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Ford Marketing Guru Loves Trains

Posted to on Wednesday, May 29, 2013

INTRO: Transit advocacy groups met at the University of Detroit Mercy this month. They heard from transit system managers around the country… and an advocate from within the auto industry.  Detroit has a new transit authority. But a transit system is a long way off. Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus begins this 4 part series.

Toby Barlow doesn’t sound like a car guy.

“Really an honor to be here. This is a passion of mine. I grew up on the bus in Washington D.C. Then when they built the subway I grew up on the subway. Commuted for years in San Francisco on BART. Then lived in New York City and totally lived on the F-Train line. Then moved here to work on selling as many cars to as many people as I possibly could.”

Barlow is Creative Director of Team Detroit. That’s the advertising agency attached to Ford in Dearborn. He travels around the world.

“What I’ve discovered is that no matter what form of government you have, tyranny, a democracy, run by a king or a parliament. You can’t get traffic to move. It doesn’t matter. That to me is the crux of the matter that we’re here to discuss.”

Barlow just got back from Moscow. He showed the audience photos of an ornate subway station with a cathedral ceiling.

“A lot of the subway system in Moscow was built during WW2. While they were being attacked by Nazis, while Moscow itself was under siege, they kept digging, working on their transit system. In my opinion, Michigan has no excuse to not have a great functioning and strong public transit system. Granted. They had Stalin who was probably making them do this.”

But the U.S. has its own precedent. Under FDR during the depression, the country built the Hoover Dam, public schools and the Civilian Conservation Corps. These days, the anti-government, anti-tax trends don’t favor big public works projects. But individual tastes might.

“Basically, are we falling out of love with our cars? That was the headline today from CNN. It talked about the fact that the youth that used to drive the car culture are all growing disinterested. They care more about technology and Iphones than they care about Mustangs. So that’s scary for me and it’s my problem. But it’s your opportunity.”

Here are a few slogans from the transit workshop:  Make love in a car. Fall in love on a train.  Keep your kids in-state. Build mass transit. The slogan that caught Barlow’s eye was ‘Stay in your car. Stay poor.’ That could sting anyone from Ford, GM or Chrysler.

Still Barlow hangs in there, using his way with words to try to make Detroit a world class city.

“My feeling is that everybody in the area wants it. Everyone gets that it’s important and we need to grow it. But they just don’t see how we’ll get there without a lot of pain. They’ll say oh we’re broke and it’s too hard to get Oakland County together with Wayne County. Blah Blah. So I think breaking those old narratives with a new story is something we should focus on.”

In December, the Michigan legislature created the regional transit authority for Southeast Michigan. The new chairman is former house speaker Paul Hillegonds. He and 3 of the other ten members of the RTA came to the workshop.

“It’s about connecting people in a very scattered region. Fact is Detroit’s lost hundreds of thousands of people yet the region hasn’t gained population. One of the reasons why we haven’t grown like others is that we are not well connected. Our public transportation is a key component of connecting people with jobs. We are a region where people are separated from jobs.”

The RTA is just taking shape as a quasi-government entity. It hasn’t flexed any muscles. It has to figure out what to do with DDOT and SMART, the existing city and suburban bus systems that don’t do the job.

“I think if we can get some early wins in better coordinating the systems then we’ll have a much better chance of building voter support to enhance our transportation system.”

Paul Hillegonds is a minister’s son from Holland, Michigan. He’s known for consensus. That was the goal of the workshop at UD-Mercy. How to build consensus for transit in Southeast Michigan.


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