Deadline Does Detroit: Carless -- Getting To Flint, And Other Unattainable Places
One of the challenges suggested for Deadline Does Detroit: Carless was to meet an out-of-state friend traveling across I-69, perhaps in Port Huron, Imlay City, or Flint.
I wasn't sure about this idea at first. After all, why in God’s name is someone traveling through mid-Michigan, but not actually visiting metro Detroit? The most plausible answer to that question is this hypothetical traveller is en route to Traverse City (let’s say for a wedding) from Toronto. Fair enough.
So how would I make that work? Short of taking the Greyhound to Flint, $12.50 each way plus the bus fare to the station downtown, it’s impossible. Am I going to spend $30 and more than four hours (round-trip) on the Greyhound to have a cup of coffee (in Flint, of all places) with an old friend? Would you?
To be perfectly honest, it would have to be a very old and very dear friend to even justify the hour-long car ride to spend a few minutes catching-up over truck stop coffee, never mind the cost and time of a Greyhound ride.
Maybe in a different era I would have felt differently, but in this age of email, Facebook, Skype, Facetime, and virtually free long-distance, this trip seems ridiculous by any means of transportation.
If my mythical Toronto friend were to call from I-69, and I was really living without a car, I think I’d pass on the Sunday afternoon roadside meet and put that cost of bus ride to Flint toward a trip to Toronto. A round-trip ticket to Toronto on VIA Rail is $170 (Canadian) and it’s a four-hour ride from Windsor.
Still, there are plenty of reasons someone might need to travel to the outer edges of southeast Michigan, be it Flint, Jackson, Toledo, or wherever. Without a car, it’s practically impossible to reach those spots from Detroit.
It wasn’t always this way. Into the late 1920s and early 1930s, interurban rail companies ferried passengers throughout southeast Michigan—north to Flint and Port Huron, south to Toledo and west to Ann Arbor and Jackson. There were even lines connecting Detroit to southwest Ontario cities like Amherstburg.
One might think the interurban system is a relic lost to time, unable to be recreated in this modern world of interstate highways. But Neil Greenberg, a Detroit-area transit professional, has a vision for a comprehensive mass transit solution that would, among other things, effectively restore the interurban system and greatly improve local transportation options.
Fed up with inaction, half-measures, and hand wringing about transit, Greenberg drew up a plan for a unified regional transit system that connects southeast Michigan through commuter rail and coordinated bus service for both long and short trips. He calls this hypothetical system “The Freshwater Railway.”
Greenberg is pragmatic about his goals for the Freshwater place. He knows no one is going drop everything in currently in the works to champion this concept. But he sees the Freshwater plan as a way to shift the local conversation about improving transit.
“Freshwater is almost a kind of trick,” he says. “It’s a kind of fun interactive visual just to get people’s heads to turn and once they see it, they say: ‘how do we make that happen?’”
That’s not to say Freshwater couldn’t be a realistic framework for a comprehensive transit plan. The commuter rail lines, Greenberg says, could use existing rail infrastructure and DDOT and SMART would have a role in coordinated bus system, as could the proposed bus rapid transit lines. All told, Greenberg estimates the entire system would cost $10 billion to build out over time.
More important, however, as he explains on the “Solutions” section of Freshwater’s website, is to take the principles that shaped this hypothetical design and apply them to transit plans, like BRT, M1 rail, and improving bus service, currently in the works.
“There’s [currently] no transit route between Hamtramck and Midtown,” Greenberg explains. “Hamtramck, which just this great dense city, has two bus routes. They run about once an hour and they don’t really go anywhere. So if you hover your mouse [over Hamtramck on the Freshwater map] that’s not a real bus route. That’s a Freshwater route, but what I’m doing is highlighting these really worthwhile transit corridors that we’re just not hitting right now.”
Greenberg has no qualms about criticizing local leaders he says misunderstand transit and consequently offer the wrong solutions.
“Let’s do it like L.A. did it. For years, LA had one rail line, the Blue Line, going from downtown to Long Beach. But everyone knew the Blue Line, because it was done right, was the first step to building the Red Line, the Gold Line, and the Expo Line that are part of this really big system. It happens one piece at a time.
“If private donors had said we’re going to spend $100 million to build Blue line and hope that everything happens after that, it wouldn’t have happened. L.A. worked because it happened incrementally. Let’s fit M1 into a plan that includes bus service, local service in Detroit, connector service into the suburbs, and limited stop service. That’s the only way M1 Rail is going to succeed, let alone the larger transit system.”
One might blanch at this lack of diplomacy toward Detroit’s elite, but given the state of local transit, it’s a wonder more people aren’t as concerned about the lack of long-term visioning for a regional system as comprehensive as existed 100 years ago.