My Reflection on #MIOdyssey13 :: Fanfare vs. Function

In 2012, Trans4Mers set out to traverse Michigan without a car. In 2013, we did it again–but it was far from a rehash of our previous experience. Having logged more Odyssey miles than anyone (I consider this a pretty good bragging right), I’ve spent some time reflecting on the differences between the two Odysseys.

If 2012 was about fanfare, 2013 was about function. And while each was valuable, moving forward I’d like to see the Odyssey take cues from both.

We did three major things differently this year:

  • Completed the Odyssey in two days instead of three;
  • Reversed the route, starting in Traverse City and ending in Detroit; and
  • Traveled with passengers using wheelchairs.

There were a few other new elements, like the Trans4Mer awards and the use of non-motorized transit, but these three decisions seemed to impact the journey the most. My thoughts and verdicts on the changes:

Two-day time crunch

Going from a three-day event to a two-day event was based on a few factors. It allowed more coalition members to participate, since few of us are full-time transportation advocates and must balance our Trans4M work with our other responsibilities. But more importantly, we were responding to a valid critique of the 2012 Odyssey: the trip doesn’t actually take three days. If we’re purporting to spotlight and critique Michigan’s transportation network, it’s not entirely accurate to spend three days getting from A to B.

However, we learned that it was harder to generate enthusiasm and participation along the way when we didn’t have significant time to spend in each city. For example, in 2013 we had a panel discussion in Grand Rapids. This year, we barely had time to race by an under-construction BRT stop and grab dinner before racing off to Kalamazoo. It also affected our ability to create engaging content for virtual participants: in 2012, we had time to think and blog–this year, we had time for neither. While I appreciate the need to honestly assess the system, I think the real value of the Odyssey lies in the engagement factor.

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Travelers missed The Ride bus connection in Ann Arbor after the Amtrak train ran late. Because they missed the bus, they had to walk over a mile to get to their next event.

Verdict: Understandable but undesirable. Let’s go back to three-days.

Traverse City–>Detroit

Last year, by the time the Odyssey reached Traverse City it was down to two travelers and their lonesome tweets. Frankly, the media had already caught on so while it was less fun for those two participants it didn’t really impact the overall success of the event. Still, in an effort to not be Detroit-centric, we decided to start up north and spend some significant time exploring the transportation in Traverse City.

I can’t really overstate how much I enjoyed this change on a personal level. Instead of spending the first day of the Odyssey studying the inefficiencies of metro Detroit’s bus systems, we started off with a scenic bike ride on a crisp fall morning. In other words, it was kind of like a vacation. However, they tell me I’m not supposed to judge based on my personal enjoyment.

I did see one distinct outcome that I believe might have resulted from this change: Less media coverage. When we started in Detroit, our first experiences were easy for people and reporters to latch on to–the transportation network in Detroit is always a news and discussion topic, and there’s no shortage of passion to awaken with a simple experiment like “hm, how can we get from the airport to downtown?” It was a bit harder to generate the initial ‘launch’ buzz when our first experience was more like “wow, this is beautiful and functional, if you’re stuck in an office right now you should be jealous.”

Day1Compare

That said, this change is also the one that allowed us to shrink the timeline to two days. In 2012, we spent the entire first day getting from the airport to Detroit and back out to Birmingham. Ending in Detroit allowed us to keep the airport to city leg, something we’d have had to sacrifice to keep our timeline had we started in southeast Michigan.

Verdict: Launch location is less important than a narrative people can identify with.

Incorporating Accessibility

This was hands down the best and most important change that we made. When we talk about transportation, accessibility should always be part of the conversation. Public transit is the perfect example of a service that should work for everyone, including and especially those who have specialized physical needs. In retrospect, completing the Odyssey without wheelchair-using passengers is severely lacking in its insight.

FavePicCompare

That’s what we learned this year when a few of our legs were delayed due to unprepared service providers who had to adapt their plans to accommodate our group. If there’s no room for me on a bus and I absolutely need to get somewhere, I can mosey over to the rental counter and hop in a car, even if it’s not my first choice. A person who doesn’t uses a wheelchair doesn’t have that option.

It’s tempting and easy to hype the trendier benefits of public transportation: It’s good for the planet. It’s good for economic development. The Millennials are doing it!  And those are all valid points. But it’s important to keep as a central focus the idea that mobility is about equity and providing opportunities for people. Transit and access are necessarily linked, and that doesn’t just mean for those of us who move around without having to think about it much.

Verdict: A++. Transit is for everyone.

Final Thoughts

The Odyssey is a funny thing to experience. It would be a lie to say the entire thing is fun. After all, we’re spending days in transit for the sake of being in transit—and trying to tweet the whole thing. On the other hand, it’s fascinating to be so aware of the system as you use it, and to be expected to share those thoughts. While we’re always perfecting our plan, it’s less about us and more about the information we’re highlighting.

My recommendation for the 2014 Odyssey is to combine the best of both worlds: demonstrate and insist on function while energizing Michigan residents about the possibilities for moving our state forward. I look at the Odyssey as both a celebration and an evaluation. While the jury’s still out on Michigan’s transportation future, the amazing progress across the state paints an inspiring picture – as demonstrated by all six recipients of the new Trans4Mer Awards.

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Kalamazoo County Parks Development receiving the Trans4Mer Award for their work on the Kalamazoo non-motorized trail network.

I can see how it’s hard to get excited about some concrete posts that will become BRT stops, or even our excitement over working electrical outlets and access to Wi-Fi on Indian Trails (which will also be coming to Amtrak in January 2014!). But my hope is that in a few years, the Odyssey will take rapid transit down Woodward, a train to northern Michigan, or a trail route that connects the entire state. The differences and improvements we see may seem small year-to-year, but they’re adding up so something big for Michigan. I’m pretty excited to be along for the ride.

Written by Hayley Roberts, Michigan Suburbs Alliance (Core Member)

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