Into Exurban Oblivion: Auburn Hills Mulls Ditching Transit Service

In one of the farthest-flung northern suburbs of Detroit, a debate is raging over the city’s continued participation in the SMART bus service, the regional patchwork of infrequent public transit that serves the Detroit suburbs across the three counties of Oakland, Macomb, and Wayne (but not Detroit– which sits in Wayne). It’s a debate that is emblematic of larger problems in Metro Detroit– of talent attraction, talent retention, and, most generally, maintaining basic infrastructure, as the state continues to sprawl out.

Auburn Hills, a city that is arguably neither Auburn nor Hills, didn’t exist before the 1980s, a geospatial rump roast carved out of Pontiac Township. To the uninitiated, Michigan, as well as many other Midwestern states, boasts a municipal landscape of townships laid out in a grid according to the rectilinear cadastral survey of 1793. This is, of course, the reason why most roads in the Midwest intersect at right angles, and it’s the reason for the six-miles-square township model.

[Auburn Hills] has done many things right in bringing people in and helping them get around without a car. Its small but rapidly growing downtown area features human-scale and pedestrian friendly streets and traditional apartments over lovely cafes, bars, and shops. So, it’s bizarre to imagine why the city council decided 2022 was the year to end bus service.

It also appears to be a major driver of how sprawl develops. Townships effectively become fiefdoms, and fiefdoms-within-fiefdoms compete to turn rural, agricultural land into things like strip malls or tract housing.

Auburn Hills has successfully transitioned from a city of primarily industrial land and corporate campuses to a destination for thousands of new residents and visitors. It is growing in popularity with automotive professionals and Oakland University students, its population having grown by 14% from 2010 to 2020. It bucks the stereotype of the lily-white Oakland County suburb, with diverse Black and Asian populations. It has done many things right in bringing people in and helping them get around without a car. Its small but rapidly growing downtown area features human-scale and pedestrian friendly streets and traditional apartments over lovely cafes, bars, and shops. The Clinton River Trail runs through it, a popular and convenient way to get into town by bike. And it has been served for decades by the SMART bus system, with overwhelming popular support every time its funding was up for renewal.

So, it’s bizarre to imagine why the city council decided 2022 was the year to end bus service.

At the city’s transit workshop on February 7th, at which the council voted 5-2 to opt out of SMART, Mayor Kevin McDaniel banged on the low ridership of the service, particularly among Auburn Hills residents. “Would you spend your money this way?” he asked, referring to the $1.6 million dollars a year raised by the SMART millage and approximately 142 daily riders at the Great Lakes Crossing Outlet.

To be sure, it’s a common refrain from critics of transit. No one uses it, they say! Every time I see the buses, they’ve only got one or two people on them! (Of course, most cars only have one person in them, and they’re similarly funded by a combination of private and public subsidy!).

I decided to investigate for myself and went up to Auburn Hills on an icy afternoon. But first, I needed a beverage and a respite from the winter winds blowing outside. I strolled into the lively bubble tea shop on Auburn Road and walked up to the cash register.

“What can I get you?” asked the cashier.

I pondered the array of drink options on the menu. “I’ll need a minute,” I said.

“But,” I began, pivoting for a moment, “can I talk to you about something else? I wanted to let people know that the city of Auburn Hills is planning to end bus service. Do you know anyone who rides it?”

“I do,” she replied. “I ride the bus to my job here, and to Oakland Community College. I don’t have a car.”

“Well, you won’t do that anymore if the city council has their way!”

I ordered a tiger milk tea, half sugar.

I and my fellow organizers from the Motor City Freedom Riders interviewed more people at the main bus stops downtown, and the main shopping centers like Great Lakes Crossing Outlets and Auburn Mile. We met regular riders who did their grocery shopping at the Auburn Mile Meijer, as it was the closest supermarket to many residents of the neighboring city of Pontiac. We met workers who would lose their jobs at the Great Lakes Crossing area if the bus disappeared. At Great Lakes Crossing, we even met a woman from Flint transferring to the SMART bus to attend her son’s funeral in Detroit. Auburn Hills contains the only connection between Flint’s MTA bus and the SMART buses in Metro Detroit.

Despite the mayor’s insistence that the few bus riders didn’t matter and that ending service would have negligible effect on the city’s businesses, it didn’t take us long to find evidence otherwise.

The Auburn Hills City Council will advance its decision to abandon the SMART bus on 2/21 at 7 PM at Auburn Hills City Office (1827 N. Squirrel Road). Members of the public can comment by attending in person, calling (248) 370-9402, or emailing comments to clerk@auburnhills.org.

THE COST OF THE MOTORCAR

Transit has long had highly vocal and generally thoroughly misinformed opponents in the Mitten State. “It’s the Motor City, dumbass,” a commenter once said. “Buy a car.”

“Why can’t they just take Uber?” once asked noted insurrectionist and Michigan state representative Matt Maddock.

Some simple math will tell you why not: The average Uber ride runs around $25 to the customer. Uber’s booking fee alone costs the same as a bus earning 100% farebox recovery ratio, meaning that the fares that riders are paying are covering 100% of the operating costs.

There are two likely rebuttals to this: First, that Uber’s pricing scheme is the equivalent of a 100% farebox recovery ratio, and suburban buses in low-ridership Metro Detroit would probably be lucky to crack 10%. This is not really a great rebuttal, because Uber drivers earn extraordinarily inconsistent income, and Uber generates a ton of congestion. That externality is not factored into the price of an Uber.

Are there any other scenarios in which we would feel comfortable just emphatically cutting out 6% of the population? To put that number in perspective against other demographic minorities, wheelchair users account for a little under 1% of the total US population. ADA requirements– which also guide the design and accessibility of buses and transit systems- were developed in the 1990s with this population in mind. In any other scenario, would we allow a policy decision to emphatically just cut out 6% of the population?

The second rebuttal might be that operating paratransit ends up being cheaper than operating buses. This may well be true from a “total budget” standpoint, but paratransit costs an average of around $29 per ride, which eclipses even Uber. That’s more than ten times what it costs to ride a bus, and the fare recovery ratio for paratransit might well be zero if it’s provided to riders for free. That same linked article citing the $29 also notes that the average transit trip cost is about $8. This is true over the entirety of transit, but not true of systems that cover the entirety of their operating expenses– in which case 100% farebox recovery means that a $3 ride costs $3.

As far as the dial-a-ride or paratransit services, SMART already has a partnership with Via, a for-profit operator that runs this kind of demand response shuttle service. It’s a “last mile” approach to connecting riders to their destinations.

Census data show that around 500 households in Auburn Hills– notably, as mentioned before, one of the farthest-flung of Detroit’s suburbs- do not own a car. In percentage terms, though, that’s fairly high, working out to 6.2% of households in the city.

Are there any other scenarios in which we would feel comfortable just emphatically cutting out 6% of the population? To put that number in perspective against other demographic minorities, wheelchair users account for a little under 1% of the total US population. ADA requirements– which also guide the design and accessibility of buses and transit systems- were developed in the 1990s with this population in mind. In any other scenario, would we allow a policy decision to emphatically just cut out 6% of the population?

While the city has proposed a half-mill tax to create a barebones replacement system for its elderly and disabled residents who can’t drive, it should be clear that they will suffer greatly under this new regime. They will lose access to SMART’s fixed route and Flex rideshare service, which are ADA accessible, and unlike the proposed paratransit service, operate daily and do not require days of advance booking. The replacement system might be useful for the occasional grocery haul or medical appointment. But it would not allow 9-to-5 commuting, going to dinner with friends, or even a leisure trip outside of city limits. Without daily transit service, they would be denied the ability to live full lives, merely eke out a minimal existence. The council seems unconcerned that it is hurting its most vulnerable residents to trim a little bit off the tax bill.

SMART brings workers and customers to the shopping centers and industrial parks of Auburn Hills, and buys the freedom for disadvantaged residents to enjoy a complete life. Not a bad deal for one mille. Residents understand that and have voted to pay for it. Let them continue to let them decide for themselves.

To paraphrase the mayor, would you spend your money this way?

LOCAL ECONOMIC CONTEXT

In some ways, the debate almost feels emblematic of the struggles of the smallest of Detroit’s Big Three, or, as a colleague once called them, the Big 2.5. Chrysler has undergone a number of corporate reorganizations over the course of a generation, as DaimlerChrysler (1998-2007), Chrysler and Chrysler Group (bankruptcy era, 2008-2014), then Fiat Chrysler (2014-2020), and now Stellantis (2020-present). Chrysler has struggled since the late 1990s, its sales almost halving to be eclipsed by General Motors and Ford, who have also lost substantial market share over that time frame, in spite of remaining in much better shape financially

Chrysler’s development of its exurban home base in the 1980s is synonymous with the incorporation of the edge city itself. But the exurban nature of it, connected to Detroit almost as a complete afterthought, seems to be a pretty apt microcosm of the company’s detachment from shifting mobility paradigms. Though the major and inarguably most iconic employer in Auburn Hills, Chrysler seems to have completely checked out of this issue. A loss of transit service means a loss of economic capacity for the city and the broader region, but it also trickles up, effectively, to make it much harder for companies like Chrysler to attract and retain talent in distant suburban enclaves that are unable to serve their working classes.

(Chrysler/Stellantis’ media team did not respond to a request for comment on this issue).

DYSFUNCTIONAL FUNDING MECHANISMS

Beyond just this one city, the idea of opting out of public transportation should not even be on the table in the first place. Auburn Hills is home to major roadways and freeways maintained by the Road Commission for Oakland County and by the Michigan Department of Transportation, including I-75 and M-59. The city does not get to rule on their existence. Transit should be no different.

The city council of Auburn Hills has a duty to do what’s best for its residents. But it does not have the right to flip over the table of regional infrastructure, wreck transit connections, and isolate itself from its neighbors. SMART in Oakland County was designed by segregation-minded politicians to be easy to exit and hard to enter. Member communities only require a vote of the city council to abandon service.

But to begin service, the council must agree to put a referendum on the ballot, which must win a majority vote. New county leadership has publicly announced their intention to bring transit to the whole county. But it remains to be seen what measures they will take to end the opt-out system for good.

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

City councilmembers argue that it’s a matter of SMART’s operational deficiencies. Of course, no one likes the operational problems with SMART. They’re not the easiest to work with. No doubt this is substantially a product of how messed up their funding structure is, and how transit agencies seem to have to fight for crumbs while the automotive paradigm reigns supreme. The state seems to give carte blanche, for example, to MDOT to underfund an overdeveloped road network, but it would take a substantial legislative action at the state level to change how transit is funded.

But when we’re fighting these uphill battles– up the Auburn Hills, one might say- it is important to have the facts. We are hopeful that the voters have the facts:

  • Residents pay way more for roads than they do for transit, and have absolutely no say in how they get built. The University Drive and I-75 interchange, one of the Michigan Department of Road Engineering’s vaunted Diverging Diamond typology, cost $25 million, equivalent to 31 years of savings from halving the SMART millage.
  • The 0.986 mill property tax represents $1.6 million in funding for SMART annually, distributed across the city’s 8,064 households (by property valuation).
  • Eliminating the tax and replacing it with a half-mill tax will save property owners the equivalent of around 1% of the total municipality’s annual budget. This is a pittance in savings for what is sure to effectively screw over thousands of people.
  • The vast majority of voters in Auburn Hills have repeatedly voted to renew the SMART millage.
  • Cutting out SMART will exacerbate the ongoing attrition of a grossly underfunded transit agency whose failings contribute to the failings of Metro Detroit at large, limiting economic growth and especially accessibility for the region’s most vulnerable residents.

Indeed, there’s no question that SMART has room to improve. The buses in these parts do not have many riders. There has been a communications breakdown between SMART and Auburn Hills. But SMART has demonstrated its ability to improve from its nadir during the Great Recession. Its express FAST buses and the Flex/Via rideshare service have boosted ridership and explored new ways to serve suburban areas. It works with cities like Auburn Hills to provide lifeline paratransit service to their residents. Auburn Hills leaders should continue to partner with them and return to their work of making the city a vibrant and welcoming place to be.

The Auburn Hills City Council will advance its decision to abandon the SMART bus on 2/21 at 7 PM at Auburn Hills City Office (1827 N. Squirrel Road). Members of the public can comment by attending in person, calling (248) 370-9402, or emailing comments to clerk@auburnhills.org.

A native of the Bay Area, Calley Wang is a mobility technologist who works for a large automaker. He is a “transit-oriented teen” and periodic contributor to The Handbuilt City. Nat Zorach is an East Coast transplant, the editor of The Handbuilt City, and a cantankerous urban planner who works for a large public utility company on the evaluation and design of decarbonization programs. Both live in Detroit, Michigan. Their views do not represent those of their employers.

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