A Textual Analysis of the Southeast Michigan 2040 Regional Transportation Plan

Creating a comprehensive transportation plan is one of the most important jobs of a Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) adopted its 2040 Regional Transportation Plan in June 2013 despite the public push-back it heard about interstate expansion projects and the lack of prominent efforts to progress our regional system to into more of a multi-modal system.

For some outside perspective on what an RTP can look like, I decided to do a textual analysis of the Southeast Michigan RTP and compare it to that of the San Francisco Bay area. Vocabulary and text usage can provide indicators to the approach and vision that go into a document. Through textual analysis we can see what words were at the top of writers’ heads when writing a document. As you’ll see the difference is more than a difference in snowfall and coastal waterfronts.

First, a little background on what a Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) is: It is a long range report and project list required for federal and state transportation funding.  The Transportation Equity Act for the Twenty-First Century (TEA-21) also requires that projects within the plan do things like support economic vitality, increase safety for all users, promote energy conservation and enhance the connectivity of the transportation system If we truly want a 21st century transportation system, we must ask ourselves if this RTP is truly meeting the requirements of TEA-21 and; more importantly, if the plan crafts a realistic path for success and change that the Metro Detroit region so desperately needs. This long range plan informs the direction for our region’s transportation system for the next 25 years – it’s a pretty big deal.

This summer, I co-wrote a post highlighting the strengths of the 2040 RTP. While strengths exist within the plan, it severely misses the mark overall. By and large, the SEMCOG 2040 RTP seems to be written in a way to simply check a box for the federal and state requirements for funding; and more specifically, represents a list of excuses for why Southeast Michigan does not have a comprehensive, sustainable and equitable transportation system.

In order to better understand the potential for a truly transformative regional transportation plan, I studied the 2035 Regional Transportation Plan for the San Francisco Bay Area which was adopted in April 2009. Needless to say, in undertaking this plan for comparison, I was sensitive to the deep differences between the San Francisco region and the Detroit region – in current transportation assets, culture and financial stability to name a few. The San Francisco Bay Area plan, titled “Change in Motion,” was produced by their MPO, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), in collaboration with their council of governments, the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), and professionals working in conservation and air quality. The plan begins with a chapter titled “Call for Change” which is swimming with keywords and phrases that indicate a dedication to improving the region through transportation. In order to illustrate the tone of the San Francisco RTP, I created a word cloud from the plan’s executive summary. The biggest words are the words that appear most common in the San Francisco RTP.


A glance at the above visual gives you an idea of the priorities of the MTC and ABAG through the creation of the  San Francisco Bay Area 2035 RTP .The standout words include ‘change(s)’, ‘transit’, ‘performance’, ‘new’, and ‘transportation’.

So, how does the Southeast Michigan RTP compare? The economic and social misfortunes of our region are highlighted throughout the plan and seem to provide excuses for a lack of more robust improvements. While many of the road and bridge improvements, rebuilding and maintenance projects within the plan are necessary, planning for the automobile overpowers other innovative improvements in the Southeast Michigan RTP. The plan illustrates the poor quality of our region’s public transit systems, and aside from a few minor exceptions (including potential commuter rail projects and some capital improvements for city bus systems), makes no real effort to transform that trend.

To compare the priority languages between the San Francisco Bay area 2035 RTP and the Southeast Michigan 2040 RTP, I created a second word cloud from the executive summary of SEMCOG’s 2040 RTP. Notice the differences in the words that stand out most.


For Southeast Michigan’s RTP, the words that stand out most are ‘infrastructure’, ‘service’, ‘region(al)’, ‘system’, ‘funding’, and ‘figure’. Between these two RTPs, a clear contrast can be seen between one that uses ‘change(s)’, ‘transit’, and ‘new’ most, versus the other which uses ‘region’, ‘infrastructure’, and ‘system’ most.

The language usage in the Southeast Michigan 2040 Regional Transportation Plan demonstrates that it was not designed as a catalyst for real change in the region but as project list to identifying road and bridge projects – with a few non-motorized and public transit projects included.  This plan does nothing more than maintain the status quo that Southeast Michigan has a weak, auto-centric transportation system and that our region has no other option except to simply get by. On the other hand, the San Francisco Bay Area RTP serves as an example of how a plan can inform real change in a region.

While SEMCOG’s Regional Transportation Plan was already adopted, it’s not too late for changes. Currently, SEMCOG is taking public comments regarding the latest list of amendments, which includes changes to the I-94/I-75 expansion projects and the M1 Streetcar project. You can also get involved in shaping the region’s transportation by attending project-specific public meetings in your community such as the upcoming WALLY Commuter Rail community meeting and the meeting to discuss the potential Woodward Avenue Bus Rapid Transit project.

If we really want to transform our region into an innovative, competitive, equitable and sustainable region, and if the Metro Detroit area is truly experiencing the “rebirth” that both residents and national media outlets claim, shouldn’t our regional transportation plan follow suit? More importantly, if we can’t demand transformative change from our urban and regional planners, where else will we find it?

Written by Liz Treutel, Trans4M Fellow


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