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Detroit River-Western Lake Erie Basin Indicator Project

INDICATOR: Transportation Trends in Southeast Michigan

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I-75 Freeway with traffic into Detroit - photo taken from the bridge on Ferry Street in Detroit, Michigan (Photo Credit: Southeast Michigan Council of Governments)


In the 1950s, people began moving away from the City of Detroit with the ease of owning an automobile. This pattern of people moving from the city to the surrounding suburbs created longer commutes to work. So many people driving to work every morning creates an environmental stressor with additional road construction, air pollution, and the overuse of natural resources, such as petroleum. Before the 1950s many people in Detroit walked or rode the bus to work. In 2004 the southeast Michigan transportation system had a total of:

Status and Trends

In general, travel time to work and distance to work have increased, and personal vehicle use over mass transit has increased for southeast Michigan. The growing population trends and distribution to the suburbs of southeast Michigan should be taken into account when viewing these travel transportation data (Table 1). When public transit is not available commuters use personal vehicles. As the suburban population increases, commuting time will also increase. From 1980 to 2000, residents of southeast Michigan continued to make longer commutes to get to their work place and the mileage continued to increase. Not only is it taking more time to drive to the work place, residents are more often driving alone. In 1980, approximately 1.7 million people drove to work alone. Ten years later, over 1.9 million people drove to work alone (U.S. Census Bureau). This means that in ten years approximately two hundred thousand more people were driving alone to work in southeast Michigan, increasing air pollution and traffic congestion.

The number of people driving personal vehicles (i.e., cars, trucks, and vans) to work has nearly doubled between 1960 and 2000. In contrast, the use of mass transit has greatly decreased. This trend is likely due to economics and limited availability and reliability of a mass transit system. In the greater Detroit area there is no widespread, easy-to-use, reliable, mass transit system as in other cities like Boston or Chicago.
Southeastern Michigan transportation data from the U.S. Census Bureau







People driving personal vehicles to work






People using mass transit to work






Minutes traveling time to work (mean)






Management Next Steps

Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (2004) forecasts that by 2030 there will be a 12% increase in population, 21% increase in households, and 16% increase in jobs. Roads and bridges throughout southeast Michigan are going to continue to age and deteriorate. In response, the region needs to continue improving its regional transit system, emphasize the use of greenways, and increase carpooling (e.g., using the RideShare program organized by SEMCOG) to and from work anywhere in the region. Sharing a ride:

Forecasting models, such as the regional Travel Demand Forecasting Model (TDFM), implemented by the SEMCOG, quantifies the amount of travel expected to take place on the region's transportation system. Such models should be used by agencies and corporations to improve planning and management of our future transportation needs.

Greater emphasis needs to be placed on providing an effective mass transit system that is reliable, safe, accessible, and cost-effective. More people need to be encouraged to take public transit, or walk or bike to work. Mass transit systems should be increased, especially between cities such as Ann Arbor and Detroit, and other lines coming into Detroit from the north and south. Improved mass transit will:

Distinct transportation policies and initiatives designed to guide further progress toward stated goals and objectives, and ultimately enhancing our regional transportation system, are set out in the 2030 Regional Transport Plan (RTP) for southeast Michigan (SEMCOG 2004). The policies, initiatives, and projects outlined in the 2030 RTP comprise an aggressive, long-range vision for the region. A regional traffic operations committee should be established to oversee all activities designed to increase efficiency of the road network. No single agency can be responsible for implementing this vision, it requires coordination among many agencies, government units, special interest groups, and the general public (SEMCOG 2004). SEMCOG is responsible for bringing these parties together and making sure the RTP is implemented. The public should be kept informed with the progress of the RTP and it should be reviewed and updated in response to changing priorities.

Research/Monitoring Needs

Studies should be conducted on the environmental effects of southeast Michigan travel trends, such as:

SEMCOG should continue and expand research on home-to-work commutes in southeast Michigan. Current data should be used to improve models, such as the TDFM, to make them more efficient in predicting estimated passengers on new routes, riders on new rapid transit lines, or responses to certain travel demand management policies, such as imposing higher parking fees. There should be additional research on the environmental effects of different modes of transportation.

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Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG). 2004. 2030 Regional Transportation Plan for Southeast Michigan (May 2006). exit EPA

Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG). 2005a. Personal Communications with SEMCOG Transportation Coordinator, Jennifer Evans.

Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG). 2005. Conserve energy . . . RideShare. SEMscope pp. 11.

Links for more information

Southeast Michigan Council of Governments exit EPA

    A Summary of the 2030 Regional Transportation Plan for Southeast Michigan (PDF) exit EPA

    SEMSCOPE, One Day in Southeast Michigan (PDF) exit EPA

    A Citizens' Guide to Transportation Planning in Southeast Michigan (PDF) exit EPA

    SEMCOG, RideShare Program exit EPA

Michigan Land Use Institute: Planes and Trains, Part II exit EPA

Detroit Regional Chamber, Transportation Central exit EPA

Michigan Department of Transportation

Contact Information regarding Transportation Trends in Southeast Michigan

Jennifer Evans
Transportation Coordinator, SEMCOG
E-mail: evans@semcog.org

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