As Detroit’s revitalization generates entrepreneurship and attracts new residents, it will need to boost its public transit system, says a UWindsor Masters graduand who observed and surveyed the burgeoning system.
Sarah Cipkar, who also completed an honours degree in political science at UWindsor, was interested in finding whether citizens who use public transit in the city are getting a chance to speak up and voice their opinions in designing an equitable system for all riders.
“There’s a case to be made that in order to have a truly equitable and fair transit system, you must have high levels of citizen involvement, “she says.
“There are a lot of changes happening in public transit in Detroit right now and I wanted to investigate how the city is handling citizen input.”
Cipkar crossed the border to sit in on Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) meetings. The committee is part of the larger Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan (RTA), the body responsible for mass transit operations in metropolitan Detroit, including the counties of Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw and Wayne Counties.
The CAC is just beginning its second year and Cipkar says she wanted to get a sense of whether the volunteers who make up the committee felt they were making substantial contributions.
“I found they are a passionate and engaged group of people but their influence is limited because of their structure within the RTA,” says Cipkar.
She says these limitations could prevent citizen transit advocates from feeling truly empowered as robust stakeholders within the public transit policy process. Another concern for Cipkar is that CAC members, though well-intentioned, are not true representatives of the full ridership community.
“The CAC members are passionate about building a safe and accessible transit system, especially for seniors and those with disabilities,” says Cipkar.
“But they didn’t talk a lot about low-income neighbourhoods and ensuring there are fair connections there.”
Cipkar says that because the majority of people who take transit are economically disadvantaged, evaluating fair and equitable transit cannot ignore Detroit’s racial and economic divide.
“I did find, that out of the survey respondents, 90 per cent had post graduate degrees and 80 per cent identified as white,” says Cipkar.
“You end up with a highly educated white group getting the strongest voice. This leaves a marginalized group of people, the ones who need and use transit daily, largely getting left out of the discussion.”
Cipkar’s findings are part of her thesis, Moving Towards Equity? Citizen Participation in Public Transit Planning in the Detroit Metropolitan Region, which she completed under the supervision of political science professor Jamey Essex. She successfully defended her Master’s thesis in May, 2015 and plans to present her findings to the CAC.
“I’m hoping my research will inspire the CAC to continually seek out some of those marginalized voices,” says Cipkar.
“I think they are a great group of people and I hope they take my recommendations to become more inclusive, as well as bolder when advocating for equitable transit policy.”