Back to the Future: Trains to the transportation rescue

Cars without drivers are part of the major shift taking place in how people and goods move around. Soon, planners say, a network of regional transit options – including autonomous vehicles, car-share, ride-share, bike-share, private shuttle services, public transportation and city-to-city passenger rail – will efficiently get people where they need to go.

These changes are happening rapidly in major metro areas and are starting to emerge in less populated areas like northern Michigan.

What effect this transportation revolution will have on our lifestyle here in the Grand Traverse area is still taking shape, but one thing is clear: Changes will make it easier to leave your car at home, if you even own one at all.

Perhaps soon rural buses without a driver will shuttle passengers across the region. Maybe park-n-ride lots will be coordinated with buses and vanpool for out-of-town commuters and bike-share systems will meet the demand for shorter trips within the city.

Lyft, a ride-sharing company that expanded into Traverse City last fall, says that in 2017 nearly 250,000 customers on its platform nationwide dropped owning a personal vehicle due to the availability of other ways to get around. Other car-sharing platforms say memberships in North America nearly quadrupled to 1.8 million users from 2010-2016.

City-to-city passenger trains are also part of the shift. Modern, efficient and even privately funded passenger rail is taking off across the country, and Michigan is in the middle of the surge. There’s a growing effort to connect downtowns with passenger trains that would provide a direct, city-to-city link between key regions throughout the Great Lakes state.

Michigan’s business community – especially growing startups and technology firms – have been supportive of statewide rail. To many of them, modern passenger trains would help Michigan attract the next generation of businesses that want to live in this state and boost productive travel without depending on a car.

Rich Sheridan, who owns a software company in downtown Ann Arbor, says the lack of a passenger rail connection prevents him and other businesses from expanding into Traverse City. Traveling by car or plane results in unproductive time. To Sheridan, the distance between the cities is too short to hassle with flying and too long to sit in a car.

In fact, Sheridan recently penned a letter to the Michigan Venture Capital Association urging business and state leaders to reinforce their efforts to make city-to-city passenger rail a top priority in Michigan, and described how rail provides a productive and efficient way for business travelers to move around the state.

The good news is this: Right now, rail experts are creating a business plan for establishing passenger rail from Ann Arbor to Traverse City and Petoskey, which is part of a major effort to bring modern train travel to the state-owned railroad tracks in northern Michigan. The line would also connect to other passenger rail lines that travel east and west to Detroit, Lansing, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and Chicago.

The analysis will answer questions about the track conditions and potential costs of getting trains running at quick speeds.

The project team will also estimate how many people along the line – including the 90,000 college students who live along the corridor – are likely to jump on a train. That data will inform a business plan that will outline the estimated costs and revenues for various levels of train service.

A Traverse City to Ann Arbor passenger rail connection means entrepreneurs like Rich Sheridan have access to easy – and productive – travel.

Taken together, whether you’re on a plane, train or an interconnected network of cars and bikes, transportation has a promising future. This revolution will help us solve traffic and parking challenges and remain on par with trends that can help our region accelerate in the decades ahead.

James Bruckbauer is the deputy director of the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities based in Traverse City. Email him at with feedback or to learn more about the Ann Arbor to Traverse City train project.