Map: Urban Agriculture in Detroit 2014

DETROITography

detroit_urban_ag

I created this map to be included with an article, titled “Urban Agriculture: It’s not a Food Desert, it’s about Food Sovereignty,” that I contributed to the Progressive Planners Network publication.

Without running any statistics, there are some obvious overlaps in where people are and the locations of gardens and farms. In particular, there is a higher density of people (and incomes) on the Westside and similarly a higher density of gardens.

The data is based on information shared by Keep Growing Detroit and the US Census Bureau.

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Map: Rating Accessibility of Detroit’s Pedestrian Bridges

DETROITography

pedbridges6

I had the pleasure of working with the 71X research team to visualize the data that they had collected on Detroit’s pedestrian (only) bridges. The student research team surveyed all 71 pedestrian bridges in Detroit.

From the 71X Team:

This is an independent study—an awareness-builder, too—introducing one side of a three-pronged problem in the City of Detroit. The intersection of accessibility, public health and safety. The team is comprised of Urban Studies’ students and community organizers working toward a more accessible Motor City. We study infrequent public transit and below standard “non-motorized” infrastructure with a commitment, again, to a prosperous Metro Area. From our vantage, Detroit is a big, three hundred and fifteen year old city severed into over a hundred neighborhoods. What is easily noticeable is its one-of-a-kind, sunken expressway network. It snakes through town, and detaches the city from itself. Interstates 75, 94, 96, and State Highways…

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giving data empathy

Originally posted on DETROITography.com

I am constantly thinking about how to make maps and data more focused on people, their stories, and the impacts that those numbers represent. It is a constant battle working with data and numbers every day and one that is most often overlooked by organizations that are focused on utilizing big data and attempting to turn a city around. Earlier this year I spoke to a group of public administration and policy students on Data and Detroit: The Need for People Centered Innovation. This is the content of a recent talk that I gave at the launch of Open Data Windsor-Essex.

Detroit has recently become overwhelmed with people interested in its problems and the data that accompanies those problems: $18 billion in debt; 380,032 blighted properties; 70,500 foreclosures; 8,000 occupied homes headed to the property auction, evictions imminent.

big big big

Big numbers, big data, and big problems.

There is a growing set of psychological research that demonstrates how big data is dehumanizing: companies hide behind algorithms, numbers associated with mass atrocities don’t spur action, and we have become detached from the people who represent those numbers.

Open data is a critical movement that is a must-have for anyone who hopes to impact people’s lives with data, the next step of that movement is to join data with empathy for people-centered innovation.

“open civic data isn’t just nice to have, it is a must have.”

  • Beth Niblock, City of Detroit CIO (Techonomy Detroit 2015)

Detroit’s bankruptcy, warranted or not, threw Detroit’s data in full view of the national media. Where did the bulk of the deficit come from? Where were the biggest cuts going to happen? How many retirees would lose their pensions? How many people don’t pay their taxes? How many overdue bills does Detroit have?

Once the media jumped on the Detroit bankruptcy wagon, the related problems began cascading through the headlines. At the fore was Detroit’s “Hurricane without Water” – a man made crisis of epic proportions, the Wayne County Property Auction. Year after year the county auctions homes the majority of which fail to be paid for and thus return to the auction in following years. It actually cost the county more money to run the auction than the revenue that it generates. That all goes without mentioning the thousands of Detroit residents who face potential eviction from their homes as a result of subprime lending, improper management, worthless landlords, or compounding issues from Detroit’s history of mismanagement.

It is fairly easy to find data about Detroit and create seemingly beautiful visualizations of its problems, but the data in and of itself doesn’t tell a story and doesn’t give full context as to how these big problems impact people.

data ≠ solution

Screen Shot 2015-10-08 at 10.27.45 AM

Some have tried to say that Detroit has been operating from an information deficit, however I would argue that the main problem was that no one was utilizing or analyzing the data that existed, which in many cases meant that the data wasn’t even being collected. Those hoping to create the solutions weren’t using all of the available tools.

Simply beginning to collect that data and share it on an open platform is an important step, but is not a solution in and of itself. Open data is a baby step among many as we move towards more accountability in government, non-profits, and other sectors.

Detroit’s water crisis is a perfect example of the downfall of data. The city knew that it had 150,000 outstanding water bills that totaled over $118 million. The city quickly developed a plan, hired a contractor, and began shutting off people’s water for non-payment. The first round of shutoffs started without any notice or communication. Some people who had even kept up their water bills faced shutoffs because the contractors were just shutting off entire streets.

After national and international backlash the city attempted to better communicate the problem, but again largely failed as water affordability was still non-existent. Overall, 25,000 people signed up for water payment plans, but due to the continued unaffordability only about 300 remained active.

In a city where there is 20% unemployment, 40% living below the poverty line, and a 50% jobless rate – I’d really like to know what the City of Detroit thought was going to happen. Punitive measures against the poor represent the greatest failure of a city and the misuse of readily available data. If you can fund contractors to shut off water, then you can fund canvassers to go door-to-door with information about assistance programs, etc.

What are the people’s needs (user needs)? An empathetic service would ground itself in the concrete needs of concrete people. Lauren Hood at Techonomy 2015 reminded the audience full of tech leaders, startup CEOs, and other innovators that they can’t hope to impact Detroit by talking about tech without the people who would most benefit from those innovations.

“There’s no one here that actually represents the people we are trying to impact.”

  • Lauren Hood, Director Live6 (Techonomy Detroit 2015)

We’ve come to think that the next app, data aggregator, or web map (line up the buzzwords: big data, information age, government-as-a-platform, transparency, crowdfunding, open data, civic tech) will change the world – but it is people who change the world with data, not vice versa. We must learn to prioritize people and their needs as we push open data. Data is often about fast responses and short timeframes for launch. Prioritizing people takes more effort and more time, but we must refocus or we will be lost among the tabular data.

numbers don’t motivate

Screen Shot 2015-10-08 at 10.27.55 AM

In 2007, I was engaged in efforts to raise awareness about the genocide in Darfur. It was easy to get people involved on college campuses for a while, but issue fatigue quickly took hold.

There were 3 million people displaced; 300,000 killed – This became a common theme in my undergraduate studies in international relations. I was regularly engaged with the work of international nonprofits and NGOs, many of which had mastered the art of fundraising based on a single tragic picture rather than big numbers. Constantly listing the 6 to 7 figure numbers associated with tragedy quickly wears down any personal or institutional resolve, but that doesn’t mean we ignore the numbers.

If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”

  • Mother Theresa

Big numbers don’t motivate action, they have the completely opposite effect. We become “numbed by numbers.” The recent New York Times piece on “How Syrians Are Dying” is a good example with one person representing one pixelated dot on the screen.

a single man killed is a misfortune, a million is a statistic.

  • Frenchman, not Stalin (qtd. by Charles J. Rolo, The Atlantic Bookshelf)

The big numbers that we have in Detroit continue to build and are constantly repeated, but not much has changed (i.e. foreclosure crisis). Thinking about the “big numbers numbing effect,” it is no wonder that we have gotten lost along the way especially as leadership pushes “revitalization” often without engaging or asking people what they need in their neighborhood.

giving data empathy

Screen Shot 2015-10-08 at 10.30.03 AM

Nothing is more important than giving data context. Spreadsheets are great for compiling, but not very helpful in understanding data or being persuaded by it. The majority of data that we see isn’t shared in raw form for that very reason. We often see data in dashboards, infographics, and other visuals.

“a picture is worth 1,000 data points”

Typical economic theory relies on the assumption that humans are inherently logical decision-makers, but the reality is that we are more strongly influenced by emotion resulting in reflexive responses. Thankfully this often helps us be empathetic and act against our self-interest in order to help others.

As much as compiling databases is the current norm, it is beyond critical that we find a way to show the faces behind the numbers. The following are some examples of storytelling (with or without data) that could be examples moving forward where data and stories can work together to give a more full picture of a problem.

Two-thirds of Detroit residents have access to a car, but that data from the Census doesn’t encompass the difficulties associated with car ownership, insurance, maintenance, regularity of use, etc. It is no mystery that transportation in Detroit is in need of significant improvement. This most often comes in to play when discussing access to jobs, which are concentrated in suburbs without public transit. The highest estimates put Detroit’s jobless rate at 50% with 40% of people living below the poverty line.

Roughly 300,000 people in Detroit could be jobless, yet the story of “the walking man” captured the attention of thousands of people. The walking man, James Robertson, lived in Detroit and worked at a suburban factory. He took the bus where it was available, but ended up with a 21 mile roundtrip walk to get to work. The power of his story raised $350,000 and a new $35,000 car.

He noted that the money should go to the transit department, feared for his safety, and ended up moving to a new home in the suburbs. It wasn’t the big numbers that motivated people to act, but one person’s story.

Screen-Shot-2015-02-03-at-4.28.18-PM-1050x789

Because Someone Lives Here

Tax foreclosure is an entire industry of big data, big numbers that often don’t reflect life stories.

This year the Wayne County Treasurer identified 61,912 properties in Detroit for foreclosure in 2015. Loveland Technologies found that 35,669 of these properties (63%). People live here. Simply looking at the data with the enormous number of foreclosures or the amount of taxes due to the city is not enough.

Motor City Mapping: Tax Foreclosure Survey

The partner groups working on the Motor City Mapping project worked together to talk to 71% of all of the 7,725 people who came to Cobo Center for the foreclosure “show cause” hearings. After completing their very data heavy parcel mapping and property categorization, they sought out data to humanize the tax foreclosure issue. They found that 83% of people were home owners and 88% of people wanted to be able to stay in their homes. By taking the time to answer questions, offer coffee and snack, or just be a listening ear – people were able to be placed at the center of a massive data effort. There need to be more of these types of mixed approaches and they need to be planned from the beginning.

The latest celebrity of urban theory, Richard Florida, who has plugged his controversial “creative class” as the savior of rustbelt urban cores has also noted that people must be the focus of our work in cities.

We can confer subsidies on places to improve their infrastructure, universities, and core institutions, or quality of life, but at the end of the day, people — not industries or even places — should be our biggest concern.

  • Richard Florida

If we aren’t using data to improve the lives of people then we are doing it all wrong.

conclusions

  • data is a critical tool for making change and impact
  • big numbers demonstrate size of problem, but not context or motivation
  • we must utilize a mixed methods approach with both numerical data and human stories

Map: Detroit’s Second Great Fire

DETROITography

mcm-fire

Detroit’s “Great Fire” of 1805 is solidified in the history books as a defining moment for the city. With only the brick chimneys remaining, Detroit residents dug in and rebuilt their city. Justice Woodward drew up his inspired hub-and-spoke street plans (1806) to bring Detroit on par with cities like Paris and Washington D.C. Following the “Great Fire” Detroit saw continued progress and became one of the most well-known cities in the world for its industry.

However, Detroit has had a more recent “Great Fire,” one that began in the 1970s and is most often seen on display during Devil’s Night. As Detroit’s population declined and crime increased, both dedicated residents and criminals took to setting abandoned homes on fire. A news segment from 1975 features an interview with two Detroit residents talking about how they decided to torch an abandoned house on their block because it…

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Map: Where Are All the People in Detroit – Occupancy and Foreclosure

DETROITography

det-occupied2There is a common media narrative that Detroit is empty, a blank slate, a blank canvas where anything can be done. However, this false narrative doesn’t account for the nearly 700,000 people who do live in the city. I pulled all of the “occupied, partially occupied, and possibly occupied” properties out of the Motor City Mapping (MCM) data and the above map is the result.

I found 203,723 occupied structures, which is an 81% structure occupancy rate and a total of 54% of properties with occupied structures. This doesn’t necessarily account for parks or large unused former industrial properties. The map however gives a far different picture than the common media narrative of an empty Detroit.

det-occupied-foreclosures2This year the Wayne County Treasurer identified 61,912 properties in Detroit for foreclosure in 2015. Loveland Technologies found that 35,669 of these properties (63%) are occupied according to the MCM survey data. More from…

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Map: Will the M1 Rail Streetcar Serve Detroit Residents?

DETROITography

m1rail_pop

The impact of the M1 Rail 3.3 mile-long streetcar has been an ongoing debate and a number of community organizations have voiced concerns that the M1 Rail does little to serve actual residents of Detroit. The M1 Rail project essentially says the same thing. M1 Rail is looking to serve the “choice rider” to facilitate getting around Downtown and Midtown’s attractions. The private funders joined forces after seeing the failure of public transportation during the Super Bowl in 2006. It is safe to say that the M1 Rail was not conceived of as a transportation option for residents, but rather for visitors.

“[…] the project will affect pedestrians, people in wheel chairs and bike riders. Ironically, the project will also impact bus riders, most of whom will have relatively little use for the trolley.“ (source)

The residential density along the M1 Rail is minimal at best compared to…

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Data, People, and Water: the need for people-centered innovation in Detroit

“Orr on Wednesday said more needs to be done to differentiate the legitimate residential accounts from those connected to blighted and abandoned properties, or occupied by squatters or used as drug houses — conduct that the city doesn’t want to facilitate.” – Detroit News

Following the most comprehensive survey of Detroit property to date, Motor City Mapping, the above quote from Emergency Manager Orr should be a moot point. It would take less than a few hours to check a list of delinquent water accounts against a list of “vacant” or “unoccupied” properties across the city. Mayor Mike Duggan and Detroit’s new Chief Information Officer (CIO) Beth Niblock seem to be on board with opening up the city’s data as well as utilizing more technology to better provide services to residents.

Here is my short list of data that should have been utilized to better serve Detroit residents as opposed to penalizing them or resorting to scare tactics.

1. Motor City Mapping: In the most comprehensive citywide parcel survey ever conducted, a host of Detroit data focused organizations have compiled an incredible set of data and they have released it openly to the public. As Detroit works to revolutionize its technologies how did it miss the boat in utilizing this recent, widely publicized data survey. Again, it would take less than a few hours to check a list of delinquent water accounts against a list of “vacant” or “unoccupied” properties.

2. Census Bureau Data: Detroit residents are over 30% unemployed and 40% living below the poverty line. Many residents of Detroit are individuals who have been unable to leave, but have made it through Detroit’s toughest times. Detroit is a man-made disaster zone that has evolved slowly over the course of six decades. The city and the problems that residents face lay bare the inadequacies of our current systems to serve all residents. Neither the city government nor the emergency manager can rely on punitive actions to do any good for current or future Detroit residents.

3. District Managers and Community Networks: The DWSD contracted out door-to-door residential water shutoffs to a profit driven corporation. Any community organization in the city will tell you that mailing notices to residents is not enough. Many community organizations utilize a network of contacts and pay street teams to spread the word about community programs. Would it have really been that hard to do some basic canvassing to get people set up with assistance instead of just shutting off water completely? Why weren’t the new District Managers utilized?

Emergency Manager Orr and Mayor Duggan truly need to take a lesson from Detroit Mayors past who instead of making harmful decisions chose to serve the needs of residents first. Mayor Pingree utilized vacant land to feed the hungry and launched new programs for the poor during the 1893 economic depression. Mayor Murphy supported 400 acres of gardens and turned old factories into housing for the homeless during the Great Depression.

At this time of Detroit “revitalization,” when will Detroit’s decision-makers demonstrate that keeping people (both wealthy and poor) in the city will be better for Detroit’s future. Instead of these harmful actions, the Detroit government needs to push for greater people-centered innovation to serve all residents.

Stop-and-Frisk Adds to History of Police Abuse in Detroit

1943riot_police_stop

Adopting a “Stop-and-Frisk” policy is not the answer for Detroit. Stop-and-Frisk is a policy where police stop an individual, question them, and then frisk them to see if they are carrying drugs or guns. Police departments in both London and New York City (NYC) have utilized Stop-and-Frisk policies in recent years and both have seen racially biased abuses as well as wasted effort on a majority of innocent residents (90% innocent from NYCLU report). Representatives from the Manhattan Institute, who are consulting the Detroit Police Department (DPD) note that Detroit has always been a Stop-and-Frisk jurisdiction. One could argue that Detroit has also always been a jurisdiction of police abuse.

From rebellion to riots and attempts to rein in crime in a declining city, every police policy has been marked by police brutality. The deep divide between Detroit residents and the police department can be traced back to the 1943 race riot. During the 1943 riots, police violently cracked down on black residents, killing thirteen. The rebellion of 1967 saw similar incidents of police brutality as the nearly all white police force violently attacked the black population. These two events deepened the mistrust between the DPD and the black population. As a result violent crime reportedly doubled between 1965 and 1970. With the auto industry in decline and violence increasing, thousands of white residents migrated to the suburbs in what is well known as “white flight.” In response to the increasing crime, the DPD founded S.T.R.E.S.S. (Stop the Robberies and Enjoy Safe Streets) in 1970 and over its two and a half year existence was known for its brutal tactics, was responsible for 22 killings, and hundreds of unwarranted arrests of Detroit’s black residents until it was suspended in 1972.

Between 1990 and 1998 the DPD was estimated to be responsible for killing at least 10 people a year. The highest rate of any police department in the US. Many of these police homicides were labeled “justifiable,” however a number of police officers were put in jail as a result of community activism and legal convictions for police officers with unfounded “justifiable” homicides. The DPD has a history of under-reporting homicides and other cities have been cited for categorizing more “justifiable homicides” in order to decrease their homicide rates and appear to be safer. In many cases the reporting police officer may deem a homicide “justifiable” simply based on their own prerogative. In 2011, justifiable homicide was up by 79% while 2012 marked the highest year for homicides since 2007.

Earlier this year, Mayor Bing announced that the Gang Squad (featured in National Geographic’s “Inside Detroit’s Gang Squad”), best known for killing a young girl during a raid, would be disbanded and the officers would be placed in the precinct offices to help increase the number of patrol officers on the street. Ron Scott, with the Detroit Coalition against Police Brutality, told NPR that the gang squad is so rough, 30% of police brutality complaints are about the squad. “They were thugs,” Scott said. “Nothing but thugs.”

In a joint press conference, the Michigan ACLU, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, the Arab-American Civil Rights League, and the National Action Network, condemned the Stop-and-Frisk plan citing the issues with the policy in New York. “We don’t want STRESS 2.0,” Dawud Walid, director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations told the Detroit News. Ron Scott, director of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, said that his organization has already received dozens of complaints about police improperly stopping residents (Detroit News). Stop-and-Frisk only perpetuates the pattern of police abuse against black residents seen since the 1940s and will do nothing to improve citywide or community crime prevention outcomes. Detroit needs an effective policing strategy that doesn’t needlessly profile or harass innocent residents.

Image source: Walter P. Reuther Library (28651) Riots, Sojourner Truth, Housing, Arrests, 1942

An Intelligent Transit Center for Detroit’s Future

I won’t claim to be an expert on Detroit transit history, but public transit is a major issue in Detroit that no one living in or visiting Detroit can ignore. I just took my wife and my best friend for the first time on the Detroit People Mover (DPM). We parked near Cobo to avoid a Tiger’s game and the accompanying traffic/ parking insanity, then we took the DPM to Broadway station to grab dinner at Small Plates. The whole ride I kept thinking about the critical link between the amount of parking available downtown and the lack of reliable public transit.

Want to increase public transit? Get rid of parking

Parking could be an entire rant of its own, but I want to focus on public transit. Detroit’s most well known piece of industrial “ruin porn” is Michigan Central Station (MCS), originally owned by the New York Central Railroad and built by the same architectural firm that constructed Grand Central Station in New York City. The building was supposed to exude elegance and grandeur, but was marked as an oddity due to the disconnect between the three-story train station against a backdrop of an eighteen-story nondescript office tower.

A Real Public Transit System

The trains arrived in Michigan Central terminal and a passenger could decide to catch a streetcar down Michigan Avenue to downtown or choose to take a horse-drawn carriage (later replaced by taxis). At its peak in 1914, nearly 200 trains left the station each day and in the early 1940s over 4,000 passengers rode the trains daily. Henry Ford even had his own private car that he took between New York and Detroit. During the following years of World War II, streetcars were mandated over buses in order to conserve gasoline and rubber. These were the glory days of public transit in Detroit, when you could catch a regular train to Chicago or New York and had the option to take a working network of streetcars throughout the city. Michigan Central Station was a working transit center for the city. In the 1950s, rail travel dropped off significantly with the rise of the auto industry and the construction of the highways. By 1956, all of the streetcars had been converted into Ford coach buses. In 1975, MCS was sold to the newly formed Amtrak, but they couldn’t maintain the costs associated with the massive building with so few passengers and again sold MCS in 1985. With less than a dozen trains a day, the last train left for Chicago from MCS in 1988. Now the building sits on the historic registry, but is unsalvageable and unfeasible as a transit center any longer.

Detroit’s public transit system has been plagued by issues for years. Transit received a boost in 2005 when the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DEGC) announced plans for the Rosa Parks Transit Center, which would run alongside the Michigan Avenue People Mover station. The magnificent tensile roof structure wasn’t awarded a contract until 2007 and was finally completed in 2009. Unfortunately, it seems that the only long term planning that occurred was to place it next to a People Mover station. The Rosa Parks Transit Center is located in an odd section of downtown that does not lend itself to integration with a larger citywide or regional transit system. Detroit’s downtown has an iconic hub-and-spoke street design making it fun to look at on a map, but difficult to maneuver for public transit. Likewise, Rosa Parks Transit Center was not constructed to act like other transit centers in large cities.

In other large cities, which Detroit is arguably no where near similar, transit centers are located roughly an average 2 miles away from the city’s main tourist attractions. New York City is allowed to be different because of its high density and small area.

CITY TRANSIT MODES ATTRACTION DISTANCE
Chicago Union Station Amtrak, Metra Rail, “L” Rail, City Bus, Bike Share Navy Pier 2.4 mi
Washington D.C. Union Station Amtrak, Metro Subway, City Bus, Bike Share White House 2.4 mi
New York City Grand Central Amtrak, Subway, City Bus, Bike Share Times Square 0.8 mi
Detroit Rosa Parks City Bus, People Mover Rail Comerica Park/ Grand Circus 0.7 mi
PAST
Detroit Michigan Central Amtrak, Streetcar Rail, City Bus Comerica Park/ Grand Circus 2.0 mi
FUTURE
Detroit New Center Amtrak, M1-Rail, City Bus, Bike Share Comerica Park/ Grand Circus 2.5 mi

A good example of the lack of long term planning is the filming of movies downtown (i.e. Transformers 4). The Rosa Parks Transit Center was shutdown during filming due to its proximity to downtown. This begs the question, do we really think nothing else will happen in downtown Detroit that might cause a disruption of transit service? My bet is “No” we hope there will be a myriad of events and happenings downtown that will bring in crowds of people on a regular basis. Then why was a transit center planned in the middle of downtown? There needs to be distance between attractions and transit centers to make public transit systems a viable  alternative. The other key factor for a transit center is that they are multi-modal: Amtrak + local rail + bus system + bike-share, etc. Thankfully, Megabus also uses the Rosa Parks Transit Center as a pickup and drop-off point.

A New Transit Center in New Center

This all leads me to my pitch for a new and intelligent transit center for Detroit. The New Center area marked by the Fisher Building is a perfect area to house an intelligent transit center. There is plenty of space for parking, an existing large workforce that needs to commute, and an Amtrak train station – not to mention it will also be situated along the new M1-Rail line, which also meets up with DDOT bus stops. After mashing up transit pathways for DDOT, SMART, DPM, and the new M1-Rail I came to the conclusion that expanding the existing Amtrak station across the tracks would make sense to bring together a multi-modal transit system for the city where you could catch a DDOT bus off the M1-Rail or take the M1-Rail downtown to the People Mover or return to Detroit using the Amtrak and choose how you want to get home.

DETtransit_map

As I was preparing to write all these ideas down, I came across this video from America2050, which proposed a high-speed rail connecting Chicago and Detroit (developing “megaregions“) and depicted a new fictional transit center located exactly where I had imagined it should be! A new transit center in New Center matches what other large cities have with a multi-modal center located roughly 2.5 miles away from a city’s main attraction. New Center is also a nice way point between the suburbs, offices in New Center, and attractions downtown allowing people to utilize it for multiple reasons.

Working public transit is critical for more than just tourists and businesses. Residents, young people, and especially the working poor rely on public transit to be able to get jobs and keep them. A working public transit system has the potential to increase employment which in turn helps decrease poverty and crime. In an odd way public transit makes urban revitalization benefit people across a city.

Update 10/10/13

I have recently learned that the parking lot where I am proposing a new transit center near New Center is currently managed/ owned by MDOT/ DDOT. This could not be a more perfect scenario. There is no need to obtain the land or convince a business to hand it over for a transit project, it is already owned by the transit authorities.