Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Choosing our Future: Where Does Transit Fit in Washtenaw County?

Last summer I had the opportunity to do some field research in major international cities to use their transit systems. I observed the ease in getting about to all the major attractions. I also noticed that the people in the cities did not suffer from the obesity epidemic we face here in the U.S. with our reliance on our cars. These observations were in addition to the transit oriented development I had seen previously around Washington, D.C. Hmm, this set me to thinking about the future of our state and especially of Washtenaw County.

Michigan has been in a deep recession. It is hard to think long term when facing the daunting challenges of the immediate future. Nonetheless, we must begin to prepare for the future now, as it certainly will arrive whether we prepare well for it or not. The United States' population is expected to grow by 100 million people in the next 40 years. With Michigan's population of just under 10 million, that is equivalent to 10 Michigans. Michigan will get its share of that growth in population. Michigan will grow again! But, where is that growth most likely to occur?

I expect Washtenaw County will be one of the preferred places in Michigan to live. The Ann Arbor area has the high level of intellectual talent that the knowledge based businesses of tomorrow are looking for. Google locating an office here is just one example of that. The University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan are important attractors. Our world-class medical facilities are invaluable job creators. Washtenaw County has rich resources in the arts. The county also has a very livable environment. Pittsfield Township, for example, has multiple walking and biking trails connecting neighborhoods. Two major freeways intersect in the county. It is only a very short ride to the airports at Detroit Metro and Willow Run.

What Washtenaw County does not have is a world-class transit system. The Ann Arbor Transportation Authority (AATA) with their "Transit Vision for Washtenaw County" seeks evolve our existing bus system to create that. Gov. Snyder's message regarding transit envisions regional connectors to Detroit Metro Airport, Dearborn and Detroit, as well as increased speed of rail passenger service west to Detroit. Such systems will induce high-density development around those systems as has happened in city after city.

These steps to prepare for the future are not cheap, but failure to prepare could be even more costly, in terms of more expensive infrastructure in the future with urban sprawl gobbling up our countryside, congestion on our streets and highways and opportunities lost for failure to attract the "millennium generation" who are looking for living environments that provide such amenities.

The choice is ours - prepare for the future or allow the future to happen to us. I prefer the proactive approach, to maximize the opportunities for current residents, and for our children and grandchildren. We can not only prepare for the future, we can create our future.

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