By Michael Layne
Just a few years ago, local and national residential builders were building
homes at a fast and furious pace. Outlying communities were fighting
development tooth and nail. We all know and are feeling the pain of the
housing bubble, and residential real estate development has come to a
How rapidly things change.
We didn’t expect the double whammy that came with the very dramatic increase
in the price of fuel over the past year. In Spring, 2005 the price of gas
was averaging around about $2.25 per gallon for self-serve regular . At that
time, polls found that approximately half of Americans felt that gas at that
price was placing a hardship of their standard of living. Enter summer 2008.
Gas is hovering around $4.10 per gallon for self-serve regular and rising.
Those sport utility vehicles that were a must have – now claim $80 to $100
to fill a tank. At 12 to 18 miles per gallon, a daily roundtrip from an
outlining suburb to work now is a costly equation. We are all feeling the
Going forward, how will this impact life as we know it in metropolitan
Clearly, the race to engineer the best hybrid technology is on. Will Detroit
become a leader in fuel efficiency? Why are some Japanese hybrids getting 40
miles per gallon when Detroit automakers are just now manufacturing a few
hybrid SUV’s? Perhaps consumer demand, not legislation, will dramatically
expedite the technology of fuel efficiency and the nature of Detroit’s auto
And that drive to work – will employers soon start to loose employees who
can no longer afford to commute from Brighton to Birmingham or from Dexter
to Detroit? Will light rail seem increasingly attractive and feasible? Those
Amtrak rail lines from Pontiac and Ann Arbor to downtown Detroit and
communities in between – will they soon be populated with commuters happily
tapping on their computers or reading the newspaper as they enjoy the ride?
What about SMART – our bus system? Can it be made to work as clean,
efficient and convenient transportation for all commuters, not just those
who can’t afford a car or are unable to drive?
As chip manufactures in Silicon Valley raced to increase the speed of
computing, will Detroit automakers lead the race to increase fuel
efficiency? That is what it is going to take to turn this state around. The
cost advantages of manufacturing in Mexico and Asia are rapidly being eroded
by the rising cost of fuel. Can we now regain some of our lost manufacturing
base with more realistic union contracts, the manufacture of vehicles that
are truly world class, bolstered by the cost benefits of local production by
an experienced and educated work force? Clearly, GM, Ford and Chrysler got
the message and are taking painful, decisive and needed steps to meet and,
hopefully exceed consumer expectations.
Not that many years ago we heard the first rumblings of a “global economy.”
At first I naively thought it meant that all of us in metro Detroit needed
to learn how to export. Yes, we do. But what I didn’t realize then, and I do
now, is that it meant we had to learn how to compete with manufacturers
paying unfathomably low wages to workers in China and India. The cost of
fuel now gives us some breathing room to realize some cost efficiencies in
Is this crisis we find ourselves in today really an opportunity – a lesson
learned the hard way, but a lesson none-the-less? Whether the environment is
warming or not, clearly, we do need to conserve our resources – land, air
petroleum and water. We need to build safe, healthy, sustainable and
affordable communities that work for low income and affluent, young and old
Builders are going back to mixed use development, with stores on the first
floor and housing above. Boomers and their children are demanding a more
dense urban lifestyle with a sense of community complete with open spaces
and parks. That long commute will continue to look less and less attractive.
Pedestrian Greenways, a series of interconnecting paths, are reaching out
like tendrils and will, in the foreseeable future, crisscross throughout all
of southeast Michigan. We may even walk and bike more!
The world-wide automotive research and development hub that calls southeast
Michigan home may even spin off technologies that will not only make
transportation more efficient, but may have spin off uses that will benefit
all of mankind.
Let us hope.