Freshwater website helps Detroiters picture how it could work here.
Neil Greenberg was born to ride.
For as long as he can remember, the 30-year-old native Detroiter has been obsessed with mass transportation.
“I was at the People Mover on the day it opened in 1987,” he recalls. “I was 5 years old. My parents picked up my grandma in Oak Park, and we went down to the Bricktown Station for a ride.”
He also has fond memories of a weekend trip to Chicago five years later.
“We took a quick ride on the 146 bus from North Michigan Avenue and Delaware near the Water Tower to the Shedd Aquarium campus near Soldier Field,” he remembers. “I was so enthralled with the details of it all, the numbers, maps and schedules. I thought, ‘this is so cool, there are so many things to wonder about.’ “
Greenberg’s early experiences with mass transit got him thinking.
“The more I grew fascinated with it, the more I saw how essential it was for healthy cities to have a great transit system.”
His preoccupation became his occupation.
“Long story short, it became a career for me. I’ve worn a lot of different hats in the transit industry. It’s my job.”
Website With A Vision
If you Google “Freshwater Railway,” you’ll find a website that looks too good to be true, but there it is — maps and schedules for trains and buses that can take you just about anywhere in southeast Michigan — “Detroit, Ann Arbor, Port Huron, Flint, Toledo, Howell, Adrian, Jackson, Windsor and all points in between.”
But here’s the secret: It’s fictional. It’s Neil Greenberg’s vision of what mass transit in Detroit could be like in mind-blowing detail.
“Freshwater Railway was intended as nothing more than a visual to get Detroiters to understand what transit looks like,” he says. “Many people in this area don’t have a first-hand reference point of what mass transit is.”
The website was designed to make the imaginary appear real.
“If you’re from the Detroit area, you know we don’t have a good transit system,” he says. “Freshwater Railway is designed to throw that conventional wisdom into question for one precious moment. When you land on the home page, it looks real and official. You think, wait a minute, could it be? It’s designed to engage you in ways that a lot of other conversations about transit cannot.”
Greenberg says he doesn’t know how people stumble across his website, but they do.
“I get calls from people who say they want to ride the train from Port Huron to Monroe. They think it’s real. They look at the schedules. I thank those who call and tell them I’m so glad they’ve proven there is demand for this.
“For the longest time, it’s been frustrating to me to watch people fumble the transit conversation,” says Greenberg. “We have a tendency to talk about policy and money and all the reasons transit is challenging. At least, there is today an acknowledgement that our city needs to address transit, but no one really knows even how to talk about it in a way that gets people excited. If we can get people who don’t normally pay attention to transit to truly see its potential for even one minute, we’ve done a huge service to the cause.”
Life As A Transit Manager
Greenberg created Freshwater Railway last year from Santa Barbara, Calif., where he works occasionally for a company that produces maps for transit companies around the country. As he watched a colleague working on a map of the Los Angeles MetroLink commuter rail line, an idea struck him. “I realized that before there was a train, there was a map, and before there was a map, there was an idea,” he said. “I thought if we’re ever going to get to real mass transit in Detroit, we need to display it better. So I went home that day and starting drawing a transit map for metro Detroit.”
His work in Santa Barbara is just one part of his transit career. In 2002, as a student at the University of Michigan, Greenberg co-founded CSG Airbus, a transit system between Ann Arbor and Metro Airport, which he still manages. “It’s part of the student government and funded with public money, but we run it very much as a business entity,” he says. This year, the company is celebrating its 100,000th rider.
“The first pay check I ever received in the transit capacity was as a bus driver with the campus bus system operated by the university,” he said. “That probably remains the best job I ever had. I have a commercial drivers’ license. I will never give it up.”
Greenberg also worked for the suburban Detroit SMART transit system for more than five years, as well as the Ann Arbor transit system.
After creating a detailed vision of mass transit in southeast Michigan, what’s the next step?
Greenberg and new business partner Stephen Maiseloff are in the beginning stages of creating their own transportation management company — Freshwater Transit.
“The railway on the website is obviously something we can’t snap our fingers and make happen, but we’re trying to extract some of the principles from that,” says Greenberg. “We aspire to be a company that manages transit service in a professional capacity and employs and manages front-line staff — drivers, mechanics, road supervisors, dispatchers, the people who actually make the transit system go.”
Greenberg brought Maiseloff on board this year to help bring the vision to life. The two met earlier this year through Jewish connections.
“I thought we were going to meet for 20 minutes. We ended up talking four hours,” says Maiseloff, 30, who specializes in business development. “We’re in the process of incorporating. We want to go after a contract as an operator.”
Adds Greenberg: “There’s a lot to this. Transit operations is an enormously complex and misunderstood business. It’s huge, and I can’t do this myself. We’re looking for people who have experience in accounting, labor relations, fleet management and obtaining grants to help us round this out.”
Detroit’s Need For Transit
Greenberg and Maiseloff hope to be a part of the solution for Detroit’s transit needs. The city’s
financial crisis has led to discussions of shrinking or unloading its transportation department.
“It’s interesting to note that Detroit was one of the earliest big cities to take transit into the public realm,” says Greenberg. “The city of Detroit has had a publicly owned and operated transit system since 1922, which is a lot earlier than most other cities.
“And it wasn’t until there was that community ownership and a public stake that the system was really able to develop and expand for the right reasons. When transit was seen as a resource for the whole community, the system was able to really connect. We take that as one of our inspirations.
“What’s great about the Jewish community is its unwavering willingness to get involved on the community level,” says Greenberg. “This is a reflection of that, and we certainly hope there are others who would want to get involved.”
He invites those interested in the project to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Allan Nahajewski, Contributing Writer