to, say, the airline industry (Delta Airlines alone is twice the size in terms of its market capitalization). Everytown for Gun Safety recently took out a giant ad in the New York Times calling out lawmakers who have received millions from the NRA.

So, why now? No one really knows. After we decided, as one tweet once said with brutal but accurate cynicism, that America was okay with the murder of schoolchildren at Sandy Hook, it’s unclear why this specific school shooting has prompted such a backlash. Perhaps just fatigue over the bizarre chaos of the Trump era. But, in an increasingly interconnected global economy, the private sector wields an increasing amount of power. And, on this issue if on few others, it seems to be responding to the concerns of the popular majority more than certain members of the legislative majority are.

Posted in Finance, Gun Control | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: Nathan Bomey’s “Detroit Resurrected”

I’ve made it my mission to read all of the Detroit books. I started with Charlie LeDuff’s sensationalist Detroit: An American Autopsy, then moved onto fiction You Don’t Have To Live Like This, then David Maraniss’s Once In A Great City. Most recently it was Nathan Bomey’s Detroit Resurrected: To Bankruptcy and Back, which I just finished. I can’t quite stomach Amy Haimerl’s Detroit Hustle right now, but I do have a copy and will get to it at some point.

Bomey’s book, at 320 pages and replete with live-action, lawyerly, shit-talking dialogue, is a quick, comfortable read. It’s rich and vivid, but not verbose, dense, or packed with a crazy technical analysis. He covers the mechanics of bankruptcy, the basics of Detroit’s municipal finance, and the bankruptcy proceedings themselves, focusing principally on how the powers that be, among them Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, later-Mayor Mike Duggan, and various attorneys and judges, all butted heads to argue their points in figuring out what to do to fix Detroit’s balance sheet.

POWER & DEBT

Much of Bomey’s analysis focuses on the central debate surrounding the proposed liquidation of the Detroit Institute of the Arts to settle debts to creditors and the Grand Bargain, as it was later named, a deal to settle a portion of debts by bringing in foundation capital to shore up numbers on a deep red balance sheet. He also traces the origins, though somewhat inadequately (more on this later), of the power triangle between Kevyn Orr, Rick Snyder, and Mike Duggan.

The Grand Bargain was, without doubt, one of the most interesting political resolutions to the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history– a resolution to certainly one of the most precarious situations in American urban history. Bomey captures a sort of constructivist, human element of the bankruptcy– referring back to said shit-talking lawyers- and how social interactions rather than purely quantified power structures or monetary systems defined “make-or-break” moments in the proceedings. Most major breakthroughs in the proceedings he brings back to pivotal phone calls or moments, usually involving profanity-laden phone calls between six figure salaried executives (as these things usually go). And, well, a lot of things were accomplished, even though some folks lost out.

Former Emergency Manager and Jones Day attorney Kevyn Orr, courtesy of Bridge Magazine.

This ranges from the millionaire Jones Day lawyers to the millionaire Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr to the multi-millionaire governor Rick Snyder. Did you notice something about the preceding sentence? Possibly the fact that they’re all millionaires, and this is something that is often missed in the narrative about the bankruptcy.

This is sort of a product of Bomey’s limited depth in tracking of the origins of Detroit’s crisis. In his analysis, this is fairly limited to Kwame’s business dealings and some peripherally connected things involving historical something something. In comparison, Maraniss’s book paints a picture of a city on the edge, but he doesn’t get more than knee-deep into the origins of the urban crisis, as Thomas Sugrue does. LeDuff, problematic but a dedicated Detroiter, is sensationalist but really seems to capture the gritty “ground level” of Detroit that Bomey seems to remark upon in a passing way– the sort of New York attitude of, “Wow, it’s crazy that people actually live like this!”

These issues are less important in figuring out what to do next, but I mention the “millionaire” point because much of Detroit’s new narrative is problematized by the disproportionate control of the city that has been handed over, sold, or transferred in some carte blanche manner, to millionaires and billionaires.

WHEN IN DOUBT, BLAME KWAME (OR COLEMAN)

I’ve noticed that white folk, especially suburbanites who refer to anything within the city limits as “downtown” and only come “downtown” to attend Red Wings games or hang out with Kid Rock or one of Gilitchville’s monumental, taxpayer-funded abominations, usually blame Coleman Young or the riots, one, for the single moment in the downfall of Detroit.

Usually, as the limit of a conversation with one of These People approaches about two minutes, the probability approaches one that they will make some reference to “the blacks.” To those who live here, it’s fairly apparent. Detroit’s legacies of racism are deep and foundational in the city’s problems. Maraniss’s book gets into this– sort of- but Detroit Resurrected leaves it on the sidelines. Kind of like the bazillionaire players in the bankruptcy narratives left it on the sidelines.

At issue in the Kwame era was the city’s attempt to kick the debt-can down the road by raising basically investment capital on public bonds through a couple of maybe-semi-illegal-if-not-totally-shady shell corporations. No one seems to really debate that Kwame was corrupt, never mind that the origins of his era’s problems find their roots many decades prior.

But Bomey isn’t interested in academically problematizing the idea that a municipal entity, which exists by virtue of and for the preservation of human beings in a human community, could be effectively sold off to greedy Wall Street interests. Orr and the Jones Day club certainly weren’t interested in this, either, and, although Orr is often painted by Bomey as an enormously pragmatic, human thinker who was able to accomplish a monumental feat against crazy odds (certainly an arguable point), discussion is almost totally absent about how utterly problematic the Emergency Management system imposed by a white Republican quarter-billionaire governor onto a majority of black Michiganders was. Rick Snyder is painted as a pragmatic, benign technocrat whose affinity for Detroit is at odds with a [racist, but Bomey avoids saying it] red state constituency that, along with the likes of L. Brooks Patterson, kind of hates Detroit.

Beyond Emergency Management, the most interesting thing to me about the bankruptcy is the move in the era of muncipal austerity toward replacing public services and expenditure with private foundation money. I’ve often found it ironic that Kresge is such a huge player in Detroit as K-Mart, the originator of the Kresge fortune, made its money by championing a new era of offshoring (and thereby indirectly contributing to the demise of urban economies in the so-called post-industrial era). Foundations are mandated to spend their money on philanthropic stuff, but so much is obvious– Bomey doesn’t get into this very much except to say that it’s notable. What is interesting to me is the fact that it is being done.

There is debate about the efficacy of private philanthropic expenditure, but one thing that is for sure is that foundations are 1) private, and 2) not mandated to distribute funding evenly across cities. Kresge underwriting Detroit’s QLine streetcar in a city where buses don’t run on time– or at all- was a good example and certainly carried a dubious value proposition.

EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT, THAT UNMENTIONED DISASTER

Bomey’s conclusion, where he actually goes so far as to invoke the “what about the schools,” which, along with “what about the parking,” is totally the “what about her e-mails” of urban revitalization. He does mention that the state’s appointed emergency managers basically made a bad situation worse, but he doesn’t trace that back to Snyder, which I view as pretty problematic. Snyder is a venture capitalist who has done a great job of transferring public resources to private interests in a state that struggles with poverty and unemployment that aren’t really getting better. Emergency Management is a tried-and-true way to strip citizens of democratic process, and the bankruptcy wouldn’t have been possible without it.

Darnell Earley was clearly a disaster in Detroit and in Flint. Kevyn Orr perhaps wasn’t a complete disaster, and the bankruptcy perhaps wasn’t the be-all, end-all of disasters, but the Emergency Management system is definitely a disaster for democracy– and in terms of the precedents it has set with regard to wealth and race disparity in Michigan’s cities.

These problems mitigate the credibility of the total narrative, but they don’t detract from the readability of it, and it isn’t as though Bomey is making grossly inappropriate conclusions or factually untrue statements. Overall, I’d offer three and a half out of five stars or so, but I will say that Detroit Resurrected is great story and totally worth the read.

Posted in Book Reviews, Detroit, Michigan | Leave a comment

Tschö, Detroit!

Today I’m headed off on a multi-modal transit odyssey that will eventually land me in the Ruhrgebiet, in Nordrhein-Westfalen, as the first stop on a mobility study trip sponsored by the German-American Chambers of Commerce (GACC South in Atlanta, or, AHK in German).

To pregame, I will be seeing how well or how badly intermodal transportation works across three international borders: Tuesday morning, I’ll take the tunnel bus or get a ride from Detroit to Windsor, where I’ll take the Via Rail to Toronto, then a train to Pearson, flight to Frankfurt, then a train to Dortmund. Then I’m headed to Wuppertal and will be hanging out in the Ruhr for a couple of days, hopefully hitting up the crazy paragons of adaptive reuse and public space in Duisburg or the Zeche Zollverein, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, before heading back to Frankfurt– then onward with the AHK crew.

Stay tuned for live updates!

Also, Happy Halloween. Also, in observance of All Souls Day, a.k.a. the benign, German corollary to our spooky holiday, kick it to these deep cuts from Franz Schubert.

Posted in Urban Planning | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Detroit Climate Action Plan Released

The Detroit Climate Action Plan is released, announced in Detroit’s North End.

At the North End Christian CDC, outside a hoophouse in Detroit’s North End, Kimberly Hill-Knott recounted the origins of the Detroit Climate Action Collaborative, or DCAC, in 2011. At the time, the dialogue surrounding sustainability was eclipsed by bigger questions about the future of the city itself.

“Bankruptcy was looming, the threat of the appointment of an emergency manager was hanging over our heads, and of course, both of those events happened,” Hill-Knott, DCAC project director, and president and CEO of Future Insight Consulting, recalled. “We asked ourselves, ‘Does it even make sense to forge ahead with developing a climate action plan?’ We concluded that we had no other choice.”

In line with Detroit’s legacy of participatory community action, the collaborative, a program of Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, or DWEJ, soldiered on.

“We didn’t have time to wait on the Federal government,” Hill-Knott said. “We didn’t have time to wait on state government.”

Today, the collaborative’s Climate Action Plan was released to the general public.

DCAC brought together 26 businesses, community groups, universities, environmental groups, and public agencies to develop a framework to guide the development of a Detroit that is resilient in the face of more extreme temperatures and weather conditions, and a city that is greener and more equitable.

Leila Mekias (left), Environmental Health Fellow with the Detroit Health Department and former program coordinator at DCAC and Kimberly Hill-Knott, DCAC Program Director, are helping lead the charge for more sustainable neighborhoods. Photo by Nat M. Zorach.

“The report has 25 specific actions that can be taken by various individuals and groups,” Hill-Knott said, urging audience members to familiarize themselves with the guide and understand what role each of them can play in improving the city. One goal includes reducing 2012 baseline greenhouse gas emissions 10 percent by 2022 and 30 percent by 2032.

Hill-Knott was joined by Dominic DiCicco, Manager of Environmental Policy and Fuel Quality for Ford Motor Company, climatologist Omar Gates, City of Detroit Director of Sustainability Joel Howrani-Heeres, and DWEJ Executive Director Guy Williams, as well as Roslyn Ogburn, a DCAC community organizer.

Dr. Natalie Sampson, a professor of public health at the University of Michigan, also spoke.

“The prevalence of asthma is 29 percent higher in the city of Detroit than in the rest of Michigan,” she said. “[Detroit has] three times the amounts of hospitalizations for asthma than in the state of Michigan… This is just one health issue, and we know that there are more.”

Asked whether she had any pilot projects in mind, Kimberly Hill-Knott said she looks forward to working with the city’s new director of sustainability, Joel Howrani-Heeres, and pointed toward the completion of successful projects like the Detroit Smart Neighborhoods pilot, which trained Detroit Housing Commission residents in energy retrofits and residential energy modeling.

DWEJ organized the trainings with advisor and instructor Kevin McNeely, and subsequently partnered with Southwest Housing Solutions (and, incidentally, the author of this article) to work on a few homes in the Marygrove neighborhood. DWEJ Executive Director Guy Williams explained how five of those trainees went on to work with Detroit builder Brian Duell, with whom DWEJ has partnered on a construction company focused on energy and sustainability.

Williams saw the training program as having natural synergy, one where Detroiters are put to work improving their own community.

“If they could become employed in a trade that’s also making the community and housing healthier, there would be multiple wins,” he said.

Such inventive opportunities pairing economic development with sustainable innovation are critical for the success of the Climate Action Plan, and Hill-Knott looks forward to collaborating with the City of Detroit for future implementation.

“We’ve got all of these wonderful recommendations and goals, it’s just a matter of getting everybody together,” she said.

DWEJ, founded in 1994, cites itself as the oldest environmental justice organization in the state of Michigan.

This article was also published on TheHUB Detroit.

Posted in Energy Poverty, Environment, Environmental Justice, Michigan, Urban energy, Urban Planning | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bike The Bridge: Fleeting Dreams of International Bike Transit

On Sunday, for the first and possibly the last time, I rode my bike across the Detroit River on the Ambassador Bridge. It was a lot of fun, but also a reminder of how badly in need of a revamp our border crossing is, both regarding international transit modality and the culture and processes of border security.

The ride was fun, but brief– we were not afforded the opportunity to actually ride around Windsor at all, which was kind of lame, and instead just had to turn around at the base of the bridge. An army of well-armed CBP officers made sure we didn’t stop to take pictures, stop, or slow down too much, because terrorism.

I’ve probably crossed the Windsor-Detroit border hundreds of times. I dated a Canadian for about a year, and even though we broke up, I got to keep the trivia team, which I visit every Monday night (we pretty much always win 4th place).

Plenty of Detroiters don’t visit Windsor, complaining about how they used to go there, but then 9/11 happened, and you had to have a passport to cross (you don’t), but they do point out that it is much more of a pain in the ass, especially coming back into the United States, where I’ve been asked why on earth I would ever move to Detroit (I asked, “why would you ever move to Macomb County?”, why I feel the need to spend money at a bar in a foreign country when I could spend it in the United States, why I have a bike rack on my car, why I had a Bernie Sanders sticker on my old car.

It’s a messed up culture of fear and paranoia– Canada is our biggest trading partner and, as such, we share many common cultural and economic narratives. But I can’t fix that issue short of dismantling nearly a generation-long era of post-Cold War paranoia that has come to define the law enforcement officials who commute in from the distant suburbs every shift to interrogate American and Canadian citizens alike about what on earth they might be doing, going about their daily business.

So, getting past the problem of a perpetually inadequate number of lanes open on either side, which means wait times, we have to also think about alternatives for crossing. The only way to cross without a personal vehicle is with a taxi (expensive) or on the tunnel bus, a Windsor Transit-operated line, which has an extremely unreliable schedule and route. The tunnel bus is a good option during major sporting events, but Detroiters and Windsorites, headed, respectively, to Caesar’s Windsor or one of Detroit’s publicly-funded sportsball arenas, are still reliant on the automobile, so forget a bus– especially one jammed to capacity that runs behind schedule because the tunnel is so clogged up during these major events.

What about a bike? It takes up way less space than a car, it imposes less wear on infrastructure, and it’s affordable to operate. The Gordie Howe Bridge will supposedly include bike lanes, but that’s a solid few miles from downtown– it isn’t exactly a direct link between our two great nations. We do, however, remember that unsung hero, Windsorite Kyle Colasanti, who biked through the tunnel to get to a Steely Dan concert, much to the chagrin of Customs and Border Patrol officers, who really were pissed that he wasn’t driving an F250 Super Duty and detained him for hours for no reason (go figure).

Kyle acted on what most of us are thinking– that we need better bike transport.

Looking east from the Ambassador Bridge toward Mt. Doom and the Eye of Sauron atop it, a.k.a. the Renaissance Center, and Belle Isle.

And why we need a better border crossing– not just in terms of international transit modes but also the ownership and fees. Joann Mueller wrote an excellent article about why the Ambassador’s situation is so utterly screwed up– how the monopolistic ownership has resulted in the doubling or even quadrupling of tolls, how delays in truck traffic cost the US-Canadian trade economy hundreds of millions of dollars a year (and, frankly, result in clouds of heavy particulate diesel exhaust stinking up Southwest Detroit, which is already not exactly an atmospheric paradise owing to the heavy industry around the Rouge River and Zug Island).

It is unclear how much this will change with the Gordie Howe Bridge, either in terms of air pollution, reduction of traffic on the Ambassador Bridge, or potential future uses of the old Ambassador Bridge once Moroun finally gets his way and gets a new span built. But one thing is for certain– demand for bike infrastructure is increasing at the same time that even the auto industry is shifting away from internal combustion vehicles. Examples include GM’s shocker that it will introduce a bazillion electric cars by 2023, or diesel engine heavyweight Cummins, which announced an all-electric semi under development for sale starting in 2019.

Posted in Cycling, Detroit, Michigan, Ontario, Public transit, Transit infrastructure, Urban Planning, Walking, Windsor | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Will Jeff Bezos Be The Next Billionaire to “save” Detroit?

The water cooler topic du jour in Detroit is the grumbling about why Amazon won’t move here because the region lacks adequate public transportation infrastructure, one of the primary demands of the online retailer in its site selection criteria. For this I blame Macomb County, Heimat of the Reagan Democrats, for this, as I do for most things, following the spectacular failure of an admittedly imperfect regional transit proposal that made it to the ballot last fall. This isn’t stopping the city from cobbling something together, though, and this has demanded all hands on deck, as I was reminded in recently trying to schedule a meeting with a department head in the city administration who had to postpone for a whole month because everyone was going balls to the wall on Amazon.

The New York Times described Detroit as a “sentimental” pick and instead suggested Denver, not an unreasonable suggestion as it is growing, isn’t clogged with obscene amounts of traffic, is still reasonably affordable, and has a burgeoning tech scene with smart people and skilled workers.

Now Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens, who cuts a somewhat tepid public persona juxtaposed against the chummy and unapologetic suit filled by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, is trying to get on board with the idea of an international hub. I say “tepid” because for all of our problems here in the D, Dilkens has, against all planning logic and advice, turned his efforts toward creating more parking spaces downtown, which is really going to save the that mixture of shwarma shops and strip clubs that comprise downtown Windsor.

Detroit-Windsor is a huge trade portal, with Matty Moroun’s Ambassador Bridge serving about a quarter of all US-Canada trade (!), so it makes sense to consider the international aspect of the headquarters project– especially considering the possibility of expanding the access to the Canadian consumer market. Canadians always complain to me about how their consumer choice is severely limited on products ranging from Chobani to phone chargers, and specifically frequently complain about online shopping, since shipping to Canada from the United States often involves an arcane and expensive series of fees.

That plus the fact that the Quebec-Windsor corridor has 18 million people in it, with a third of those in the Greater Toronto area and over a million between Windsor-Essex and London.

I actually don’t have a major budget to produce a pretty video. I don’t think anyone should be home to the second Amazon HQ, unless we can all sign onto some sort of compact that says that we’re not going to give them a dime of taxpayer money. Eric Greitens, douchenozzle supreme governor of Missouri, proposed building an untested, unproven, and yet non-existent space-age transportation network between Kansas City and St. Louis via Columbia. “Why not build them a goddamn Stargate, while we’re at it?” Daniel Hill of the Riverfront Times asks.

Hell, Gary is even going for it. Similar to Detroit’s bid, Gary admitted to the far-fetched notion of their hosting HQ2, but, they say, “‘far-fetched’ is what we do in America. It was far-fetched for 13 scrawny American colonies to succeed against the might of the British Empire. Far-fetched to land a man on the moon. Far-fetched for a business selling books out of a garage to succeed in business and philanthropy.” (Realistically, Gary has a better shot than plenty of places. It offers low costs, plus its own grossly underutilized international airport that really fucking needs to start competing with too-big-to-fail O’Hare, a giant rail yard, and intermodal connections out the wazoo).

Amazon’s biodomes at the company’s multi-billion dollar downtown Seattle campus, but with a little bit less Pauly Shore and Stephen Baldwin.

There are plenty of problems with this, as Alex Baca noted in a recent article castigating the Corporate Urbanism in America’s Heartland, and it’s been well-studied (and well-examined) that these mega-deals may indeed never pan out for how much they cost in subsidy. We’ve noted in Detroit that the Pistons opener was poorly attended in a new billion dollar stadium whose construction– but not exorbitant ticket prices- was heavily subsidized by hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer funding, but to the Gores, the Ilitches, and the Gilberts who pushed for the “public-private” (N.B.: “taxpayer subsidy”) deal, the money was “necessary.”

So, yes– Jeff Bezos will not be the savior of Detroit, just as Dan Gilbert isn’t the savior of Detroit, just as Michael Kelly isn’t the savior of Detroit, just as Mike Ilitch isn’t the savior of Detroit, et cetera. But Detroit’s a cool town, and, if it wouldn’t actually cost an arm and a leg and would result in actual, real-life, real-city transit options and an aggressive effort to build new housing and even maybe some affordable housing, God forbid (I want four-story mixed-use, zero lot-line buildings the whole way from I-96 to downtown along Grand River, gol-darnit!), I would take it. Heck, I might even be able to get me a real job!

I did, however, dig around to see what kinds of space we could use for the project:

SITES

Amazon says they need eight million square feet. That’s pretty larger than, say the Pentagon or the Willis (née Sears) Tower. Fortunately for us, we’re Detroit, so there are plenty of abandoned warehouses, which often have adjacent vacant spaces that are prime for redevelopment.

In the neighborhood that is, pending the advent of a cold-pressed organic juice bar, eventually going to be known as SoMiJo, for South of Milwaukee Junction, the iconic, abandoned Fisher Body plant. The abandoned plant is top center and the adjacent lots are highlighted in orange.

The multi-million square foot Packard Plant is perfect, or, if that site doesn’t allow sufficient space for additional new construction, there’s always Fisher Body Plant #21, one of the most iconic abandoned factories that can easily be seen from I-75 (probably about half a million square feet plus about 70k s.f. along Piquette, an adjacent 144k s.f. block ), or the 1928 Grand Trunk Cold Storage warehouse, which offers a roughly 50,000 square foot floor plate times about ten floors, or the let’s-be-real-it’s-probably-a-brownfield vacant sites adjacent and across the street, which is just over nine acres between the mostly-defunct Roby St. and St. Aubin.

The Detroit Port building, which is really large and really, really vacant.

Highlighted major vacant space adjacent to and part of the Port of Detroit, which occupies 80 acres of riverfront. “There’s a whole harvest of vacancy under our feet! Nobody can get at it except for me!” – Daniel Day Lewis, in the film There Will Be Blight, probably

The 1925 Detroit Harbor Terminal— which offers about 750,000 square feet over ten floors plus a couple of adjacent buildings, warehouses, and well over a million square feet of immediately adjacent vacant land ranging from completely vacant to grossly underutilized. These are the largest and most iconic ones, but there are many, many more. At even weak floor area ratios (NB: Lots of Surface Parking!), these comprise tens of millions of square feet of potential.

Of MCM’s 376,000 properties surveyed, almost a full third are vacant lots. At an average of 4,000 square feet per residential lot (it’s usually just under a tenth of an acre), that’s a full 10,000 acres of space for potential development (with plenty left over for green space).

CONCLUSIONS: NO HOLDING OF BREATHS

Don’t get me wrong– Amazon is an enormously problematic company. They’ve been accused of poor labor practices at their distribution facilities in the United States and the UK, a toxic culture at their corporate headquarters, they continue to lobby for a combination of reasonable and nefarious goals ranging from FAA-deregulated delivery drones to massive government procurement contracts, and I frankly don’t believe that a billionaire who runs a company that continues to demonstrate aggressive and even potentially illegal anticompetitive practices really has anyone’s best interests in mind other than his own.

But if it has to go anywhere, and if it can be done without a broke city writing a blank check to a major corporation, there is plenty of vacant land and vacant space in this town that I think we could do with seeing redeveloped.

Of course, that last bit– writing a blank check to a major corporation- is sort of the dealbreaker for me, and I don’t mean to add it in as an aside. This is certainly more of a thought experiment in wondering whether it’s possible to have a city not subsidize a bazillion dollar company, get beyond the era of “corporate urbanism,” as Alex Baca has called it, and actually start building equitable cities based on their attractiveness for investment rather than how much public subsidy they dole out. Rather than desperately chasing billion-dollar companies around like fanatical supplicants of a cult, we need some sort of compact to sign onto that says, “pick us– but we’re not going to pay for it.”

Posted in Cities & Urban Planning, Detroit, Investment, Michigan, Missouri, Real Estate | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment