This blog post first appeared on the Transportation for Michigan (Trans4M) blog

Creating a comprehensive transportation plan is one of the most important jobs of a Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) adopted its 2040 Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) in June 2013 in spite of the public push-back it heard about interstate expansion projects and the lack of prominent efforts to progress our regional system towards a multi-modal system.

In order to offer some outside perspective on what an RTP can look like, I decided to do a textual analysis of the Southeast Michigan RTP and compare it to that of the San Francisco Bay area. Vocabulary and text usage can provide indicators to the approach and vision that go into a document. Through textual analysis we can see what words were at the top of writers' heads when writing a document. As you’ll see the difference is more than simply in snowfall and coastal waterfronts.

In order to better understand the potential for a truly transformative regional transportation plan, I studied the 2035 Regional Transportation Plan for the San Francisco Bay Area, which was adopted in April 2009. Needless to say, in undertaking this plan for comparison, I was sensitive to the deep differences between the San Francisco region and the Detroit region – in current transportation assets, culture, and financial stability to name a few. However, I wanted to find an RTP that emulates a vision for change that mindfully addresses issues of sustainability, equity, accessibility and more – in other words, aspects of a plan that residents in any region should demand.

The San Francisco Bay Area plan, titled “Change in Motion,” was produced by the area MPO, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), in collaboration with the regional council of governments, the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), and professionals working in conservation and air quality. The plan begins with a chapter titled “Call for Change” which is swimming with keywords and phrases that indicate a dedication to improving the region through transportation. In order to illustrate the tone of the San Francisco RTP, I created a word cloud from the plan’s executive summary. The biggest words are the words that appear most common in the San Francisco RTP.


A glance at the above visual gives you an idea of the priorities held in mind by the MTC and ABAG through the creation of the San Francisco Bay Area 2035 RTP .The standout words include ‘change(s)’, ‘transit’, ‘performance’, ‘new’, and ‘transportation’.

So how does the Southeast Michigan RTP compare? The economic and social misfortunes of our region are highlighted throughout the plan and seem to provide excuses for a lack of more robust improvements. While many of the road and bridge improvement, rebuilding, and maintenance projects within the plan are necessary, planning for the automobile overpowers any other innovative improvements in the Southeast Michigan RTP. The plan illustrates the poor quality of our region’s meek public transit systems, and aside from a few minor exceptions (commuter rail projects and some capital improvements for city bus systems), makes no real effort to transform that trend. 

To compare the priority languages between the San Francisco Bay area 2035 RTP and the Southeast Michigan 2040 RTP, I created a second word cloud from the executive summary of SEMCOG’s 2040 RTP. Notice the differences in the words that stand out most.


For Southeast Michigan’s RTP, the words that stand out most are ‘infrastructure’, ‘service’, ‘region(al)’, ‘system’, ‘funding’, and ‘figure’. Between these two RTPs, a clear contrast can be seen between one that uses ‘change(s)’, ‘transit’, and ‘new’ most, versus the other which uses ‘region’, ‘infrastructure’, and ‘system’ most.

This language of this plan indicates that it seems to be working toward more regional cooperation; however much of the language does nothing more than maintain the status quo that Southeast Michigan has a weak, auto-centric transportation system and that our planners are simply striving to get by. On the other hand, the San Francisco Bay Area RTP serves as an example of how a plan can inform real change in a region.

While SEMCOG’s RTP was already adopted, it’s not too late for changes. You can still get involved in shaping the region’s transportation by attending project-specific public meetings in your community for SEMCOG, the RTA, or your local planning department or transit agencies.

If we really want to transform our region into an innovative, competitive, equitable and sustainable region, and if the Metro Detroit area is truly experiencing the “rebirth” that both residents and national media outlets claim, shouldn’t our regional transportation plan follow suit? More importantly, if we can’t demand transformative change from our urban and regional planners, where else will we find it?

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