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The Fight for Better Access to Jobs in Detroit and Milwaukee, Using Buses

Low-income residents of Detroit and Milwaukee face formidable obstacles to job access. These two Rust Belt regions are consistently ranked among the most segregated in the country, and neither has a good transit system.

Bus riders in Detroit. Photo: Ditched by DDOT

Bus riders in Detroit. Photo: Ditched By DDOT

In both regions, the places that have been growing and adding jobs fastest have been been overwhelmingly sprawling, suburban areas inaccessible to people without cars.

A 2013 Brookings study ranked Detroit number one in the U.S. in job sprawl. According to that report, 77 percent of the region’s jobs are at least 10 miles outside of downtown. The national average is 43 percent.

Detroit’s woeful job access issues were perhaps best illustrated by James Robertson, a factory worker who commutes to a suburb that “opted out” of the regional transit system. Robertson’s brutal commute went viral, and while it was extreme even for Detroit, it highlighted a disjointed transit network that limits opportunity for many other residents.

Milwaukee faces a similar set of problems. As of December 2014, Milwaukee County had only regained 35 percent of the jobs lost during the recession, while outlying counties had regained 70 percent, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel analysis. A 2013 study by Public Policy Forum found that about a third of the region’s 29 major job centers were inaccessible by transit. A local civil rights group recently prevailed in a suit against the Wisconsin Department of Transportation for its continued prioritization of costly highway projects at the expense of vital transit connections.

Now, both Detroit and Milwaukee are considering similar measures to improve job access: high-quality bus service that will connect workers from the city to suburban job centers.

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Parking Madness: Louisville vs. Troy

So far Streetsblog readers have voted on seven head-to-head matchups in our 2016 Parking Madness tournament. Soon we’ll be down to the Elite Eight of parking craters. (You can still vote in the Long Beach vs. Muncie poll, which we’re extending to account for the holiday weekend in California.) But first, there’s one more pair of asphalt horrors in the running to win the coveted Golden Crater.

Rounding out the competition are these parking craters in downtown Louisville and Troy, Michigan, outside Detroit.

Louisville

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Branden Klayko runs the local blog Broken Sidewalk and nominated this part of downtown Louisville. He writes:

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The Complete Case Against Highway Widening in Detroit

Detroit in 1949 versus how it appears today. Images: AtDetroit.net via Streetsblog

Detroit in 1949 versus today. Images: AtDetroit.net

Michigan DOT wants to spend $1 billion rebuilding and widening I-75 to Detroit’s sprawling northern suburbs, at the expense of the city and close-in suburbs. Royal Oak, a walkable suburb that borders the city, is not having it.

The City Council passed a resolution unanimously this week officially opposing the widening of I-75 as well as the expansion of I-94. The two highway projects combined would add up to $4 billion in misplaced spending for a region that is badly in need of new strategies.

The text of Royal Oak’s resolution is pretty great [PDF]. It eviscerates the state’s plans and lays out a policy vision that would be great for the region if Michigan DOT ever gets smart enough to change direction.

Take a look:

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With Widening of I-75, Michigan DOT Will Deliver Another Blow to Detroit

The widening and reconstruction of I-75 north of Detroit will cost $1 billion and take 14 years. Photo: Wikipedia

The widening and reconstruction of I-75 north of Detroit will cost $1 billion and take 14 years. Photo: Wikipedia

The city of Detroit lost a stunning 25 percent of its population between 2000 and 2010. Even as the city struggles heroically to repair the damage, the Michigan state government is undermining Detroit’s fragile recovery.

Leave it to Michigan DOT to come in and make Detroit’s problems worse. The Detroit Free Press is reporting that the state DOT wants to pour $1 billion into the widening and reconstruction of 17 miles of I-75 north of the city, serving residents of the region’s affluent, racially segregated far northern suburbs.

Everyone agrees the highway needs to get repaired, but widening it is a different matter. A bigger road will siphon residents and economic activity from the city and close-in suburbs. Transit riders, environmental groups, and representatives of inner ring suburbs are protesting that the project will fuel sprawl, squander resources, and lead to more inequality.

Pushing for the project are suburbs that have benefitted from the exodus from Detroit, gaining jobs and businesses even as the regional population has flatlined.

Brooks Patterson, executive of wealthy, suburban Oakland County, is a leading supporter. Patterson, who famously cheered that “your sprawl is my economic development,” has referred to I-75 as the county’s “Main Street.” He told the Free Press the project would boost quality of life in his community by easing congestion and promoting economic development. Officials from the sprawling suburb of Troy are also big supporters.

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Detroit Bus Driver Contract Offers Bonuses When Ridership Rises

A new labor contract between the Detroit Department of Transportation and ATU Local 26 explicitly ties bus driver bonuses to ridership increases.

If farebox revenue goes up, 30 percent of the increase will belong to drivers, up to a certain point, DDOT announced earlier this week. Individual drivers’ bonuses are capped at $350 per year the first year and can rise to $750 in the fourth year of the contract.

The bus drivers union ratified the agreement on Friday. “With fare box sharing, if DDOT succeeds, our drivers will share financially in that success,” Fred Westbrook, president of ATU Local 26, said in the press release.

Megan Owens of Detroit’s Transportation Riders United said she’s generally supportive of the revenue-sharing provision.

“If they have a little extra reason to help out a new rider to have a good experience or be a little more patient with a frustrating rider … that appears to be a worthwhile investment,” she said.

Steven Higashide of TransitCenter said revenue-sharing is a “really innovative and fascinating provision” that he hasn’t seen elsewhere.

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Detroit Breaks Ground on First Protected Bike Lane Project

Detroit broke ground this week on its first protected bike lane. Image: Jefferson East Inc.

A parking-protected bike lane is coming to Jefferson Avenue in Detroit. Image: Jefferson East Inc.

The Motor City is getting its first taste of on-street protected bike infrastructure. Work has begun on a street redesign that will bring Detroit its very first bike lane where parked cars will protect riders from motor vehicle traffic.

The bike lane is part of a road diet for Jefferson Avenue in the historic Jefferson-Chalmers business district. Construction crews have begun adding landscaped islands to the street, and later in the year, the road will be resurfaced and protected bike lanes will be added, reports Jefferson East Inc., the nonprofit group helping lead the planning process.

“It will be the first in the city and, I believe, the state,” said Justin Fried, who manages the project for Jefferson East. “The goal is to calm the street, narrow the road and improve safety.”

The intersection of Jefferson and Chalmers has been a particular problem, according to Jefferson East, with a number of crashes injuring pedestrians. The first phase of the project is only seven blocks, but a second phase will extend it three miles to Grand Boulevard.

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Parking Madness 2015 Elite Eight: Detroit vs. Camden

Today it’s on to round two in Parking Madness, our hunt for the worst parking crater in an American town. Our first Elite Eight matchup features two cities struggling to rebuild in the wake of some serious urban disinvestment, and these parking craters certainly aren’t helping. It’s Camden vs. Detroit.

Detroit

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The above image, submitted by reader Luke Klipp, is what carried Detroit over the California suburb of Walnut Creek in the first round. Klipp explains this area is right next to the Renaissance Center, where General Motors is headquartered. Klipp said:
Detroit’s waterfront is really sad when compared to its Canadian neighbor across the river, Windsor, whose waterfront is three miles of uninterrupted parkway. By comparison, Detroit has a couple parks near the Renaissance Center and then lots of parking right up to the waterfront.

Thanks to the talented Shane Hampton of the University of Oklahoma’s Institute for Quality Communities, we have historical photos to compare this area to what used to be.

Check it out:

streetsblog_detroit1951

This photo is from 1951. It looks like the area was already becoming a bit pockmarked. Detroit, being the birthplace of the American auto industry, may have been an early parking crater adapter.

Let’s look at the competition:

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Parking Madness 2015: Detroit vs. Walnut Creek

The Parking Madness competition has never been fiercer. In yesterday’s match-up, Parkersburg, West Virginia, edged Boston by a slim 12 votes, and before that, Amarillo beat out Nashville by just six votes. Your ballot counts.

We have two doozies to feast your eyes on today. The Detroit waterfront is taking on the Bay Area suburb of Walnut Creek, California.

Detroit

detroit_crater

Submitter Luke Klipp describes this crater as “a swath of surface parking lining the city’s waterfront just east of the Renaissance Center,” a cluster of office towers that serve as General Motors HQ.

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Man Walks 21 Miles to Commute Each Day Because of Detroit’s Awful Transit

A piece in the Detroit Free Press about 56-year-old factory worker James Robertson and his 21-mile round-trip walking commute to the Detroit suburbs is going viral this week. It is both an amazing story of individual perseverance and a scathing indictment of a failing transportation system.

Robertson’s total commute is actually a 46-mile round-trip, split between different buses and a marathon walk. He has been taking this route to reach his job in Rochester Hills from his home in Detroit since his Honda Accord died 10 years ago, he told the Detroit Free Press. Baldwin can’t afford a new car on the wages from his $10-an-hour job.

Despite this formidable obstacle, Robertson has never missed a day of work. “I can’t imagine not working,” he told the paper.

Readers from around the country who were inspired by Robertson’s story have raised $72,000 for him (at the time we published), more than enough to get a car. But a crowdfunded car can’t help everyone who’s in a similar situation in Detroit.

CeCe Grant, executive director of Americans for Transit, says Robertson’s situation is “partially by cruel design.” Detroit’s suburban bus system, SMART, allows municipalities to “opt-out.” That “has always sported a sharp cultural edge, because it nudges up against the notion that some communities don’t want ‘those people,’ be they Detroiters or blacks or bus riders, coming through their locales,” she said. “Because Rochester Hills doesn’t participate in SMART, Robertson must walk the last seven miles of his journey to work — after taking a SMART bus as far as it can reach into Oakland County.”

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Michigan Gas Tax Hike Could Provide Some Relief for Detroit Transit Riders

Michigan state senators voted last week to approve a gas tax hike expected to net more than $1 billion annually to fix the state’s notoriously potholed roads, reports the Free Press. The measure, if it passes the House intact, could also be good news for Detroit’s woefully inadequate transit system.

A provision of the bill would allow Detroit to spend 20 percent of its portion of the proceeds on transit. Detroit has been funding transit only through its general fund — with no dedicated revenue stream — and it has arguably the worst transit system of any major city in the nation. With the city in bankruptcy, general fund revenues for transit have been in short supply. Riders report two-and-a-half-hour one-way commutes, or buses that never show, making it nearly impossible to hold down a job without a car.

Although the region is in the process of merging Detroit’s transit system with SMART, the suburban transit provider, establishing a seamless system has been fraught with political challenges. Regional planners, for instance, recently shifted millions of dollars in transit funding from Detroit to the suburbs. A new funding source would be huge.

Under the plan approved by the State Senate, Michigan’s gas tax would incrementally rise 17 cents per gallon over the next few years. Raising the tax to fix the state’s roads has been a top priority of Governor Rick Snyder, and Republican lawmakers apparently felt comfortable advancing it following the election.