michigan roads crisis

Michigan is notorious for really truly awful roads, the kind of roads that much poorer nations would shake their heads at, the kind of roads that eat cars with their pothole mouths.

State Representative Rick Olsen (R-Saline) and Roy Schmidt (D-Grand Rapids) released a report today entitled “Michigan’s Roads Crisis: What Will it Cost to Maintain Our Roads and Bridges?” calling for $1.4 billion to repair crumbling infrastructure (excluding those bridges that have yet to exist that CANADA WANTS TO PAY FOR obvi).

A few preliminary questions:

1. How are funds prioritized? Please tell me these funds are more oriented toward roads that people use… like not just to middle-of-nowhere destinations that won’t do a whole lot to ease the burden on businesses (I’m looking at you East Jordan, Michigan).

2. A news article on the document indicates that the costs will go up to $2.6 billion per year by 2023 to make basic improvements. What?? Why the drastic increase?

The document is found here. I’ve started searching for a few of these answers, and will follow up with more complete analysis, but really, I’m betting $10 that this graph, found on like the third page, explains 90% of this predicament.

Next question: What happened to Michigan Gasoline Tax Revenue?

food trucks in a food grassland

DDD plots Detroit-area grocery stores. Photo credit: Data Driven Detroit

1. Data Driven Detroit does some good stuff.

This map of grocery stores located in Detroit, featured in DDD’s most recent newsletter (linked above), depicts the 115 grocery stores that meet their criteria for supplying produce (essentially more than alcohol, tobacco, and chips). The authors analyzed the use of Electronic Benefit Transfer cards, or Bridge cards, in these 155 stores, tracking where users spent EBT dollars. They found that that a significant portion is exchanged for groceries outside of the city’s borders.

When I first spotted this map, I hoped that the analysis would be based at least in part on how far and how long it took a Detroit resident (with and without a car) to access these full service grocery stores. The authors acknowledge that while Detroit is not a food desert in the traditional sense, it fits the bill for a “food grassland,” where distinct pockets within the city do not have ready access to the plotted grocery stores. A next step to determine accessibility would have to take transport times and perhaps store hours (sometimes it’s hard to get to a store if it closes at 7PM post work if you have a commute… hence my dinner of whatever is in the fridge… for the third night…) into account.

2. More food truck news!  First stop September 27th from 4PM to 8PM! Let’s go! Eastern Market Stand 2! Here’s their Facebook page!

fare play: trading off profitability and equity

This string (and here and here) about the profitability of public transportation is garnering some attention.

It’s timely, too, as we continue to face the fake-choice between revenue increases and service cuts in the NOW URGENT ALL OF A SUDDEN NOW NOW need to achieve a massive deficit reduction in the face of a dismal economy.

My personal leanings aside, the contrast between profit and public use as the objective of transportation systems is well worth examining.

The gist of both arguments is as follows:

PROFIT: David Levinson

Mass (or public) transit agencies are transportation organizations first, not welfare organizations. They should be considered public utilities rather than departments of government, which provide a useful service for a price to their users.

My thesis is that the local transit systems should identify and propose to retrench to the financially sustainable system, and present local politicians with a choice.

If local politicians want additional “equity” services, they should be presented with a cost of subsidy per line, and then can collectively choose which lines to finance out of general revenue, as this is primarily a welfare rather than an transportation function. In other words, public transit organizations would present the public with a bill for these money-losing services (the subsidy required in order to at least break even on operating them (i.e. the difference between their revenue and their cost), and not be expected to pay for them out of operating revenue.


Currently, transit agencies are not trying to break even, so they are not failing if they don’t.  If we propose a free-market view in which transit should be breaking even, well, I’d like to see this as well in a perfect world.  But that would be a world in which government isn’t heavily subsidizing transit’s competitor, the private car — not just through road expenditures but through such interventions as minimum parking requirements and petroleum-based foreign policy.  I would further suggest that current environmental crises argue for government to be biased away from the private car and toward modes that do less environmental harm, and that subsidies toward transit (i.e. accepting that transit “loses money”) are one valid way of doing that.

Profit and equity are on the opposite ends of the spectrum; yet there is commonality between these views as Walker acknowledges. Yes, transportation systems should work to provide transit to where jobs are, not being afraid to shed lines that are shedding public funds. In this sense, Levinson is perfectly correct, and a profit-driven transit model would be certain cull the unprofitable in order to stay in the black. However, Walker is also right. The demand for transport is  extremely distorted by heavy subsidization of private cars and the gasoline that powers them. Until transit agencies can tap into this projection of actual demand, how can profitability be evaluated? Perfect substitutes are so readily available that projecting demand (as has been found by no congestion alleviation with new highways) remains difficult.

Lastly, neither case considers transportation infrastructure as a driver of profitability. New transportation opens up new access to jobs, housing, retail, etc. If transit agencies were to evaluate their effectiveness only based on existing profit, they might miss the opportunity for new lines. For instance, on the South side of Chicago, I would guess (though I’d really like to Know This Fact and not be guessing), that many transit lines do not pay for themselves.   I am guessing that the current bus lines that serve the area (dependably a bit late, dependably a bit longer of a wait than you really want to spend being wind-whipped) do not generate the sort of high demand “profitable” line that would be used under Levinson’s model to make the case for the possibility of sustainable transportation. Some lines going into the downtown might, out of sheer necessity for many who need to get to and from work, but I’d guess that most commuters take the faster, more dependable Metra rather than depending on less reliable buses if they can afford the slight cost premium. The potential for profitability is clear: transit below Congress Ave. serves a constituent base that probably owns fewer cars, and is more dependent on the public transit system. To anyone familiar with the South Side, an El stop would be transformative, but I’m not sure that the current demand would be capable of telling the same story.

mitch: let poor live in empty homes? other commentators: uhh no, here’s why

What we have before us is a typical Mitch Albom column, the kind that runs in the Detroit Free Press/News on a regular basis. It has its cookie cutter three subheading organization, appropriately anecdote-y tone and a few heartrending/warming quotes. But oftentimes, I think that while well-intentioned, this one in particular is not asking the right questions, nor proposing the right solutions.

Albom writes of a two-parent family facing eviction from their moldy, barely inhabitable Detroit rental because they are behind in their $650/month rent payments. Albom’s solution:

But somewhere in this city there must be a place for them. And for other working families who are trying to make it. You hear constantly about houses in Detroit that can’t sell, that they’re giving away, that banks reluctantly take over.

A glut of buildings and an overdose of poverty should make matching needy families with places to live a lemons-to-lemonade situation. I know Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries is trying to help the Wilsons.

Yes, there is a glut of housing in Detroit (though it’s not all good housing stock). In fact, it’s estimated that as much as 30% of Detroit area housing stock and approximately 60% of office space in Detroit is empty, creating fears of increased opportunity for crime with a lessening of neighborhood social cohesion. Albom’s would be a solution if the fix were as simple matching supply with demand. But it isn’t – housing demand is nowhere near matching the excess of supply – because Detroit’s population keeps plummeting.

If Albom’s solution were to be put into practice, diminishing demand for homes for which demand is not currently sufficient,  the result would be nowhere near what needs to happen – an increase in housing prices, a problem to which the federal government is now weighing a policy prescription.

Housing prices necessary for economic recovery aside, the issue worth examining is the availability of rental property. The land(slum)lord is able to rent a moldy home because no competitive market for $650 homes for rent exists. The real problem is not a lack of home ownership, it’s the availability of rental property for families that cannot afford home ownership.  Interestingly, Albom details the family’s history with rending:

“Eventually, they saved up $700, which they gave to a man to let them move into a house which he said he would rent them for $500 a month.

“He gave us the keys,” Kristy recalled. “That same day, we found out he didn’t own the house. And he ran with our money.”

That led them to their current house in Detroit, the one with a sewage and mold problem no human should have to endure. For this, they say, they pay $650 a month. Yet because they are behind on the rent, they’re being evicted next week. My efforts to reach the landlord were unsuccessful, but who would take this place after them?”

Even when the poor are moving able to find a rental property at an affordable price, the regulatory framework is failing. Extortion? Against the law. Mold? Michigan has building codes (though not specific mold regulation unlike several other states). Eviction by slumlord? Legal framework pertains again. This is not a case where calling the landlord would even be logical – his or her disinterest in anything but $650/month has been well-established – but this is a case where you call a lawyer, the housing authorities, and advocacy groups, representatives, or really, like, ANYbody else? My dachshund included.

point being?

Okay, sometimes we all are bad at getting to the point. I am going to try again (meaning no talk of ruin porn, or food trucks, or food, or dogs).

I call this Motor Cities because the name makes no sense whatsoever. Think about it. The Great American City – Chicago, New York, D.C. (sorta great) – have public transportation beyond that of the private vehicle. Cabs, buses, train, commuter rail, while these are indeed motorized, the point is that New York’s transportation policy was not designed with a Ford F-150 in mind. Transit is designed to share resources, or stipulate that users pay large sums to finance their own private transport. At their most efficient, cities are not “motor cities” where residents drive from point a to point b.

We have a fundamental tension between density and diesel. More people live in cities than in not-cities, a ratio that will become more and more disproportionate as the developing world matures. In some ways, it’s an opportunity: higher density allows us to conserve resources, makes us happier people, makes us smarter people — great! But many cities were designed with diesel specifically in mind – again, back to Detroit. The original Motor City’s grid layout lends itself to easy automobile navigation and the expansion into ever-widening rings of suburbs. And because high density is more expensive than our current subsidization of most things automobile, planners, developers, city managers, and all stakeholders involved in the policy process are incentivized to choose less density and more diesel.

There seems to be a disconnect.

It’s a disconnect I’d like to explore.

I’ll try to investigate, flag, disagree, insult, be insulted, analyze and clarify as best I can.

detroit is brooklyn; detroit is not brooklyn

When I sit down with my cup of coffee and my third cup of coffee in the morning and want to know the happenings of Detroit, MI, the options are as follows:

  • The Detroit Free Press – Thanks for bad ledes and Mitch Albom. But okay, sometimes you are redeemed, Freep, with food trucks, for example.)
  • The Detroit News. See above.
  • Crain’s Business News – I can only make up like seven more email addresses to access your articles, what’s susan spelled backwards?!
  • Geoff Young at Detroit Policy. Thank you, Geoff Young. You fill my Mondays with useful news items that I may have missed, Geoff Young. I went to public policy school, too, Geoff Young!
  • Michigan Public radio, Mlive aggregation,  etc. etc.

Somewhat limited. And also insufficient to supplement (inform) the multitude of  Why Detroit Is Not Brooklyn or Why Detroit Is In Fact Brooklyn or Why Detroit Is Detroit articles that keep cropping up lately.

Wayne State University Professor John Patrick Leary examines what’s behind the “ruin porn” fascination here.


this is my blog. okay