Today is the last day of our semester at Wayne Law, so it’s now official – I commuted to Detroit from Ann Arbor for the entire semester without driving a car. No small feat, as we haven’t had a reliable transit system connecting Ann Arbor to Detroit since 1983. That was part of my motivation – I wanted see first-hand what the obstacles are to putting in place a modern, efficient, reliable regional transit system for the Detroit metro area. I also wanted to save money, reduce the stress of driving, use the time for work (including legal actions to advance transit), and burn less oil and cause less pollution. Taking the train accomplished all this and more.
To make it work, I usually walked from my house to the Ann Arbor Amtrak station (just ten minutes, and often the wife and kids would come with me and see me off) and took the one hour Amtrak ride to the Detroit Amtrak station, which is just a few blocks from the Wayne State campus and the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center office in TechTown. Because the Amtrak is not operated as a commuter train (the Ann Arbor-Detroit segment is basically the end of the Chicago-Detroit route), the schedule is terrible for someone who works a day job. So I usually spent the night in Detroit to be at work by 8 am. The return schedule is much better, and some good friends would often meet me for a drink at Casey’s Tavern in Ann Arbor across from the train station (a perfect way to end the day).
Over the semester, I saved at least $1,000 by not having to pay for a car, insurance, gas, and parking (the Amtrak ride is about ten bucks, which is what I would spend on gas alone when it was at $4 a gallon). I could plug in my laptop and get more work done without taking time away from my family. There’s often good conversation with other commuters, especially Lyke Thompson, Director of Wayne State’s Center for Urban Studies, who regularly rides the train back to Ann Arbor and is an incredible source of information on a range of urban environmental issues.
The train ride itself is worth the trip, as you get a great view of the landscape from Ann Arbor to midtown Detroit. Near Ann Arbor, the tracks follow the Huron River and its many parks with beautiful scenery. After passing through downtown Ypsilanti (with no stop), the landscape changes as the tracks cut through Dearborn and west Detroit. It’s not pretty. You see abandoned junk, abandoned cars, abandoned factories, abandoned homes, abandoned land. It’s an overwhelming visual reminder of the cost of our disposable consumer culture. But in some ways I love it, and both the scenic Huron River and abandoned buildings of Detroit inspire and motivate my environmental work in different ways.
With a little political leadership and regional vision, we could soon have a real Ann Arbor-Detroit commuter train. SEMCOG (metro Detroit’s regional transportation authority) is moving forward with the Ann Arbor-Detroit Regional Rail Project. I’ve been told that the new trains will be running by fall 2010, as the project has been studied and planned for several years now. It’s about time. Along with bringing high speed rail to the Midwest and light rail to Detroit, an Ann Arbor-Detroit commuter train would be a huge step forward for the whole region.
I love the train, but my favorite way to travel is by bicycle - my bike commute route from Ann Arbor to Detroit uses historic Hines Drive and is a great way to see the city and suburbs.