Column: Investing in public transit is investing in people  

October 24, 2022 4:18 am

Susan J. Demas

I grew up in a small-ish town, on a dirt road, close to a horse farm, tucked about an hour away from the Motor City. Most things in my life, from school to friends to work, were at minimum a 30-minute drive away. 

I knew I needed a car as soon as I was able to drive because public transportation surely wasn’t going down my pothole-stricken gravel road. Thankfully, my brother or my parents would let me borrow their car until I saved enough money to buy my own. But for a lot of people, owning or borrowing a car is not an option.

Public transportation is a lifeline for so many. It creates access to our basic necessities and offers a way for people to engage in their community in meaningful ways. From grocery stores to doctor’s offices, schools and parks, workplaces or places of worship, public transportation not only connects us to our community, it is an intentional way to care for our most vulnerable populations.  

In a state that is designed for cars, those without a vehicle are at a serious disadvantage. Our infrastructure was designed to further car ownership as the sole option of transportation without considering who we may be excluding with this design. 

“Placemaking” is a term that has been used in the public planning space for over 20 years and it simply means to create and strengthen quality places where people want to live, work and play. We at the Michigan League for Public Policy believe that public transportation plays a vital role in placemaking and creating more just and equitable communities. 

Fragmented public transportation systems have negatively impacted residents from across the state and country for decades. In both urban and rural areas, lack of transportation has posed many challenges. We see in our rural communities a series of issues such as school districts needing more funding to cover long and widely dispersed bus routes or residents traveling significantly further for medical care

In our urban communities, we see similar trends. Not only are there significant gaps in service for students to get to school and for residents to access medical care, a disconnected regional transit system has created major barriers to employment furthering workforce inequity particularly among Black and Brown residents. 

Expanding access to reliable public transit is not just an equitable solution. It offers many benefits to the community it serves, including: 

  • Interconnected travel between cities can spur economic engagement, growth and development 
  • Fewer cars on the road leads to reduced traffic congestion and lower carbon emissions, which in turn improves our environment 
  • Service for a new generation of workers who want transit options near their places of employment

A recent study in Flint concluded that in order for placemaking to be effective, there needs to be an intentionality in planning not just for a broad overarching “everyone,” but specifically for those who have been excluded within the context of each community. 

By intentionally caring for our most vulnerable residents, we in turn better care for everyone in our community as a whole. When one part of the community suffers, we all suffer. Placemaking with an equity and inclusion lens offers a sense of belonging and connectedness so that communities can be built with purpose as places where people want to live, work and play.  

All Michiganders can help encourage public transit. You can get connected with a local group that is promoting public transit and see if there are local public transit efforts you can get involved with.  

For our friends and partners in Oakland County, there is an important issue on the docket this election, the Oakland County Transit Proposal, which would “expand public transit services, connecting people and communities across Oakland County.” 

Transit supporters can also reach out to their representatives at the state, city, and township levels and tell them what public transit would mean to them. And now is a particularly pivotal time to do so.

As part of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), Michigan was allocated over $6.5 billion in federal dollars, money that can be used both to offset the negative health, economic and financial impacts of the pandemic and to make long-term investments that address racial and economic inequities. 

While the state has already appropriated 89% of its available funding, many local governments have only just begun to spend the money. The city of Detroit, for example, has obligated just 27% of ARPA dollars. 

The pandemic was a blow to public transportation systems, which continue to face reduced ridership, leading bus systems to cut routes or run with less frequency. ARPA dollars provide an opportunity for cities and counties to reinvest in equitable and robust public transportation systems.

Whether through legislative efforts or local, state and federal funding initiatives, an investment in public transit is an investment in the people of our region. Let’s work together to build a more connected, inclusive and intentional community. 

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Hannah Gyani
Hannah Gyani

Hannah Gyani is the Community Engagement Specialist with the Michigan League for Public Policy.