Bringing Rapid Transit to Detroit

Proposed Detroit Transit

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.

1941 Detroit Rail Service 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

11 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • The maps that you make for your articles are first rate Transport Politic!

  • Detroit may seem “finished” now, but once gas hits $8 per gallon, things will flip pretty quickly. I’ve talked with many Detroit residents who would consider moving back to the center of Detroit if it had a grocery store.

    Once the tipping point is reached, I predict that investment will flood back into the center. Even over the past few years, you were seeing a significant amount of private investment in the Midtown area. Light rail via Woodward could help enormously, if it was properly designed and integrated with better bike/ped facilities.

  • AlexB

    Wow, what a bummer of a post. You know it’s bad when a pro-transit blog it asking if it’s even worth it to build light rail. It seems like Detroit could use some commuter rail more than light rail, to bring the wealthy suburbanites into the city center. Detroit must have a legacy of rail lines all over the place. The city may be on the down and out, but it’s not going to disappear anytime soon. You have to start somewhere, right?

  • JP

    I have to agree with AlexB on the bummer of a post. I don’t think anyone knows what to do with Detroit. There’s no tax base, you can buy a house for less than a new car, not enough good jobs left.

    When I went to some Tigers games, back in grad school, I could not believe the beauty of the city and its buildings. Too bad there’s a tree growing wild in the atrium, but still very beautiful. Let Detroit rot, the Big Three and all their Michigan enablers made this bed, let them lie in it.

  • jon

    it would be great if the line could continue under the river in a tunnel to windsor and have a single secure “international” station in canada where people go through customs between the platform and street. of course getting a line under the river would also require a subway under downtown detroit (in order to get under the river), not that downtown detroit warrants a subway with its oversized lightly trafficed streets.

    Detroit can surprise you though, as mentioned it has some of the most incredible pieces of architecture in the US and just recently they built one of the best new public spaces in the US, Campus Martius Park.

    While Detroit has always been low density and very suburban focused, it does have a handful of major radial streets running out of downtown (against the grid) which are ideal as major transit corridors. The proposed New Center – Downtown line hits pretty much everything of signifigance in Detroit, just about everything else outside this route is abandoned or very underutilized. This is the one route in Detroit that does really make sense.

  • There’s already a two-track tunnel between Detroit and Windsor. It’s used only by freight, but in principle the cities could fund a passenger shuttle.

  • Mykel Cox

    Okay so what I see happening is….the light rail will get funded and they will lay down the first 3.5 miles of it. Then because of how cheap the land is gonna be around it, it will be prime for developers because right now its all about making walkable cities so businesses and residential will be develloped and redeveloped all along the line and due to how cheap these parcels are it will allow more money for constuction. Then after it starts a “trickle” into the immedate neighborhoods then the next set of tracks will be laid out to the fairgrounds and onward to Pontiac with the same deveoplment/redevelopment extending all the way down Woodward.

    Then they will start on the other 13 corridors. Companies will base themselves here close to the light rail line growing the economy and though its gonna take years to reverse the damage here eventually the city will be revitalized. The transit is gonna be key and the diverse attitudes of the citizens and local leaders are going to be key.

  • anon.

    In Detroit, the first thing they need is sound management. Perhaps something like the Youngstown 2020 Plan would do the trick — if enough of the city (buildings, roads, pipes) were demolished and replaced with parkland it would be much less expensive to maintain (city services) and much more attractive. But you’re not going to get that from a city with government like Detroit’s.

  • Gary Provenzano

    I think that some kind of commuter rail service is necessary to get Detroit back on the map. Everyone says the same thing when it comes to big ticket events. — Transportation. — Plus there could be fewer cars on the road and fewer serious and even fatal accidents. And if they had commuter rail service to get from Metro Airport to Downtown Detroit, I ‘d go back and see my reletives every year without the cost of a car rental saving me about $500 each trip.

  • Nicole - Urban Planner Detroit

    For Detroit the facts are obvious to the world. There is no secret holder, Detroit is in a rough position economically in terms of population, industry, and financially. I am not sticking up for the City and acting oblivious to the facts, but for being such an educated man this article rages a tone of negativity around a City that is maxed with rich history and that has contributed to the creation of so many elements of the “American way”. (8 hour work day and the automobile industry etc.) Pretty sad when your articles depict opinion and not fact and your walking around with a degree from Yale.

    “Should such a city even attempt to continue existing?”

    Well….it’s about how you chose to live not where you live.

    (Yonah Freemark is an independent researcher currently working in France on comparative urban development as part of a Gordon Grand Fellowship from Yale University, from which he graduated in May 2008 with a BA in architecture. He writes about transportation and land use issues for The Transport Politic and The Infrastructurist)

  • Woody

    Detroit is a massive case of “blame the victim.”

    In the boom years after World War II, they had a saying about Detroit: “Every ni@@er in the city had worked a year in the auto industry. Just one year.”

    That’s because the big employers, under the UAW Contract, had to make temp workers permanent after 90 days on the job. So “LeRoy” worked 89 days at General Motors, then 89 days at Ford, 89 days at Chrysler, maybe another 89 days at a big parts maker. And then he was finished.

    Blacks never forgot and never forgave their treatment, and the anger exploded into urban riots in the 1960s. The seething anger continues to manifest in a “quiet riot” of drinking and drugging, street crime, and bad attitude.

    Of course, the city’s white people were quick to forget how they benefitted from the favored treatment under American’s own Apartheid rules. When the blacks grew restless, waves of ‘white flight’ took them into the surrounding suburbs that were de facto segregated in schools, housing, and job opportunities. Blacks found it very very difficult to find a job or a home outside the increasingly ghettoized city.

    Meanwhile state funds went to projects and programs in white jurisdictions, with always less for Detroit. Even Wayne State was punished for being surrounded by black people, while love was lavished on the U of Michigan and Michigan State.

    The inner city — or was it the i@@er city? — was physically walled off and prevented from growing by its noose of bordering suburbs. Generally in America, cities able to annex along their borders could grow their tax base and thrive– see Columbus, Houston/Austin/San Antonio, Jacksonville, and Oklahoma City compared to places like Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and New Orleans, where the metro areas remain strong while the core city is weak.The sorry story is maybe worse if you look at other severely ghettoized cities like Newark and Camden, Gary or St Louis.

    LBJ tried to do something serious to end poverty and official racism, but since then no President has wasted much effort on that stuff. Certainly since the “Southern Strategy” and the election of 1980, it’s often seemed that this country is being governed not from Washington, D.C. so much as from the first capital of the Confederacy, Montgomery, Alabama.

    What a blanking surprise that Detroit’s inner city sank into decay.

    Now some good folks want to build a light rail line linking the city’s major institutions, the downtown, the ball parks, the big museums, the university, even the Amtrak station, much on the order of Houston’s Main Street Line, the most successful urban rail project in this decade. God bless ‘em. Maybe it will work, maybe not. But as far as I can see, nobody else has a better plan to try to help.

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