Detroit has a terrible history of transit investment – since the 1950s, it has repeatedly rejected efforts to spruce up its public transportation systems in favor of expanding highways, often to the detriment of the city’s core. There is no concrete evidence that the city’s lack of rapid transit has contributed directly to its giant population exodus – from 1.85 million in 1950 to around 900,000 today – but it is clear that the region’s steadfast devotion to the automobile hasn’t helped matters much either, especially considering the recent implosion of the Big Three.
This isn’t to say that Detroit never had alternative transportation options. As the map shown on the right demonstrates, in the 1940s, the city had a full network of streetcar lines that connected most of the huge city to its still-impressive downtown. By 1956, however, the last of those street-running railcars ran down the city’s streets.
In the 1970s, the region began considering working together to develop a mass transit system, and in 1976, President Gerald Ford offered Michigan $600 million to build something equivalent to the Bay Area’s BART or Atlanta’s MARTA; the lack of consensus, however, meant the complete abandonment of that program. In 1985, Amtrak offered the city matching funds to build a new train station at Joe Louis Arena and commence a commuter rail program to Ann Arbor; the city simply failed to get its act together.
Only in 1987 did the city clobber together the tiny Detroit People Mover, a 2.9-mile circulator in the downtown with 13 stations. In addition to its one-way operation, the system is poorly used because its 1/2-mile radius of operation is so small that most people can walk between its destinations as quickly as the People Mover would get them around. It’s a sad excuse for rapid transit – perhaps only matched by Jacksonville’s Skyway. Bus operation, as well, is made confusing and inefficient because of the split between in-city and suburban services, which compound the already stark divide between the city of Detroit and its wealthier surroundings.
There’s been a lot of talk in recent months about investing in the city’s mass transit system, and the city council approved a new transit plan last December. The first link of the program, whose downtown segments are summarized in the map above, would be a 3.4-mile light rail line running down the city’s famed Woodward Avenue. There has been some confusion recently about whether the line would be built and constructed by the city’s department of transportation or by a private group run by some of the city’s major industrialists.
Now there’s news from the Detroit Free Press that the light rail program – now called M1-RAIL – has received $9 million from the city’s private Downtown Development Authority and $35 million from the Kresge Foundation. The Overhead Wire points out that this is probably the first-ever example of a foundation contributing to the construction of a transit line. Other private contributors have already put in $30 million towards the project, leaving about $45 million left to raise to fund the line’s construction, which could be completed by the end of 2010. Note that this project could theoretically receive federal stimulus funding if that timeline is accurate.
The first line would run from the Hart Plaza, at the edge of the city along the Detroit River, to Detroit’s New Center, via the city’s Campus Martius, Grand Circus, and arts campus. It is disappointing to point out that though this is clearly the city’s most important corridor – there are no rivals – the route is riddled with vacant land and abandoned buildings, as demonstrated in the satellite image above. Even with its 900,000 citizens, Detroit is a ghostland of a city. Its downtown appears dense at first glance; indeed, its skyscrapers are tightly knit and look well-populated. The problem is that most of them are empty.
Should such a city invest in an expensive rapid transit network? Should such a city even attempt to continue existing?
It is hard not to empathize with the desperation with which Detroit’s leaders are plotting the development of this light rail line – a project that would be considered a mere dip in the bucket in any other major city. But the involvement of a foundation in the program’s funding is indicative of the city’s depressing fate. The frantic search for economic investment that these charities hope to spur with the construction of the rail line seems more of a final denial of the obvious – that the city is finished – than an optimism for the future.
You never know, though. It is ironic that the last hope of the Motor City is a light rail line.
Image above: 1941 Detroit Streetcar map, from Detroit Transit History