Transit Expansions, Cuts, and Art

Detroit, which is suffering more than any other city from the economic crisis, is moving to develop an alternative to car-based commuting. Though the nation’s three automakers are all headquartered in the region, the area’s political and financial leaders buy the transit gospel, and recognize that an improved transit system would do a lot to improve the city’s struggling downtown.

Currently served by the Detroit Department of Transportation’s network of buses and the SMART suburban network, planners are currently considering building a streetcar or light rail line through the city’s core, on Woodward Avenue. This strip goes from the city’s center along the waterfront, past the two major league stadiums, in the midst of midtown (where the Amtrak station now is), and then further north. It is the center city’s definitive artery and it makes perfect sense to align a rail system along its path. This is especially true because the proposed Ann Arbor to Detroit commuter rail system would stop at the existing Amtrak station rather than downtown; a connection is necessary.

But two different groups, the public Department of Transportation and a private consortium consisting of some of the city’s largest non-auto companies, are proposing different plans. The public group envisions a 9.3 mile-long light rail line for $371 million, which would theoretically attract 22,000 daily riders. This would be paid for using a transit-area tax and federal dollars. Meanwhile, the private consortium (called Detroit Regional Mass Transit) envisions a 3.5 mile-long route that would only serve the downtown core of the city.

It’s been suggested that the two systems be merged, since they propose the same service for 3.5 miles of the route. Obviously you wouldn’t have two separate light rail systems on the same street. We’re a little skeptical of the city’s 22,000 daily rider estimate, simply because the city is so auto-based and the downtown, though once quite vibrant, has fallen onto harder times. Nonetheless, the construction of this route would go part of the way towards recuperating the loss the city faced when it told the federal government “No!” to $600 million worth of funds for mass transit Washington offered back in the 1970s.

In New York City, which is facing a huge real estate downturn, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is proposing massive service reductions in order to shore up its budget. The consequences of changes to be proposed to the Board on Thursday would be disastrous for the city, whose train network is already chronically overcrowded.

There is no good reason for the MTA to have to make these cuts in the middle of a recession. People need transit alternatives, and by increasing waiting times, limiting the number of available trains, reducing the number of routes, and delaying the renovation of stations, we’re going to simply see the transit system in a bigger hole than it’s in today. The federal government must work to bailout New York and other cities that are facing these huge cuts. It would be embarrassing to see New York’s Subway fall into the same disrepair it faced in the 1970s today, when we’re increasingly concerned about the climate crisis and when millions of people are facing decreasing revenues. As we said on this blog a few weeks ago, the first priority for transit proponents should be the shoring up of federal funds for older transit networks like New York’s. 

Meanwhile, in Toronto, which is on route to extending its Spadina subway line into York County (as well as simultaneously building a new network of streetcars and light rail lines), has hired two world famous architects to design its next stations. Will Alsop and Norman Foster will take on the design of some of the new stations along the extension. This is exciting news, because it means that the Toronto Transit Commission takes seriously the idea that subway stations should be interesting, rather than simply utilitarian, spaces. In a city where many stops “look like bathrooms,” this is a huge advancement in thinking.

But it also raises a question for transit agencies around the world: is transit meant to be an enhancement of the public space, or just a matter of increased mobility? If we consider mass transit to be an integral part of the urban public sphere, we should lean towards the former. We need transit that appeals to the eye as well as to the timetable. Toronto’s taking the right step in pushing for architecturally interesting stations.

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