State Lawmaker Asks, “Why Can’t People Just Take Uber Instead?” Let’s Explain Why.

There are a few names that often get thrown around in Southeast Michigan when one discusses the fight for infrastructure. The late Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, for example, was a staunch opponent of transit expansion. Many longtime observers gave him a break for his casual racism and profanity. He even went so far as to talk about how much he loved sprawl in a now-notorious interview with the New Yorker in 2014. Mark Hackel in Macomb has made a point to emphasize how fixed-route transit is an “obsolete” technology. When I interviewed his deputy in 2018, John Paul “JP” Rea, Rea claimed that Hackel hadn’t said that. (Narrator voice: He did).  Notable advocates include the likes of Warren-based Dave Gifford or a plethora of activists and advocates in the city proper.

Less-known detractors include legislators from farther-flung districts.

Republican Matt Maddock is one such contributor. Maddock, representing Michigan’s 44th District who owns a bail bond company, took a recent opportunity on Twitter to rail, no pun intended, against transit. Dave Giffords (Transit Guide) had tweeted about the need for more frequent, reliable service so people don’t have to wait endlessly in the cold.

Bus service in Macomb, where County Executive Mark Hackel recently claimed on Stephen Henderson’s WDET show, not a single voter would say there is a need for transit expansion, is infrequent at best.

“Exactly why we don’t need more archaic busses [sic],” Maddock wrote. “Busses [sic] and bus stops are cold, wet and smelly. Waiting for busses stinks… bussing is just mean.” Bussing is just mean? Mean to whom, sir?

On Facebook, I might have responded with the group tag, “Those are all certainly words.” Bus stops are cold and wet in the same way that, well, streets are cold and wet, when it’s cold and wet. Outside. You know? In this case, I’m not really sure why a legislator involved in transportation appropriations is publicly talking about how awful public transit is.

He then goes on to quote Randall O’Toole, a notorious anti-transit pedant of the Koch-funded Cato Institute. I responded that quoting Randall O’Toole, who has a fraught relationship with reliable research, to back your anti-transit points, was kind of like quoting anti-gun control pundit John Lott, whose seminal, dubiously-researched magnum opus, “More Guns, Less Crime,” is the Holy Grail of anti-gun control talking points.

Lott and O’Toole both purport to be impartial observers in pursuit of a virtuous truth, of course. But their flawed research methodologies and financial backing by vitriolic political interests suggest that their objectives may be as clouded as their research conclusions.

Maddock again toed the line of the virtuous alternatives of TNC’s like Uber and Lyft. Claiming that “mass transit systems rarely collect more than 10% [of costs] at the farebox,” he asked, in effect, why taxpayers should foot the bill for a mostly-empty bus that costs $80 an hour to operate, the logic goes, instead of the unwashed masses just paying their own fares with Lyft or Uber?

Well. There’s a lot to unpack here!

Leaving aside issues of equity or the importance of having, well, a civil society where people other than the well-paid can get around, we look at Gus Polinsky’s response below. Southeast Michigan has billions of dollars in deferred road maintenance and repairs. The state and federal government are already deep into a multibillion dollar “modernization” project for I-94 and I-75 that will take decades. These projects are not recouping their costs. They are never intended to recoup their costs. Yet they’re treated as sort of an inevitability. Michigan’s beet-red legislature fought tooth-and-nail against a gas tax hike.

They would inevitably fight against tolling these roads.

What is the current “farebox recovery ratio” equivalent of Michigan roads? Hard to say. We have a low gas tax that is unable to fund maintenance. We have a low federal gas tax. Auto registration fees are a drop in the bucket in comparison to multibillion dollar widenings that no one wants. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if the road equivalent of FRR were under 10%, though.

Yet many lawmakers insist that highway spending is just an inevitable cost. It empowers American freedom and independence, they will say. Cars are liberty machines that allow you to go where you want, when you want! Rideshare will allow more flexibility at lower cost! You could buy every rider a Tesla for the cost of providing public transit! (Really, they’ve tried to argue this).

Never mind that TNC’s actually create a ton of congestion. They face continual allegations of tax evasion from misclassifying workers.

Importantly, though, going back to Maddock’s point about money, TNC’s are not even profitable.  Similar to how Donald Trump has allegedly kept two sets of books— one to show to prospective investors or lenders and one to show for tax purposes- Uber has made arguments about how profitable their rides are while enjoying the tax writeoffs from massive losses.

It’s a little bit more complicated than simply profit or loss. Uber makes a huge amount of money on each ride at a “marginal” rate. This means that it only is incurring pennies in immediate costs per additional ride. But it has a massive overhead. It employs thousands of engineers, lawyers, and designers. In MBA-speak, we look at this chasm between “variable costs” and “fixed costs” as utterly important in building an enterprise. If your variable costs are virtually nothing, you should be able to become profitable through scale. If you’re already way the heck scaled up, enjoying low variable costs, and still can’t make a profit, you might just be running a bad business. Apple sells songs for $1.29 each and nets more than $1.28 of that. But every iTunes or App Store build has to be updated with new code every day or two. Tim Cook has to get paid. Et cetera.

Back to the question of why people can’t just take Uber, though. Cost-wise, you’re either subsidizing lower-income riders or you’re demanding that they pay their own way. $55 a month for an unlimited transit pass works out to 44 one-way trips each month at a rate of $1.25 per trip. It’d take a very high rate of transit ridership to hit a 100% farebox recovery ratio. But I imagine that some routes come close– like the Woodward Bus. In contrast, Uber or Lyft rides cost more like $12-20 per. Maddock wants people to spend literally ten times more. We don’t even need to go down the rabbit hole to explore how much congestion or other externalities cost the average citizen per year. But TNC’s just ain’t it.

Anyway, this is all to say that people like Maddock are not considering the complex ecosystem of transportation when they fire off tweets like these’uns. Judging by the rest of Maddock’s Twitter– he loves Donald Trump, who has his own dubious relationship with the truth- he might not actually be that interested in facts.

He’s certainly not interested in efficiency if he’s interested in promoting roads, roads, roads, and not interested in exploring alternatives– viz. fixed routes. You know, things that could reduce congestion. Things that could empower Michiganders with more money in their pockets. Like the $400 many Detroiters are paying for monthly car insurance policies. Imagine what that money could do for the state’s stagnant economy.

Still, I’m not sure when we got to the point where people could honestly parrot the idea that they were “sitting in gridlock in a gas-guzzling truck to own the libs.” But it’s really got to stop if we’re going to move forward as a prosperous society.

It’s certainly going to have to stop if Michigan is ever going to emerge from its decades of economic doldrums and fix its infrastructure. If the electorate demands improved transit in 2020, it will be interesting to see whether these lawmakers change their tune.

 

(I reached out to the offices of Representatives Jack O’Malley and Matt Maddock, respectively chairmen of the Transportation Committee and the Transportation Appropriations Committee, but had not received a response as of the time of publication.)

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Bridging The Transit Gulf: APTA Conference in Tampa

I just wrapped up a few days in Tampa for APTA’s Transit Initiatives workshop. The mini-conference, produced by the DC-based nonprofit, is focused on helping transit agencies, municipal staff, planners, and other professionals working in the mobility space, figure out how to get transit initiatives past the ballot box.

As far as conferences go, it was fairly small. But this did not stop an excellent program. We had some great speakers including the mayors of Tampa and Phoenix, two cities that are making some great strides away from their transit-unfriendly notoriety. Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties, respectively the homes of St. Petersburg-Clearwater and Tampa, were well-represented. The Midwest also turned out. Four of us came from Detroit including veteran transit consultant Laura Trudeau, Matt Webb from the RTA, and Megan Owens from TRU.

There was also a crew from Cincinnati, where a recent transit initiative passed by repealing an earnings tax and replacing it with a countywide sales tax.

I’m a sucker for a well-deployed rainbow. (Tampa, FL)

TAMPA: FIRST IMPRESSIONS

I had admittedly very low expectations for Tampa. But I’m pleased to report that they were handily exceeded.

Unless you count a 23-hour layover in Orlando, it was my second time in Florida as an adult. I once went to Miami on a relatively last-minute whim as I was dealing with a protracted saga of getting laid off and needed to get out of town. I had three conditions for that trip: seeing some live jazz (preferably Cuban jazz), seeing Miami Beach’s Art Deco hotels, and eating at a spring-break-worthy crab shack type place on a beach. I achieved all three of these goals and it was a glorious trip.

So, I had no idea what to expect. Tampa has come up in discussions about Detroit as a kindred spirit in its historically similar, abysmal commitment to regional transit. Both cities, thankfully, are making moves!

I stayed in an area that Google Maps identified to me as North Hyde Park, near the University of Tampa. The neighborhood had older, multifamily apartment buildings, as well as squat bungalows of various ages. Nothing seemed too old. There were some new townhousey apartments– dubiously billed on my maps as “lofts.” The housing mix was pretty standard for South Florida, a combination of drab cinder block and somewhat more elegant stucco and American craftsperson homes. The neighborhood felt pretty quiet, but there was also a distinctly urban Floridian mix of light industrial and low-density residential. New construction is slowly but steadily densifying much of Tampa. Unfamiliar to my Yankee sensibilities were the ubiquity of hurricane-proof construction– basementless, cinder block homes, versus the stick-frame on basement foundations I’m used to.

7th Avenue in historic Ybor City. Several blocks of cobblestoned streets are bounded by heavy parkingscapes on the western and eastern ends. The heritage streetcar line operates a block north of 7th Avenue and takes riders downtown via the Port of Tampa.

The check-in to the artsy-moderne AirBnB was easy. There was a nearby venue that not only was hosting a stellar open mic night on Saturday, but also offered a five-stars-on-Yelp-worthy menu. A coffee shop was a quick walk around the corner. I had a probably 1200 calorie bagel sandwich with a salmon/whitefish salad at a deli in the neighborhood that also had some sort of arts event on Saturday night.

I checked out the Henry B. Plant museum, which gives some history on the man, the plan, and the history of Florida’s tourist industry. Like his frenemy Henry Flagler, Plant was focused on industrial development via railroad alongside his interests in tourism. Both Henries had sought out these warmer climes as remedies for the ailing constitutions of their respective wives. Plant was more focused on the west coast of the state while Flagler was more on the east. (For anyone interested in further reading, I greatly enjoyed Last Train To Paradise, a detailed chronicle of the development of Flagler’s spectacular, if ill-fated, railroad to Key West). 

Cognitive dissonance abounded for my cold weather sensibilities as I strolled around in a t-shirt among palm trees and was offered Christmas cookies, cider, and a Christmas-themed carriage ride. After the museum, I peeked in the Oxford Exchange brunch-industrial-giftshop megalith across the street.

The Henry B. Plant Museum occupies the southern portion of the Plant Hall on the University of Tampa’s campus. The Moorish Revival building was built as a 511-room hotel at the terminus of Plant’s railroad line. Plant was an industrialist and a renaissance man credited with inventing a

GETTING AROUND THE CIGAR CITY

Getting around the neighborhood, on the other hand, was another story. The Downtown bus along Kennedy Blvd. was several blocks south, which was easy enough, but still an inconvenient, multiple-step connection to the conference venue. While the AirBnB offered its own bikes for guests and Limes and Birds abounded, walking was tough. Sidewalks cracked into oblivion and, indeed, sometimes disappeared altogether.

The disinvested infrastructure of Tampa betrays Florida’s narrative of perpetual growth and sunshine. Storm drains with concrete caps askew. Cracked sidewalks. Indeed, plenty of areas where there are no sidewalks, and one must walk in the streets, which range from unreasonably wide to surprisingly narrow. More than once or twice I had my sidewalk trip interrupted by a completely missing section of sidewalk.

I felt quite at home, as this sort of thing happens all the time in Detroit. But the major difference is that Michigan isn’t pushing a public narrative of sunshine and immaculate, polished dreams of perpetual growth. Tampa, I’m sure, would not argue as a city that all is rosy, but Florida cultivates a positive image “abroad,” that is, the frozen Midwestern wastes, to whose citizens it beckons. Infrastructure is often new but poorly executed, evidenced in a plethora of well-marked but casually disregarded crosswalks on high-speed thoroughfares.

Beg buttons abounded.

It’s not really a criticism so much as it is an observation. Florida has long prioritized automobile infrastructure. Since the 1935 demise of Flagler’s Folly, the railroad that went the whole way to Key West, it seems that the state has instead embraced the motorcar as its preferred form of transportation. This isn’t surprising. It wasn’t surprising to me to see cracked and discontiguous sidewalks in North Hyde Park, a low-density, lower to middle-income, and majority black neighborhood (I live in Detroit).

City of Tampa: “Oh, you thought you were walking here?” Yeah, you’re not.

But we know that density means a stronger case for walkability and a stronger case for transit. We’ve seen the automotive paradigm changing even in Florida. The Brightline has chugged forward. Across the state, Miami, which continues to densify with one of the tallest skylines in the United States, is also one of the densest cities in the US. Neighboring Broward County just passed a monumental transit expansion funding plan that will raise hundreds of millions of dollars– as did Tampa’s Hillsborough County.

TAMPA HAS HART

One of Tampa’s success stories is a streetcar line that connects from the convention center downtown, half a block from the Marriott, to historic Ybor City. The TECO line, as she is known after the name of her historical progenitor, opened in 2002. This was only three years after the closure of the city’s ill-fated People Mover, and was recently expanded to the convention center. (Kindred spirit to Detroit, like I’ve been saying).

Ybor, named after eponymous purveyor of cigars Vicente Martinez-Ybor, was a company town, built up as Tampa’s then-nascent rail connection made it a perfect point of departure for the trade of Cuban tobacco. Ybor led a coalition of like-minded cigar magnates to build the town, which was annexed to the city of Tampa in 1887. Cigar shops still dot the main drag along 7th Avenue.

You can buy a custom cigar and have it hand-rolled in front of your very eyes, which is actually kind of amazing in our era of mass production. 7th Ave., which boasts a lively mixture of hipsters and artists, panhandlers and addicts, and all manner of bargoers, has a distinctly French Quarter vibe. Though it honestly feels like a bit less of a tourist trap than New Orleans.

The restored, historic streetcars that take passengers from Ybor City to downtown Tampa.

Featuring multiple stops for the restored, historic streetcar, Ybor is veritably a neighborhood-sized park-and-ride. There are some parking structures and large, cheap lots. It’s thereby possible to park your car to head downtown for an event, a game, or a cruise. I rode the streetcar twice and it was pretty full both times. Ridership numbers have increased by leaps and bounds since a state grant enabled HART to eliminate the $2.50 fare. Alternative modes of transportation are welcome in a city choked with congestion. 

HART has been dogged by some organizational woes in recent months. But its major success story is the passage of a 1% sales tax in the county to fund infrastructure improvements and transit. The tax is currently being debated in courts as County Commissioner Stacy White filed a suit against it, arguing that it unconstitutionally subverts County authority. Ever deeper down that rabbit hole, an ethics complaint against White argues that he violated state law in opposing the tax. (I tried to reach out to White to try and understand his perspective on how infrastructure should be funded if not through this tax, but had not heard back as of the time of publication).

 

REGIONAL GROWTH POTENTIAL

Let me be unequivocal: Tampa’s suburbs are pretty awful. And they go on forever. I hung out with some friends who are staying with one’s parents in Brandon. Brandon is a solidly middle class, mid-ring suburb. They live in a gated community with stuccoed houses and manicured lawns. Brandon is the Brandon of Brandon. There’s no “there” there.

Several lanes of high-speed thoroughfare. A common sight in Brandon, Florida, population 100,000. There is even a bike lane, though it’s unclear who actually uses it. HART’s plans include BRT expansion, which would be spatially pretty easy to implement on such a huge thoroughfare.

The city, which has grown about a hundred fold in the past half century, has over a hundred thousand residents. Though, driving around, it’s unclear where they all live. Brandon has a main drag with six to eight lanes with unrestricted access. It has car dealerships and chain restaurants. It also has a pretty vibrant anti-transit contingent. Though it still has, by any estimate, several thousand residents below the poverty line who still have to get to work. Unchecked sprawl has filled to capacity roads in places like Brandon and farther-flung suburbs.

Perhaps frustrating to transit advocates is the fact that 15% of the Hillsborough County tax can be spent on road infrastructure projects like “adding lane capacity.” This is a bit of a misnomer, since most evidence suggests that adding lanes does not actually increase capacity and instead just creates more traffic. But driving around Brandon, where bumper-to-bumper traffic can be found late on a Tuesday night, it’s apparent that congestion is a pandemic in South Florida.

Key in the long-term success of the region is intentional management of growth trends projected to bring hundreds of thousands of more residents to the Tampa area alone. My hope– and likely the hope of the pro-transit crowd- is that it continues in the form of mid to high density development such as the buildings pictured below, which are ubiquitous in the city of Tampa. Climate change adaptation and sustainable planning are also critical, evident in seeing how much of the region is unforgivingly hardscaped. I wrote about this in the fall and specifically looked at Tampa. A weak MPO and a lack of political will to manage growth will invariably make climate change hurt that much more. But it’s possible to consider carrots versus sticks– to incentivize TOD, for example, or avoid parking minimums. I was unclear on whether these exist in metro Tampa, but they’re certainly not widespread.

There are very few truly urban areas. St. Petersburg, across Tampa Bay, offers a much more intact, historic downtown. The city is also far older than Tampa, which was mostly developed in the latter half of the 20th century. The two are now connected with a high-speed ferry that offers a limited schedule but a scenic alternative to the inevitable gridlock on the several causeways and bridges that cross the bay. Transit expansion promises the possibility of far better and faster connectivity than what is currently offered.

I’m eager to follow the developments with HART and will be publishing a follow-up with some more information from the conference in the coming days.

Four corners of development. The ubiquity of cranes building mid to high density, concrete-and-steel projects all over Tampa, suggest huge changes in the cityscape in the coming years.

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Ford: Can’t Fund LRT, Can’t Close Budget Deficits

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has had mixed results riding the Donald Trump pseudo-populist wave that has been sweeping the globe. The Progressive Conservative, elected in 2018 in a crushing defeat of the ruling Liberal Party, has frequently trafficked in hyperbole and denigrating anyone who disagreed with him, and has made it his mission to eliminate a massive provincial budget deficit while apparently ticking off everyone along the way. He remained very quiet during the recent federal election for this reason. Given his track record, I can’t say I was surprised when I read that he was going to kill Hamilton’s proposed light rail transit project, something he had previously promised after the Wynne government committed $1bn (CAD) to the project. But the argument for it is that it will cost too much money, and this is where the story gets hairy.

The proposed LRT route in Hamilton, Ontario, which Ontario Premier Doug Ford abruptly cancelled.

Ford’s government ran on closing provincial deficits. But he’s instead spending even more money. He spent tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to challenge Justin Trudeau’s signature carbon tax policy– and lost. He’s faced accusations of nepotism. He’s also engaged some attempts at austerity that have mostly backfired and have still failed to close the deficit. But he’s especially determined to mark his territory by pissing on transit, evident in his ill-advised hallmark scheme to try and provincialize (I guess this is the province level equivalent of nationalization?) Toronto’s transit system. The TTC is, like all public agencies in our increasingly dystopian age of austerity, struggling.

Ford’s government’s contention was that the project’s cost had ballooned from their original estimates. Of course, this happens with virtually every transit project or road project. And the province and the city are already hundreds of millions of dollars into the project. I’m not suggesting that this provides a sunk cost bias, but rather that if you set out to take Vienna, take Vienna.

Sketch of the city landscape with a yellow trolley, car, traffic light and tanks for separate collection of garbage. Graphic arts. Raster illustration with elements of watercolor

Ontario leader NDP Andrea Horwath, who represents a Hamilton riding, had harsh words for the Premier:

I have every hope that the project will eventually move forward as part of a North America-wide, increased interest in transit expansion instead of massively wasteful road spending. Hamilton has a strong ally in Horwath. Never mind that Ford followed the Trump handbook pretty closely in denying media access and explicitly restricting access to the last-minute press conference. But his government’s continuing inability to manage either budget deficits or invest in things that matter for Ontario’s citizens, while not shocking, constiutes yet another strike against his government.

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Detroit Park City No. 5 – Crossing The Post Office Desert of West Fort Street

One of the interesting things about Detroit’s built environment is the hub-and-spoke street layout. There are multiple, conflicting street grids, some working off true north and some following the curvature of the river. This is a product of a city laid out by French farmers, expanded during peak City Beautiful, and later platted in the era of the automobile (1920’s). The spokes disrupt this grid, though, converging elegantly in downtown. Prominent in the viewshed of most of the spokes is the towering Renaissance Center, a monstrous, ultramodern complex whose futuristic interior makes for excellent lunchtime strolls and is one of the great public spaces of the city. This makes for a nice reference point from anywhere in the metro area.

But when driving into Detroit, you’re not just thinking about the GMRENCEN, as she were rebranded. Rather, you’re thinking about a disparate cabal of architectural welcome mats. Woodward Avenue has the Little Caesars Arena, which is impressive, sordid, and mighty. And, of course, Woodward has all manner of other large buildings, Grand Circus Park, etc. Grand River has the Grand Army of the Republic building, which is surrounded by adjacent parking lots, but is also near the sweeping tent shapes of the Rosa Parks Transit Center. Farther northwest on Grand River, you get the landmark of the Motor City Casino, whose brilliant LED lights cast forth their honky tonk gleam into the darkest night. East Jefferson boasts gas stations and car dealers and the occasional, understated Art Deco masterpiece of an apartment building.

“Woah, nice relationship to the streetscape, bro!” Similar to the DDOT offices on East Warren, the hulking, tundric ecru, USPS main facility in Detroit is a glorious American homage to Soviet “Khrushchyovka,” that is, those panelized apartment buildings built in the Soviet Union by Comrade Khruschchev. There’s even a Marathon gas station, so you can Buy Local Gasoline, making the air dirty from your car while the refinery makes our air dirty all the time. (Google Street View.)

Fort Street, on the other hand, has warehouses and parking lots. At Rosa Parks Blvd. (formerly 12th St., for reference to the numbered streets), you have a massive 1913 warehouse that Bedrock relatively quietly purchased and renovated. (They were even thoughtful enough to build a giant parking structure in back.) Ok. We’re getting somewhere here! My idea is to make Fort Street a more welcoming corridor for traffic coming into the city from the west/southwest, coming off the Lodge, or looking at the skyline from the riverfront. East past Rosa Parks, you’ve got the Salvation Army facility, the post office, and a gas station.

THE SITE

I’m looking at the space between Eighth Street on the west and the strange little overpass that connects Fort Street to the Riverfront Towers on the east. This space is mostly owned by the US Postal Service. There is a small section of street that was vacated at some point so that the USPS could adjoin a couple of parking lots. Wayne County Community College owns the eastern portion of the block.

This is over six acres. That’s six acres– dedicated to vehicles that are only used for about 1% of their life. The breakdown of the more than 500 spaces is shown below (per lot).

There are 500 parking spaces here over six acres (including Cabacier St.).

Let’s say we wanted to build on those lots. How do you work with the US Postal Service to get a project like this approved?

Short answer: you probably don’t.

The red outline shows the lot and right-of-way that is apparently owned by WCCCD. It seems to bisect the USPS lots and covers part of Cabacier Street in its entirety. Now, what in the darn diddly?

 

But if you could!

CLEARING OUT JURISDICTIONAL GRIDLOCK

Indulge me for a moment. We know that Hollywood portrayals of most things are fairly inaccurate. Happily-ever-after endings, for example, which are rare in the crushing loneliness of declining, late capitalist empires. Or silencers on handguns, which, you know, don’t actually make handguns silent.

But one thing that is often quite well portrayed in films is the jurisdictional head-butting that occurs between federal and local officials, typically law enforcement.

I once opened up an old inspection file in the city of Detroit building department for a post office building. I was frustrated that the employees were parking illegally on sidewalks and blocking crosswalks. I was going to see if I could find a reason to justify an inspection to be able to communicate this to the staff. I asked the facility manager, a polo-shirted, middle-aged guy with well-groomed facial hair and a bluetooth headset stuck in his ear, if he wouldn’t mind if I had a look around.

“I would mind,” he said, bristling, “because you don’t have any jurisdiction here. We allowed you in one time several years ago as a courtesy. And we are under no obligation to do so again.”

Sheesh, Mark! I mean, you coulda just said no thanks!

The conversation ended shortly thereafter.

“I’ll… uh… see myself out,” I said, using that exit for the first time in my life.

I was a little bit irked, but then I realized that this guy had risen to the peak of his life, wearing a bluetooth headset and a red polo shirt and managing a postal facility. He isn’t making $13.80 a week in donations from his loyal reader base. He isn’t mired in crippling debt from an advanced postgraduate degree of dubious value! He’s never penned an editorial in the Oakland County Daily Tribune about the importance of transit expansion!

“Oh, we don’t mess with them, they’re federal,” a parking supervisor later told me. Similar to how the President continues to argue that he has absolute immunity, local law enforcement seem to think that federal employees are absolutely immune from violating local laws. But, for the most part, though, I could quote Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof, referring to the Ruskis: “We don’t bother them. And so far, they don’t bother us.”

This tongue-in-cheek tangent is meant to illustrate an important challenge in urban development, and that’s the difficulty of reconciling disparate bureaucracies, a debate we have frequently in transitland. MDOT’s own staff, for example, are basically exclusively highway engineers. They more or less only care about cars. This understandably makes it really hard to have conversations about transit expansion. If you’re the Post Office, you’re concerned with your staggering pension deficit. You’re not going to want to get involved in real estate development. (Unless, of course, there’s a huge public push for it).

What’s our pitch for the site?

PARKING INSTEAD OF…

It’d be really tough to get a federal facility that enjoys massive, free parking, to get rid of that amenity. While there is ample evidence that incentive-based programs work to shift mode share (how many people drive), it would be a nearly impossible sell to remove 500 parking spaces and create several hundred apartments with zero parking. Instead, let’s talk about putting it underground. How much? Well, if we want to keep the existing parking capacity, putting 500 parking spaces underground would indeed be some bucks. But we’re also adding several hundred apartment units on this site. So, I concede: perhaps we need more than zero parking spaces.

Narrowing the preposterously wide sections of boundary streets here gives us some more space to build the parking into the hillside.

DEVELOPMENT PROFILE

8th St. Building: 8 floors of residential (71,500 s.f. footprint, 486,200 s.f., 557 apartments), 1 floor of ground-floor commercial (53,600 s.f.). Estimated construction cost of $89 million.

Cabacier Tower: 14 floors of residential (71,100 s.f. footprint, 842,781 s.f. of residential, 966 apartments), 55,000 s.f. of ground-floor commercial, two floors of offices (120,000 s.f.). Estimated construction cost of $168 million.

Cabacier East buildings: Two similar or identical residential structures, 10 stories each with 42,000 s.f. of ground floor retail. Footprint of 52,744 s.f., 403,000 square feet of residential space for 460 units. Estimated construction cost of $73.5 million.

This $330.5 million development project would require 1,983 parking spaces for residential units. The commercial space would require another few hundred parking spaces. 

  Square feet Parking  spaces Required Parking area required
Residential 1,731,000 1,983 654,390 s.f. (15 acres)
Commercial 270,600 300 (ish) 99,000 s.f. (2.27 acres)

As the law is written, this development project would require seventeen acres of parking lots (2,283 spaces). That’s 13 football fields, equivalent to eating up this entire section of riverfront park space, or the surface area of all of the empty seats at the average Red Wings game.

UNDERGROUNDING: TRADEOFFS

But if you put it underground, this works out to a cost of about $59.36 million. Remember from our introductory post that when you put a parking structure underground, it immediately becomes far less spatially efficient because of the added space required for things like ventilation. You might be only utilizing as little as less than a third of the area in a parking structure as actual parking spaces. $59 million is a ton of money.

Cost-wise, it’s equivalent to building an additional 400 apartments. It’s also enough money to pay for annual DDOT passes for 90,000 people. Or to buy dozens of new buses and operate them on a route like Fort Street or Rosa Parks Blvd. But it’s not as though this parking has to be free for residents or visitors. Many parking garages have free validation from businesses– grocery stores are a good example. And it’s entirely possible to offer tenants or homebuyers a discount on their purchase or rent in exchange for forgoing parking access. In this case, this amount could work out to $10-20,000 per space!

Space-wise, we could certainly fit all of this parking underground within the project area with a three-story underground structure. But ideally we would be reducing the parking minimum requirement while still allowing access. Again, going back to cost, this can easily be done with dynamic or appropriate pricing.

ANALYSIS

Let’s also look at the wins for various stakeholders.

WCCCD wins because they’d be able to profitably sell off a bunch of otherwise pretty much dead land. But they wouldn’t lose parking capacity. This might come in handy given their recent expansion, which is wrapping up after nearly two years of construction.

USPS wins because they’d maintain access to employee parking while also being able to profitably sell off land. A USPS spokesperson said via e-mail that the postal service maintains one commuter incentive program for its corporate offices in Washington, DC. That’s right. No post office anywhere in these United States has programs to encourage transit ridership or alternative commuting methods for its employees.

DDOT wins because this project could, if properly executed, create enough of a revenue stream to fund new bus service along Fort Street.

The Riverfront wins, because it now has access to secure, underground parking for events. New residents also become stakeholders who can support smarter development and conservation efforts associated with the glacial creep of riverfront park expansion.

Detroit wins because this project creates a ton of tax revenue and creates a brilliant new entrance into the city plus a nice addition to the skyline. A $330.5 million development project would create hundreds of high-paying construction jobs for years. It would also create permanent employment to occupy the expansive commercial space. Property taxes would create millions more for schools. 2,000 new residents would also pay millions in payroll taxes, state taxes, and would, of course, spend lots of money, hopefully locally– sales taxes plus economic product would be transformative.

Can we imagine a better riverfront? A better front door for Detroit along this important, historic corridor?

Another view of more developed massing of these buildings. In this case, the proposed space for development occupies only the spaces currently occupied by surface parking. The small vacant strip at the south end of the site is currently a sort of berm with trees that separates Jefferson Avenue from the parkingscape, but there’s no reason why this couldn’t also be developed– or why the subterranean garage couldn’t also extend under Jefferson Avenue here. Jefferson is 60′ wide, which is unnecessary for the amount of traffic it handles. There is also no compelling case for Jefferson to be a four-to-six lane street that serves solely as a feeder to the end of M-10 while the far more heavily-trafficked and better-developed Fort Street exists a block to the north. (Jefferson turns into an onramp, which turns into Jefferson– we don’t get it, either).

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A Literal Train Wreck Makes A Case For Resilient Infrastructure

A train derailment yesterday morning in Southwest Detroit knocked down a power line, leaving about a thousand residential and commercial DTE Energy customers without electricity and internet for about eight hours. It is unclear what caused the derailment of the Canadian National train, which included several autoracks (the train cars that carry car-cars, a.k.a., car-ception). While it was initially reported that the train was carrying hazardous materials, CN said in a prepared statement that four empty cars contained only “residual traces of liquid asphalt.” CN said there were no injuries, thanked first responders, and, in characteristically Canadian deference, apologized for the inconvenience.

This incident is useful in understanding the current state— and possible future- of our nation’s deteriorating and outdated infrastructure. Our current infrastructure is only minimally fault-tolerant and is utterly susceptible to the threats of increasingly severe weather or other disruptions.

Like, you know, trains running off the tracks and wrecking your stuff.

This is typically a matter of how infrastructure is physically built. Note in the above picture that these utility poles appear pretty spindly. They’re also made out of wood. Utility poles as they exist today are virtually the same as they were first conceived to carry telegraph wires more than a century and a half ago. It’s frankly an outdated techology. Worse, a lot of these poles are coated with creosote for added longevity and insect resistance. Creosote is highly toxic and also super flammable.

By DTE’s own estimates, 62% of its own outages are “caused” by weather. I put quotation marks there because this is based on the assumption that these outages are unavoidable. They’re not unavoidable if infrastructure is built to withstand— or bypass- these dangers. Increasing resilience has been an important rallying point in recent years as part of the climate change discussion. I’ve examined this issue before, noting that spending to mitigate and adapt to climate change is far cheaper than doing nothing about it. 

Outage map from DTE. The outage occurred from a downed line at one point and affected an area the better part of a full mile away from the downed line.

In 2003, Florida’s Public Service Commission noted that only 1.3% of its total lines were underground. The PSC estimated the cost of undergrounding all distribution and feeder lines at just shy of $100 billion. Funding this from ratepayers, the PSC said in the report, would more or less double utility costs per kilowatt hour. (Florida is an electric-heavy state given the high cooling load since it’s a very warm climate).

But hurricane damages in 2004, one of the most costly years ever, exceeded $42 billion. Hurricane Harvey cost nearly three times more. A significant portion of this is damage to public infrastructure. Recent estimates from California-based PG&E suggest that undergrounding could cost up to $5 million per mile. The cost is probably much lower if this work is done concurrently with things like street or sewer replacement, which itself makes the case for better integrating long-term infrastructure planning.

Since streets are maintained by cities and investor-owned utilities operate in a grey area– usually having a legal monopoly but being required to maintain certain infrastructure at a certain level of reliability- this is no small feat. But even without climate change intensifying weather and storms, it’s worth it for the sake of saving trillions of dollars from cash-strapped governments over the otherwise long lifespan of built infrastructure.

DTE declined to provide more granular detail on why knocking out this one power line caused a neighborhood-wide outage. But that such a large outage is possible from knocking out one single power line seems to be cause for concern, especially given the possibility of increasingly severe weather events. Seems as though there could be multiple points to connect the Hubbard Farms power grid with the outside world than this one connection on Scotten St. Or perhaps battery backups. Or solar panels. Or, you know, any number of things.

(The Florida PSC and Comcast did not respond to requests for comment.)

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Detroit Park City No. 4 – Corktown and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Low Density

As Detroit’s hottest neighborhood, at least according to Buzzfeed, Corktown has to live up to a high standard. It’s got food! And bike lanes! It’s got an abandoned train station! And it’s also got the lowest density of any “happening” neighborhood in the city.

Three years ago, I pointed out the potential fallacy of calling such a low-density area a “hot” market. Such limited supply means, well, an extremely limited overall amount of capital appreciation. This was before Elton Park and before the train station, so there’s been at least a bit of an upswing. But this still only amounts to a few hundred units of new construction. (Doesn’t look like any of them have been built to code, but hey, I’ll take new construction!) To highlight the extremely low density, I noted at that time that more than two thirds of the frontage along Michigan Avenue was entirely vacant land.

Corktown visitors love it, because of the parking! Agéd Macomb Countians hang out with their old union buddies at Nemo’s and park in the bike lane. Red Wings fans take the McShane’s drunk bus, which parks illegally in the city bus stop, to see their team lose at the new Little Caesar’s Arena. A vibrant food scene in what I’ll call Greater Corktown ranges from the mediocre and overpriced (Gold Cash Gold– but a good bar!) to elegant, farm-to-table gourmet of Lady of the House or Folk. (There are some great, affordable spots, too, including Ima and Motor City Wine. The venerable taco truck, El Rodeo, often parks in the Motor City Wine parking lot.)

Elton Park and the Corner projects will effectively increase the neighborhood’s total population by around 25%. That’s huge, considering that they’re clustered in one space. The train station can and should probably effect some sort of triple-digit percentage increase in neighborhood population. But that’s farther down the line.

THE SITE

We’ve got an auto repair shop on the northeast lot, which is paved. The northwest lot is gravel and mud, but is used by parking. My friends at Metropolis Bike Shop previously complained to me that drivers park onto the sidewalk and drive from the muddy lot over the sidewalk to get to the street. Pure Michigan! 

Corktown’s low density paradigm is a lousy value proposition from a standpoint of tax revenue. If you adjust for inflation from their dates of sales, this basket of parcels has a collective sale value of about $300,000. It is taxed, however, at an equalized value of about a third of that. Going by our previous analysis, since SEV = LV/2, “one third” means these properties are being modestly undertaxed.

They’re also grossly underutilized. The lot including 2101 Michigan hosts a maximum of 17 cars. This represents a fairly high spatial efficiency, given that the lot is only spatially capable of fitting 21 spaces. But it requires that cars be illegally driven onto the lot via the sidewalk. So it really isn’t feasible. 2055 Michigan Ave. is used as parking for the adjacent auto repair shop. It is unclear what parking occurs on 2260 Wabash, as that is a formerly residential parcel and a muddy, vacant lot.

THE PROJECT

This may well not be the area for skyscrapers. Michigan Avenue is very wide, having previously hosted some streetcar tracks that you can sometimes still see poking through the crumbling bricks. So, a street width to building height ratio of 1:1 would create a building that is about 120′ tall. But there’s adequate room for density here. there’s a funny-shaped lot (currently home to the plus-shaped building) that might make for a funny-shaped building. The northeastern lot has a footprint of 3,522 square feet.

As designed, this is a $5.7 million project that will create 24 units of housing at an average of 1,172 square feet per unit. There will also be 6,500 square feet of commercial frontage along Michigan Avenue. (More space is conceivable if basements were built as well.) The per-building configuration is as follows:

2055 Michigan: 8 residential units, ground floor commercial.
2260 Wabash: Purely residential. 7 larger condo units.
2101 Michigan: 9 residential units, ground floor commercial.

Detroit Park City No. 4, Corktown site. Existing buildings in yellow.

Corktown’s rapidly rising rents means that these units can all be built and sold profitably with minimal subsidy at prices of $150,000-250,000 or more. Typically, developers can use presale interest to demonstrate financial viability to conservative lenders like banks. This lowers their cost of capital. As Corktown is considered a relatively stable market and $150-300,000 is not an unreasonable sale price for a home, this would be a slam dunk for any developer able to pull off the acquisition.

Complying with current parking minimums, however, would demand around

Let’s unpack that.

Detroit Park City No. 4, Corktown site. Perspective view. Existing buildings in yellow.

WHAT ABOUT THE PARKING?

Complying with current city parking requirements for new construction could add as much as 45 parking spaces to this project. To illustrate how preposterous this number is, peer at the below image. The area required for parking in this case would account for just under 1/3 of the total project square footage. That’s absurd.

Would it be absurd to place parking underground? We know that underground parking is far more expensive. We also know that it’s especially spatially inefficient in small spaces. So, that’s probably out. Indeed, if we absolutely had to have parking, it’d be easy to stick it directly off the alley such that cars could easily turn in and three-point out. This is the most efficient parking lot configuration and is easy and comparatively quite safe for traffic and pedestrians alike, since alleys are a low-speed thoroughfare. This strategy could give us 18 parking spaces along the north side of the alley. It’d also reduce our accessible commercial square footage by nearly half.

REDUCING STRAIN ON EXISTING PARKING DEMAND

If we’re serious about considering tradeoffs, we’ll look at the area of the required parking. 12,000 square feet of surface parking is spatially equivalent to 10 new apartments. In other words, if we had to add 12,000 square feet of surface parking area for this project, we could easily consider that an effective loss of 10, 20, 30, 40 apartments (considering stackability, i.e. multi-story construction). We now see how downtown Detroit has spiraled into the current hellscape of surface parking that it is. No more parking minimums!

If we’re serious about reducing strain on parking, we’d look at reassessing the current glut of surface parking in the neighborhood, short of placing additional strain on residential street parking. Expanding paid parking along the nonresidential Fisher Service Dr., north of Michigan Avenue, would reduce demand. Realtime parking demand management would increase availability during peak hours. Parking on most Corktown side streets isn’t too difficult because densities still remain very low. This has changed substantially around the Elton Park development, but therein lies the key– to change the paradigm.

Ok, so my perspective is a bit messed up here, but you get the idea. These are sort of tall but not super tall.

Alternatives to the car abound, however. These sites are a quick walk to the FAST bus to the airport, the Michigan Avenue bus, and the MoGo station across the street. Creating a smoother way to cross Michigan Avenue in this well-trafficked corridor, perhaps through a planted median, would be welcome.

What’ll it be, Detroit? A muddy lot? Or a few dozen new reasonably-priced housing units in the heart of the city on a major transit route?

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Noel Night 2019

It was my fourth Noel Night, an annual happening in Midtown Detroit. In spite of a heavy police presence– probably a reference to last year’s teenaged shootout– and a phased, curfew-esque schedule that bifurcated the evening into South-of-Warren (evening) events and North-of-Warren (afternoon) events, everything seemed pretty functional and all of the venues seemed quite well-attended.

We stopped in at MoCAD, where a bizarre exhibit of larger-than-life Instagram photos of models was on display. There was a steel drum band. There was also a concert in the weird Canfield shops warehouse. Monger’s Provisions, where you can buy chocolate for $9 an ounce, was packed.

Thankfully, I ran into zero exes, but rather one of my old schoolyard chums. We all grabbed some drinks at the Hammer and Nail. It’s a fun spot. I’m certainly glad that, even in this bizarre, New Detroit, we can still enjoy free community events for the holiday season– and even, come what may, one can sit in a fancy new bar and enjoy a $3 Blatz. I didn’t even know Blatz was still a thing. Even at this age, I can still be surprised.

 

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The New Mobility Requires A New Workforce

This morning I attended “Driving Our AV Future,” an event produced by the Michigan Mobility Institute (MMI) and the Partnership for Transportation Innovation and Opportunity (PTIO). The event took place at the Industry Innovation Center (formerly just NextEnergy) across from TechTown. There were DIB bagels (even with jalapeño cream cheese!). Attendees included Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist, Representative Haley Stevens, and staff from Debbie Stabenow and Andy Levin‘s offices. The automotive sector and workforce development nonprofits were well-represented.

Freshman Democratic Congresswoman Haley Stevens (MI-11) speaks at TechTown to attendees of the mobility event.

Much of the conversation around AV’s seems to focus on talent retention and attraction. The idea is that we need fancy engineers to develop fancy solutions. Surprisingly little of the dialogue, however, focuses on building a sustainable, competitive economy. Automakers will spend a great deal of time talking about their interests in talent retention and attraction, but very few are interested in putting in the time necessary to build and maintain partnerships– like the ones that formed the PTIO, MMI, or other initiatives, whose purposes are to try and connect those dots.

CHALLENGING THE ASSEMBLY LINE MENTALITY

This was described to me one time by a local nonprofiteer as Michigan’s “assembly line” mentality. Focus on your own thing, do it well, and someone else can worry about the big picture. This is fairly evident in silver bullet thinking that pervades local economic development. Detroiters lamented the loss of Amazon HQ2, though most critics maintain that that project was always destined to go in a northeastern city. Carl Gratiot’s response to Amazon’s rejection gained viral notoriety. It satirically trumped up the 3-mile loop of the People Mover (captioned on-screen with “2.94, actually”) while conceding that Detroit’s public transit “wasn’t what you wanted, Jeff Bezos.” The loss indeed highlighted Metro Detroit’s abysmal transit infrastructure, which raises the cost of living here by forcing people into car ownership.

WHY NOT DETROIT?

But it also highlighted a limited talent pool. Indeed, the lack of transit and lack of density in the city proper is a huge impediment to talent retention and attraction. One of the attendees today asked, “why are we losing businesses to San Francisco?”

I don’t know. It might have something to do with the fact that San Francisco has vaguely appropriately-funded infrastructure. BART, though imperfect, works. As does the Muni. It’s possible to get around. People don’t assume you’re a broke-ass for riding public transit. Public infrastructure is a good place to start, and you can then correlate that to San Francisco’s competitive job market. People like to live places where there is stuff going on. Downtown Detroit has a lot of parking lots. (I got some looks when I walked in in my full bike rain gear from the December drizzle.)

DIVERSITY, EQUITY, AND INCLUSION IN MOBILITY

Discussion of what I know now is known by a clever acronym, DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) was pretty limited. I’ve always maintained the position that DEI has to be focused more on the “equity” portion. I strongly disagreed with one speaker who said that the Bay Area values diversity more than we do in Michigan; Detroit leads some national conversations about equitable development. But we’re still very focused on how autonomous vehicles are vehicles for consumption rather than for sustainable mobility.

If we’re going to learn anything valuable from AV technology, the conversation has to focus more on helping people get around without simply forcing them to, say, subscribe to Mobility-as-a-Service, or some such nonsense. A DDOT pass is about $700 per year. A car costs around $10,000 per year– plus taxes. We can have options between those two, but we can’t simply move from car ownership to MaaS. Fortunately, the workforce development piece dovetails into a lot of possibilities. Mechanical and electrical engineers and coders can create products that benefit everyone. Technologies like Smart City stuff– while I’m pretty skeptical about it- has some potential.

THE FUTURE

It will be anyone’s guess what’s going to happen to the automotive sector in the next recession, but a credit crunch will reduce their ability to sell Fords F150. This will transform the auto industry, and most professionals seem to agree that very few people are going to be buying and owning cars 20 years from now. Talent development, one representative from Nissan said, has to focus on not just engineering but human solutions as well.

I could have given a standing ovation when the Lieutenant Governor mentioned the need to leverage public and shared resources. He took a brief pause, and then said, “…like the bus! That’s not something you usually hear from an elected official.” And, bless his heart, no, it is not something we hear every day. But it’s certainly something we can and should think more about as we continue to work to develop a professional community and mobility products and services.

Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist speaks on the importance of public infrastructure and partnership in developing new mobility technology and talent.

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Lansing Field Trip: Michigan Public Service Commission

Today marked my quarterly pilgrimage to the great center of Mitten-power, that is, Lansing, Michigan. I go up every few months for the Energy Waste Reduction work group meeting. The EWR committee is convened by the Michigan Public Service Commission in Lansing’s western inner burbs, and evolved alongside the Michigan Energy Efficiency For All (MEEFA) initiative that I also was a member of. (Elevate Energy‘s Briana Parker convenes MEEFA and is also a member of the EWR group).

Normal people may know “Energy Waste Reduction” as simply “energy efficiency.” Our beloved former governor Rick Snyder decided that the rebranding was an easier sell to spending-averse Republicans. Reducing incidence of a bad thing, the idea was, is better than creating a new thing. Cumbersome though the term is, I kind of agree with the objective. Waste is a bad thing. Efficiency is a good thing. But in a state where people think that buses are a communist conspiracy, it’s probably a point well-taken.

It is always a lively turnout. We had no coffee– I was reminded that the state can’t afford it and companies can’t donate it because public servants can’t accept gifts. But it was still a great program. Highlights below.

  • Maddy Kamalay from MDHHS presented on its weatherization initiatives through the Bureau of Community Action and Economic Opportunity (BCAEO). The Bureau is weatherizing about 2,500 homes per year at an average spend of $9,500 per house. MDHHS conducted research to understand the root causes why 836 applicants were denied weatherization assistance, called “deferrals.” Roof repairs accounted for 22% of deferrals. This issue has come up in a number of previous meetings. What if you need to weatherize your home, but principally you need a new roof? 66% of the roof-related deferrals auspiciously did not necessitate roof replacement, which can be far more expensive than simpler repairs.
  • Representing MDHHS and the Michigan Public Health Institute, respectively, were environmental epidemiologist Gillian Capper and Climate and Health Adaptation Program Manager Aaron Ferguson. Ferguson presented on managing climate change impacts in Michigan and Capper presented on research correlating weatherization implementation with substantial, quantifiable reduction in medical costs.
  • Jen Shutts, with whom I had previously liaised during my brief stint as Chief Lead Inspector for the City of Detroit, presented on statewide lead safety initiatives. Working with federally-funded programs has allowed the state to expand some of the scope of their work to cover not only lead in construction and housing but also in water supply. This has come up frequently in recent months with lead-contaminated water. However, water testing is not required in most jurisdictions, including Detroit through its rental registration ordinance. The rental registration program has a long way to go, Shutts thinks, but she is encouraged by the city’s push to include lead safety in it.
  • Habitat for Humanity, which does not have an active presence in Detroit these days, presented on a similar initiative.
  • Elevate Energy and Consumers Energy did not present, but had representatives present. EGLE (pronounced “Eagle” and rebranded from MDEQ under Gretchen Whitmer and following the Flint crisis) also attended.

My biggest takeaway? EWR’s work is evidencing a growing nexus between public health and energy as far as both funding sources and outcomes. As weatherization initiatives have struggled to find and maintain funding, the ever-increasing cost of healthcare means that demonstrable outcomes are a huge incentive for healthcare providers to invest in this work as well. In lay terms, if your home is a more comfortable temperature and is built with healthier materials, you might be less likely to catch a cold. $10,000 is expensive for an insulation retrofit. But $10,000 is a bargain if it saves you $200 a month on your heating bill and saves you $10,000 in medical bills. Research now demonstrates in dollars and cents how this can work.

Weatherization involves repairs to the building envelope of existing buildings. Work can include air sealing, insulation retrofits, window replacement, and roof repairs. (art by Olena Ostapenko)

The then-Chief Risk Officer of Wells Fargo Advisors once told me that if you’re not making money in a bull market, you’re doing it wrong, but if you can make money in a bear market, you’re a genius. This advice applies to the scarcity of working with community development dollars: If you’re building a million-dollar house and you can’t swing net-zero or close, you’re probably doing it wrong. If you can build energy-efficient affordable housing, you’re definitely doing something right. And if you can demonstrably reduce healthcare and operating costs (utility bills) in affordable and low-income housing, you may well be quite clever.

Partnerships are crucially important in making this happen, which necessitates thinking outside the box. A few years ago, these were just ideas, and now there’s a body of research indicating that it’s being done and that it works. Thus is progress forged!

I also ran into Joel Howrani-Heeres of the City of Detroit Sustainability Office, Tim Skrotzki of Elevate Energy, Brett Little of West Michigan’s GreenHome Institute, and Justin Schott and Brittany Turner of EcoWorks– a who’s who of the best and the brightest in the state’s energy and sustainability scene!

Before leaving, I stopped for lunch (as I do on every trip) at Naing Myanmar, one of my favorite restaurants in the entirety of These United States. If you aren’t enjoying a papaya salad, plate of stir-fried noodles, or aromatic, spicy fish soup, get thee to this spot immediately.

Onward, and stay tuned for more EWR goings-on!

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All Aboard, RTA 2020: The Business Case For Transit

I’m moving into the end of the year with an announcement about some exciting upcoming goings-on. RTA 2020: The Business Case For Transit will be a multifaceted initiative to study, analyze, and educate Southeast Michigan about the implications of a regional transit expansion ballot initiative in November 2020. The study will focus primarily on the parallels between public finance and consumer finance in thinking about transit accessibility. I will be working with Transportation Riders United, Metro Detroit’s largest transit and mobility advocacy nonprofit.

And, of course, it will all be chronicled here. The initiative will cover:

  • Nuts and bolts: How infrastructure projects like this get funded, functionally.
  • Tradeoffs in the infrastructure development process.
  • Dollars and cents: How consumers benefit from transit expansion (microeconomic).
  • How the region as a whole will benefit from transit expansion (macroeconomic).
  • How RTA expansion would happen on a functional level.
  • Managing risks to implementation.

TAKEAWAYS FROM THE LAST TIME AROUND

The project will build on surveys conducted in 2018 about the viability of the RTA proposal to hundreds of nonprofit, public sector, and private sector respondents while working with TheHUB. This research generated a few articles including this very long one, but did not ever get finished in its entirety. We ran out of funding. I started a new job. And transit isn’t really much of a priority for TheHUB’s leadership– so it goes, Michigan. I did, however, learn a great deal from these surveys, which got a total response rate of about 1/3 out of about 400 respondents.

Stories were spread across the map, but the takeaway was pretty simple:

  1. We need better, more affordable ways to get around the region.
  2. Lack of transit is a huge hurdle to economic development.

While we learned a great deal, the study did not come to any earthshattering conclusions. The biggest takeaway was that RTA was extremely limited in its outreach efforts. A primitive funding structure limits the RTA by statutory fiat. Leadership and organizational vision, in the opinions of a number of respondents, are similarly hamstrung. I’m trying to fill this gap by pushing for direct outreach to stakeholders, both to educate and listen. I’m also trying to embrace an approach that will bring policymakers and leadership together with community stakeholders to better communicate about what’s going on.

This will hopefully inform a more stakeholder-led process of figuring out what a better plan would actually look like. RTA’s limited revision last summer didn’t get much traction, but it also lacked much in the way of concrete details. People want more details– and they want to be involved. It’s also a catch-22, because the RTA itself can’t conduct much outreach without more funding. And SEMCOG and MDOT frankly seem to be far more worried about highway expansion than building an equitable mobility landscape.

It is possible to imagine this process getting easier with the recently proposed Macoxit, if you will, from the RTA, wherein Macomb County would leave the RTA and Washtenaw, Wayne, and Oakland would continue on their own. I’ve already written about what this will mean, and the takeaway from many onlookers is, well, “have fun going it alone!”

We are, however, hopeful, and I’m looking forward to telling some good stories.

COMING SOON TO A BLOG NEAR YOU

I’m not yet sure about the pace of production for articles. But I’m hoping for a major update every month leading up to the hopeful inclusion of a transit expansion millage on the 2020 ballot. Meanwhile, my dear readers have enabled this through your loyalty and periodic contributions! We are now up to a whopping $75 a month in contributions. Please consider subscribing to the tune of an affordable 25 cents a week or more!

In the mean time, stay tuned. I will link to new articles on my new Mobility page and will continue working on Detroit Park City.

Looking forward to seeing what we can put together in 2020.

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