» The Motor City must get its priorities straight to move ahead with a new transit system.
After receiving millions of dollars in commitments from private foundations and a grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation, Detroit’s planned M-1 Streetcar is virtually assured of completion as planned in 2013. The $125 million project will be the first major transit investment in this vast city since the opening of the one-way downtown People Mover loop in 1987. Construction is planned to commence by the end of this year.
But that 3.4-mile line, running in lanes shared with automobiles along Woodward Avenue between downtown’s Campus Martius and the New Center at Grand Avenue, will make just a blip in what is a huge, sprawling region housing more than four million inhabitants. As a result, Wayne County (whose seat is Detroit) and its neighbors Macomb and Oakland Counties have recently advanced a plan for expanding transit access throughout, focusing on an extension of the Woodward rail project and series of bus rapid transit lines. With suburban interests holding major sway in the process, the extended bus lines appear likely to be built before the inner-city rail project.
The previously prioritized effort to build a commuter rail line between Detroit and Ann Arbor is apparently on the far back burner, put off in favor of high-speed rail, for which Michigan has recently received funds.
Politicians and businesspeople from Macomb and Oakland Counties, representing a large section of the region’s population, have been quick to point out the limitations in the Woodward Streetcar line: at a total cost of $425 million, it will cover only nine route miles, all within the city of Detroit. For about twice that cost, advocates of a “Golden Triangle” bus system argue that they could build a 67-mile network of lane-separated lines along Woodward Avenue, Gratiot Avenue, and M-59, connecting downtown Detroit with Pontiac and Clinton.
In theory, this program of investments would encourage increasing transit ridership in the region, a first step before making much larger investments in rail.
And it is true that far more people will be within commuting distance of the three-line bus system than would be close to even the longer light rail line; Detroit’s residential density is relatively evenly distributed throughout the city, not concentrated in the core (parts of which the mayor has recently announced plans to transform into farmland). Meanwhile, the fact that downtown remains a significant jobs center means that getting commuters in from across the region is an important step. Finally, buses may actually provide faster service than rail because at least as currently envisioned, the streetcars will be held up in traffic because they’ll be sharing their lanes with cars.
Simultaneously, the fact that a large number of low-wage jobs are located in the suburbs even as low-income people live in the city indicates that improving such connections is essential to promote greater equality of mobility. If local buses were designed to interface efficiently with the bus rapid transit lines, many of the commuting problems currently faced by the residents of the city’s least favorable neighborhoods would be assuaged.
Buses are unlikely to produce the build-up Detroit desperately needs, but current plans for the Woodward Streetcar line are not adequate to spur the type of intense developmental activity for which the city is currently pushing because of widely spaced station stops and a lack of independent rights-of-way. This implies that many of the aesthetic and perceptual advantages of rail-based transit will be lost when implemented in the Detroit context and suggests that at least from a transportation perspective, improvements in bus service would be a more effective use of funds.
On the other hand, the proposed Golden Triangle makes no effort whatsoever to concentrate transit offerings within a reasonable radius of the urban center. The extremely high amount of vacant land in Detroit means that investments in new public services need to be concentrated, not spread further out. If the city commits to encouraging people to live directly adjacent to the Woodward line (or even forces them to do so by means of cutting off electricity or water to certain under-populated neighborhoods), it could not only ensure that the transit line is well used, but also that the city is economizing by densifying its public service provision around a specific corridor.
There are, in other words, advantages of both approaches — the bus rapid transit plan acts more appropriately as a direct improvement over the status quo, while the streetcar opens up potential avenues for a denser type of city — but Detroit and its region only have the funds to pay for one, at least in the short term. With high unemployment and continued population loss, the city must make a choice. Once it does so, however, it must make sure that it backs its decision with appropriate measures to guarantee the future success of the transit network.