Neil Tambe

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

Why Are We Transforming Detroit? (Public Transit As An Analogy For Purpose).

The other day, Robyn and I were discussing how kids in Detroit get to school. Some of her students ride 2-3 buses just to get to her school, for example. I imagine that kids across the city choose schools because of accessibility and transportation options. In fact, I think it's reasonable to assume that's the case with many students across the country. Heck, a lot of people I've talked to in life choose lots of the places they visit based on accessibility and transportation, whether it's bars, churches, hospitals, or places to work. [Note: this post isn't a rant about public transportation in Detroit. I'm merely setting up an analogy to make the real point I want to convey easier to understand.]

Let's take the example of Detroit students going to school. What happens if their school moves to a new building? Many of them may have to stop going to the school because it's no longer possible for them to go there, or maybe it's too much of a hassle to take additional buses to get there. Why?

One reason is because the bus system in Detroit isn't frequent or widespread enough to be worth the cost and hassle. Take a look at the bus system maps for Detroit and Seattle (links below), for example. Notice how it would be really hard to get across the city (i.e., moving in and around the city's longstanding neighborhoods outside of the Woodward corridor) unless routes were extremely frequent (I'm obviously making assumptions...I don't have great data):

Here's a takeaway for Detroit - people who probably need buses to get to work and get around the city probably have a really hard time doing so. This is an opinion, but I'd argue that people in the neighborhoods need transit the most and that a transit solution would improve these citizens' lives the most.

Enter M1 Rail

One of the exciting projects of this summer was groundbreaking on the M1 Rail Project which will connect Downtown and Midtown by streetcar. Which is great. I'll love it when done. But M1 only benefits you if you're going to be Midtown and Downtown a lot. If you're not a wealthy Detroiter who lives in Midtown/Downtown or frequently goes to Midtown/Downtown (i.e., if you spend a lot of your time in the neighborhoods I mentioned above), the M1 rail probably won't benefit you very much.

This might also be fine. But it raises a very important question in my mind: why do we want public transit anyway? Have we even articulated what we're trying to accomplish by having public transit? I feel like if you asked people this question before the proposal of M1 rail, there would be legitimate discussion between some of these "statements of purpose":

  • Build light rail for its own sake because it sounds cool and will legitimize Detroit to people outside its borders - in this case you'd probably build rail
  • Stimulate economic and civic activity by helping people who don't have other options participate in the economy and civic society - in this case you'd probably build a bus system
  • Make Midtown/Downtown more vibrant (spin: benefit wealthy residents who want to live in a walkable community) - in this case you'd probably build a streetcar line

Here's the point: I have no idea why we wanted to build public transit in the first place. Because this underlying reason for taking the action of building public transit systems, I'd call this "purpose", is unclear, do we even know if we're achieving our goal? By funding a streetcar line, is the M1 rail project fulfilling the right need? Products and services a company or city chooses to provide can vary widely depending on the need it intends to address and how that need is articulated.

A major public infrastructure project ought to have a clearly identified and articulated need, I think. Doing so, would helps agents design the right product/service and be held accountable to results.

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Detroit's Transformation: why are we doing it?

Similar to the M1 rail example, I raise the same question for Detroit itself: why do we want to make Detroit better? What sort of community are we trying to create, and why? Is it for the purpose of:

  • Generating lots of wealth and prosperity for all citizens?
  • Creating a cohesive community that has minimal conflict between different types of people?
  • Helping citizens have lots of fun?
  • Facilitating robust civic discourse?
  • Improving Detroit's public perception to the rest of the country?
  • Allowing talented people to accumulate lots of power and wealth if they are smart enough to do so?
  • Bolstering cultural and artistic expression?
  • Providing every citizen with the agency to reach his / her goals?

Which of the statements of purpose do we really care about as Detroiters? Detroiters? One might say "all of them", but that's foolish. Our city cannot be everything to everyone, nor could any city be everything to everyone. Even if we tried, there would inevitably be times where these different priorities would be in conflict or require tradeoffs. In those cases, which statements of purpose do we prioritize more?

(Note: this is often conveyed by leadership or an organization, like a mayor. This idea of conveying a common purpose that people buy into will be huge for the next mayor.)

Making Detroit better will require extreme amounts of collective action. In my experience, collective action requires shared purpose (not to mention shared vision for how this "purpose" looks like when you actually start building stuff). The way I see it, lots of people have lots of different ideas for what the purpose of transforming should be and why we should transform Detroit. If that's the case, collective action will probably fail or have lots of conflict.

Before we start trying to rebuild Detroit, we need a clear picture on what sort of community we want Detroit to be, and why. If not, I don't think our transformation efforts have a good chance of persisting.