The Great Western Train Race

SALT LAKE CITY —  In the 1990s, before one of the most successful and popular regional rapid transit systems in the United States was built at the foot of the Wasatch Front, the very same criticism of light rail and commuter rail now occurring in Detroit, and to some extent in Grand Rapids, was also heard here. It’s too expensive. Nobody will ride it. The region is too spread out. It makes no sense. Build highways not rail. 

All this week I’ve ridden Salt Lake City’s 19-mile Trax light rail system, which opened in 1999, and now carries nearly 60,000 passengers a day. The system is fast, safe, convenient, and cheap. It cost $4 a day to ride anywhere, anytime. I didn’t need to rent a car. The light rail conductors care so much about their line that they pasted Valentine’s Day messages to riders on the windows.

Last year, ridership increased 23 percent, more than any regional rapid transit system in the country. People like rail so much that last November voters in Salt Lake County and neighboring Utah County approved a tiny sales tax increase (2.5 cents on a $10 purchase) to speed up construction on an extension, three brand new lines, and to double the length of a new commuter rail line that is set to open later this year. Suburban communities that were the most virulently anti-rail in the 1990s are clamoring to be the first to open new stations. 

saltlakeplatform.jpgAs an icon of efficiency, usefulness, environmental-sensitivity, and metropolitan prosperity, regional rapid transit is hard to beat. That’s especially true when contrasting Michigan’s largest and sagging metropolitan region with the modern, fast-growing, clean and green cities of the West. A great train race has broken out across the Rocky Mountain region and the Pacific Coast, with cities challenging each other to build the best transit systems and to find new ways to raise money to do so, including taxing citizens and leveraging federal dollars.

Denver is building a 172-mile light rail, commuter rail, and rapid bus transit system. Portland last month opened a $57 million tram to add to its world-class system of light rail and street cars. Seattle is close to  completing a light rail system and is already planning expansions and a street car. Phoenix is building its first line, and San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento, and Los Angeles have systems in place and are in various stages of planning expansions. 

While regional rapid transit systems do not, by themselves, ensure that regions can compete in the global economy, they are essential equipment for attracting the bright minds and active people who make regions prosper. In interviews here with young entrepreneurs, every one of them said that the Salt Lake region’s commitment to rail transit was a big factor in why they either built their companies here or relocated. 

Just before the Super Bowl, Dave Barry, the Miami Herald columnist, lampooned Miami’s light rail system for its expense and low ridership. “It does not go to many other places that many Miami residents would like to go, which is why most of them do not use it,” Barry wrote. “To them, the Metrorail train is a mysterious object that occasionally whizzes past over their heads, unrelated to their lives, kind of like a comet.”

Miami’s transit problem results principally from poor planning and support. I hear the officials critical of rapid transit in Detroit cite Miami as an example of a system that is not working as anticipated. I remind them that people are pedestrians before and after they ride light rail. So to make systems work well zoning that encourages mixed use developments that connect people is just as important as economic investments that yield walkable destinations. It’s all in the linkages and connections. 

The West’s cities understood that, and none more so than Salt Lake City. The light rail system, coupled with the 2002 Olympics held here, have given this region of nearly 2 million people a new view of itself as a global competitior. Incomes are rising. New companies are piling in here, particularly those in the recreational sports industry. Salt Lake City has a federal wilderness region at its doorstep, the only major metropolitan region in the country like that. And the city’s government has been led for nearly eight years by Rocky Anderson, a Democrat who has organized much of Salt Lake’s economic development strategy around the need to be more environmentally intelligent especially in reducing the production of global warming gases. Toyota hybrid Prius’s serve as municipal vehicles.

What is occurring here, the largest metropolitan region in the most conservative state in the country, is evidence of three things. First, rapid transit, environmental progress, and economic prosperity are tied together in ways that were foreseen long ago by visionaries, but are just coming to be fully realized in the dynamic cities of the American West. Second, these issues have transcended partisanship. And third, Michigan’s largest metropolitan region, and by extension the state, is far behind and losing ground in global competitiveness every day. Detroit has an opportunity to launch a commuter rail line to Ann Arbor that by itself won’t resolve the region’s massive economic migraine, but will go a long way to showing itself and the world that southeast Michigan is a place that matters. 


Charting A Future For Michigan Through Maine

If you read the growing number of economic development proposals about how to solve what we in Michigan call the “one state recession,” it’s readily plain that they all say pretty much the same thing. Promote the idea that educational attainment is a priority, and make it possible for more students to attend and graduate from college. Improve Michigan’s cities so that they are magnets for talented entrepreneurial young people. Develop strategies that leverage Michigan’s treasure trove of natural resources in new ways. For instance, a state surrounded by more clean fresh water than any place on earth should be the planet’s leader in developing new companies and technology to promote its sustainable use. Michigan, in other words, has to figure out what it wants to be.

That, friends, is a new idea. And as anyone who’s paid attention to the 35-year decline of the American auto industry knows, new ideas aren’t a virtue in Michigan. The hierarchical way of doing business, learned in the auto industry and which worked so well in Michigan for much of the 20th century, is not only obsolete it’s completely unfit for the innovative, collaborative, accelerated, and competitive 21st.

Now, we aren’t the only old economy state challenged by its own outmoded rules of the game. Another is Maine, where fishing and woolen mills and paper factories are all going the same way as the American auto assembly line. But Maine, which has just over 1 million residents, one-tenth as many as Michigan, is on the verge of figuring out what to do about it. 

Last October, GrowSmart Maine, the state’s non–profit smart growth organization based in Yarmouth, held a conference that attracted 800 participants, all of whom gathered to hear what the Brookings Institution recommended for building the state’s new economy and ensuring the quality of life. Brookings spent a year studying Maine and its final report, “Charting Maine’s Future,” is a great piece of economic and cultural analysis and can be secured on the GrowSmart Maine Web site.

The report’s most important contribution was not in identifying what was wrong with Maine, but in focusing on what was right, especially Maine’s fabled high quality of life based on its maritime and North Woods culture, and all of its innovative people, many of them educated in New England’s elite colleges and universities. What was missing, said Mark Muro, the report’s principal author and a policy specialist at Brookings’s Metropolitan Policy Program, was discipline. The courage to decide to act. 

The Brookings researchers, financially supported by a ton of money raised by GrowSmart Maine, suggested three steps to prosperity. The first two would establish a $190 million fund to revitalize cities, protect forests and farms, and make it easier for people to hunt and fish, and a $200 million fund to promote innovation and entrepreneurism.

Now right here is where Maine can help Michigan. Brookings suggested paying for the two investment funds by eliminating waste, duplication, and inefficiencies in state and local government. “A top-to-bottom overhaul of bureaucracies would not only improve service and finance needed  investments, but could also make a down payment on tax reform,” said the report.croppedalan1.jpg

As Alan Caron, GrowSmart Maine’s founder and executive director (in pix left), told me earlier this month, Brookings helped his organization fashion the perfect message of the moment. Conservatives like the limited government piece, while liberals hanker for the government activism portion. Maine knows its paramount challenge is defining its place in the global economy. The state now has a message — the money saved here can be invested there — that makes such sense that the political community, including both parties and every level of government, from the town halls to the Legislature to the governor’s office, is  essentially on the same page. Bills to enact the full scope of the Brookings recommendations have been introduced. Serious debate is under way. Alan told me he expects many to be approved. A poll of 500 registered voters that GrowSmart Maine released on February 1, 2007, showed that 91 percent of those polled agreed that the  Legislature should “streamline government al all levels to free up resources for investment in the new economy and lowering taxes.”

Governor Jennifer Granholm. Legislative leaders. Michigan mayors, business executives, non-profit administrators, and citizens. Maine has pointed the way to achieving a new economic strategy in our great state.

Flip: GE’s Interactive Project to Explore Quality of Place

Flip is Mode Shift’s new feature exploring the breakthrough examples of how interactive and social media connect with commerce, land use, resource conservation, and place. Take a look at General Electric’s Geoterra Ecoimagination site, which deploys interactive motion graphics and audio to explore virtual geography. True, this is an exceptional device for marketing the company’s products. But it’s also a very strong move to prove G.E.’s  sustainable bona fides, a trend noted in last spring’s Vanity Fair green issue.

Developing high-end graphics, and inviting participation and feedback, is a keen way to explore the space  where green business and smart growth values merge. Improving the economy and quality of life. Interactive media and smart growth. Cool stuff.

Net Root Attack: Another View

How important is the Internet? We learned the answer in the old farmhouse at the top of the hill in Benzonia, where the Michigan Land Use Institute was founded. There were eight of us with the organization then, doing our research and writing at old desks topped by new computers and monitors, all woven together on an internal server that also provided access to the Internet.

It was 1998 and we thought we were pretty hip. After all, for a small non-profit we’d done well. Six months before, the Institute launched the first version of its Web site. One sweaty July afternoon, though, the site went down, and with it our internal server and email. I”ll never forget the next thing that happened. One by one closed office doors opened. privatedisplay.jpgYoung staffers, eyebrows raised, joined the middle age people in the building’s central hall. No question. Work came to a standstill and wouldn’t resume until service was restored. We looked at each other, shrugged, and creeped back to our desks to see if we were back online. We weren’t, so we took the afternoon off and rolled down the hill to the beach at Crystal Lake.

I was reminded of that afternoon when NPR and other news desks took note this week of the hacker attack on several of the important server installations that keep the World Wide Web operating. The frame for the national newsies was “what if.” The frame for techies in the blogosphere was either “we told you so,” or a surprisingly flip and almost cynical “who cares.” 

“It didn’t really do anything,” said Gizmodo, one of the most popular blogs covering technology, “at least not anything that normal users noticed.”

Today I had a conversation with an old friend who edits in New York . She asked me what I thought the attack meant, and where “it all,” i.e. the Internet, was going. I’m no soothsayer, but let’s consider a few views about the Internet that are unassailable at this point. For one, if television went down for a week, does it really make much of a difference in the course of our lives over those seven days? Perhaps for advertisers, jocks, actors, newscasters, and the few million of us who can’t live without the tube. Hardly a moment to panic. Same for radio or newspapers. If they disappeared for a week, what would it really matter?  

But if the Internet went down for a week, there would be a global economic crisis. Companies would collapse. Entire economic sectors would retreat. Business and industry would come to a standstill at the precise moment that the servers failed. The Internet is so tightly meshed into human commerce that it is impossible to exist without it. What’s more, the evolution of the Internet as the dominant invention of its age started in 1994, just 13 years ago, when AOL provided the first dial-up service.

I like to compare these first years of the  Internet to the early decades of the auto industry. At one time, around 1917, 23 automobile companies in Detroit, many of them located along Woodward Avenue, assembled more than 1 million vehicles a year. Building cars in Detroit changed the world. It prompted new wealth, union organizing, and land and resource-hungry development patterns. Cars also produced a culture of ease, convenience, and physical lassitude based on cheap oil, cheap land, and massive spending on roads and highways. 

The auto age is ending. The Internet is close to surpassing the auto economy and culture, if it hasn’t already done so. The digital backbone of the Web supports a global economic, cultural, communications, trade, entertainment, and governing infrastructure that has never been more interconnected, and can’t be replaced.

No More $125 An Acre Stuff

bill-bobier.jpgBill Bobier, who’s a progressive Republican from Oceana County on Michigan’s west side, once represented four Lake Michigan counties in the state Legislature. At the time, in the mid-1990s, he was one of the rare good guys in a Legislature swinging so hard right that even Michigan Republicans didn’t recognize their own kind. What made Bobier especially distinctive was his farm, where he and his wife raised vegetables and beef. I once spent the day out there watching Bill fix his fences. We then sat for a few hours in his farm country kitchen talking about the agriculture economy. I remember him explain that every time the Michigan Department of Agriculture and the Department of Environmental Quality issued a new regulation to manage big growers, the first folks hurt were the small guys.

Bill brought the same message to the Seeds of Prosperity conference today. Oceana County has emerged as one of the centers of agricultural innovation in the Midwest. Apple growers over there, for instance, developed the quick fresh-freeze and packaging process that became McDonald’s popular Apple Dippers. The county’s asparagus growers figured out how to market their fresh frozen products to Wal-Mart and other food retailers. 

Since leaving the Legislature, Bill spends most of his professional time in Lansing, where he has an office across the street from the Capitol, and lobbies on farmland conservation and agriculture. The small farm, one of Michigan’s important employers, is as critical to the state’s economy as any small manufacturer, he argues. Maybe more so at this point as Michigan sheds manufacturing jobs by the tens of thousands a year. Still, the Department of Labor and Economic Growth, the business recruitment agency, keeps falling over itself to recruit small manufacturers. DLEG does very little to promote agriculture or small growers.

It’s another example of 20th century thinking that needs updating. In fact, there are few small manufacturers moving to Michigan or getting started here. There are many more small farmers, though, getting into business, especially in the Consumer Supported Agriculture sector which has grown up around the state’s big cities. 

Everybody eats, Bobier argues. There ought to be a way for the state to leverage the abundance of fresh food produced by small growers to build the regional processing, marketing, and distribution systems that make it possible for residents to eat fresh food, for farmers to gain prices worthy of their labor and skill, and for a much larger farm sector to employ thousands of people who earn living wages. We did it with widgets, said Bobier, and we ought do it with home-grown products that people really need. Fresh fruits, vegetables, dairy products, and meat.