On Tuesday, residents of Southeast Michigan have the opportunity to vote on a tax associated with the implementation of a regional transit plan. To encourage discussion across campus, Taubman College invited Dr. Catherine Ross, an internationally renowned transportation and infrastructure expert and distinguished professor at Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of City and Regional Planning, to give a lecture on the significance of regional transportation and participate on a panel with Alexis Blizman (Legislative and Policy Director at the Ecology Center), Michael Ford (CEO of the Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority), and Megan Owens (Executive Director of Transportation Riders United).

Dr. Ross spoke about the emergence of megaregions as economic units. As approximately 80% of the United States’ GDP is from ten megaregions, she asserted that cities must understand where they fit in their greater contexts. She used Southeast Michigan and Metropolitan Atlanta as case studies for regional connectivity. As I’ve called both of these places home during different chapters of my life, I appreciated her observations on the impacts of state and local politics, the urban/suburban/rural divide, and racism on decision-making around transportation planning, funding, and implementation. Moreso, I valued her argument that, “transportation is never just about transportation,” but rather is about the movement and connection of people, ideas and goods.  

The Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority's proposed regional transit system would serve four counties, expanding transit access to residents of the emerging megaregion.

Following her lecture, Dr. Joe Grengs, a thought leader on accessibility and mobility, moderated a panel discussion focused on the Southeast Michigan Regional Master Transit Plan on the ballot. While Michael Ford emphasized that residents should be able to access their jobs, medical appointments, food, schools, and cultural and religious institutions, Blizman and Owen encouraged students to participate in the voter engagement process. Dr. Ross wrapped up the discussion by asking the audience to always consider who transportation initiatives are intended to benefit first.

While we have five concentrations in the masters of urban planning program, these conversations have reminded me just how interrelated they are. Though my primary interests are local housing and community economic development policy, what I’ve learned in the past month has challenged my perceptions of transportation planning. Dr. Ross eloquently began her lecture with a series of questions: When does transit work? Where does transit work? And how does transit work? While I may never understand the technicalities of transit systems, I do know that where people live and work has everything to transportation. I challenge you to ask yourself the same questions, to read about the regional transit plan on the November ballot, and to vote responsibly. 

(All photos credit: Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan)