Public transit isn’t just for the low-income and those without other options. As more businesses look for quality transit in making location/expansion decisions, the issue deserves more attention.


Contact: Nancy Derringer,, 734-548-0033; or Eric Lupher,, 734-542-8001

What we found:

  • Public transportation is often viewed by policymakers and citizens as a social welfare program aimed at providing limited mobility for those with no other options. To attract “choice” riders and expand service, it needs to be viewed as an important public utility and a vital part of the public and private transportation networks
  • Regional governance is about more than the cross-section of people appointed or elected to the governing board. It requires state and local policies that adopt a broader focus on transportation, planning and zoning, and related policies. Most importantly, it demands collaboration among units of government and transit providers.
  • Regional funding is a prerequisite for regional systems. Expanded funding options, beyond the property tax, requires authorization of additional types of local taxes; tax-base sharing; spreading the tax burden by levying multiple local tax rates; feathering tax rates by lowering rates as people get farther from the urban center; and/or linking public transit funding with road and other transportation funding.

The recent attention paid to Amazon in its wildly hyped search for a second headquarters site has brought new focus to the role of public transportation in the country’s urban settings. The company made a robust transit system a requirement of whatever city (or cities) it would end up choosing.

The changing nature of Michigan’s urban transit systems – and the challenge of paying for them – is the focus of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan’s latest research, released at the 2019 Michigan Municipal League Capital Conference.

“From our perspective, Southeast Michigan’s inability to craft and fund a robust, reliable public transit system relates to the broken models of governance and funding that have garnered little support from the general public over the years,” said Eric Lupher, President of the Citizens Research Council. “With this report we hope to stimulate new ideas for state and regional leaders that can result in a transit system that meets the needs of workers, employers, and choice riders that utilize transit as part of the new, multimodal approach to mobility.”

“Rethinking Regional Transportation in Michigan’s Urban Areas,” looks at how we might expand and better finance transit systems, as many employers echo Amazon’s call for more and better ways for workers to get to where the jobs are.

Economic activity is rarely confined to a single city or even county. It’s essential that public transportation be treated regionally – that policy be crafted and funding determined with this in mind. In southeast Michigan, to use but one example, riders are served, and not always served well, by city systems (Detroit Department of Transportation, Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority) and a suburban system (Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation), as well as scattered, siloed entities like the QLine and People Mover in downtown Detroit. With suburban cities able to opt out of SMART, service is spotty. An effort to coordinate systems regionally under the Regional Transit Authority has had uneven results, with some service improvements but not enough public support to pass critical funding measures.

Funding, even regionally, remains a challenge. Most Michigan transit systems rely on the property tax for funding, but so do many other entities, making it an overused revenue source. Car owners living far from urban centers may resent being asked to pay for a service they seldom or never use. But services like public transportation extend beyond local political boundaries and seamless service is only feasible if funded regionally. Transit riders are the direct beneficiaries of the service, but others also reap the benefits, through expanded regional and cross-county services, better connection to jobs and retail, and decreased road congestion and wear,

A better option might be to consider local income or sales taxes, a model that is followed elsewhere in the country. Policymakers should also consider “feathering” transit taxes, imposing a lesser burden farther from an urban core.

The future of “mobility” assumes an integral role for transit in partnership with private-sector options. Transit will move people long distances with ridesharing, bicycles, scooters, and autonomous vehicles helping with the first and last miles. Policymakers should consider this rapidly changing landscape in their consideration of the issue.

“The mobility options of the future are meant to integrate with public transportation,” continued Lupher. “A system that allows riders to seamlessly get to their destinations using ridesharing, bike or scooter sharing, autonomous vehicles, and public transit with a single payment will create more choice riders and transform transit from a system for the poor to a vital public utility.”

The full report may be downloaded here.

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