Detroit Light Rail Streetcar

Alignment Questions for Detroit’s Rail Line, Almost Ready for Construction

» Light rail or streetcar approach for a project whose proponents claim would restore the health of this city’s core?

Unlike similar projects in nearby cities like Cincinnati, Detroit’s planned light rail line for Woodward Avenue has near-universal support from just about everyone in local and state government — even though it is being constructed in a city that is shedding population quickly. The $528 million route, which would by 2016 extend 9.3 miles from downtown to the city’s borders at 8 Mile, has been the priority of regional transportation planners for years. And with federal support for the first phase of the corridor announced in February 2010, construction is supposed to begin later in 2011, at least for the 3.4-mile section from Hart Plaza to Grand Avenue.

Aligning the project with other transit offerings in Downtown Detroit, however, has become a contentious issue. The Detroit DOT, which is running the Woodward Rail project in cooperation with a private entity called M-1 Rail (which has contributed much of the funds for the start-up line), will recommend later this month the preferred alignment — and decide whether it will run in its own lanes in the median of Woodward or along the street’s edges.

The first controversy — just where the line should go once it reaches downtown — is the result of years of indecision and missteps about just how transportation planning should evolve in the Detroit region. The much-maligned People Mover, an automated rail line that since 1987 has been circling aimlessly around downtown in a one-way loop, was built  to distribute passengers coming in from a Woodward rail line decades ago, but the latter project is of course only being built now. In the meantime, the city constructed the (beautiful) Rosa Parks bus transit center in 2009, but neglected to put it along Woodward (despite the fact that rail was being planned at the time), instead locating it a few blocks away in Times Square. On the other hand, the metropolitan area transportation plans suggest a bus rapid transit line along Gratiot Avenue that would terminate at Campus Martius Park, right on Woodward.

Thus three options for the rail line’s downtown alignment are being considered, as shown below. In response to the Detroit DOT’s insistance that the rail line serve the bus center, the first two options would loop from Woodward onto Washington Street and then turn along Congress and Larned Streets to form a two-way loop running from the Cobo Convention Center to the Municipal Building. The fact that this route would parallel the People Mover almost directly — eliminating its very limited raisons d’être — should be bothersome to anyone who is paying attention.

The other possibility, which would run trains directly down Woodward, would be cheaper and faster (because of a shorter track length), and it would at least attempt to provide a downtown service that does not duplicate the People Mover. Though it would not connect directly to the bus station, it would allow transfers to the future BRT. And it would serve to highlight Campus Martius, which has been the focus of downtown revitalization.

Also raising challenges in Detroit has been the question of how the rail line meets the street downtown: Will it run in the median of Woodward, in its own right-of-way (as planned for the sections of the route further out), or will it run along the curb in lanes shared with automobiles, like a streetcar?

The M-1 financiers, whose $100 million downpayment on the initial line’s construction was more than the city’s $73 million or the U.S. government’s $25 million, have suggested that putting the trains adjacent to the sidewalk would, in the words of the Detroit Free Press, “boost tourism and redevelopment.” This claim is based on the highly questionable assumption that people are afraid to cross the street (a logic that denies the fact that riders would of course have to cross the street on the way back) and the assertion that packing eight stops on the 3.4-mile trip between Hart Plaza and Grand Avenue would be more beneficial than installing five there. Stations every half mile or so are considered standard for light rail lines in the centers of U.S. cities.

To a group of local enthusiasts who have created a Lego-based video advocating “trains down the middle,” the answer is obvious: The median alignment would be safer, faster (by 2 minutes 30), and less likely to be encumbered by automobile traffic. Their logic is sound. The fact that the route would remove two lanes for automobiles does not seem to be the issue, fortunately, so it is quite possible that they will get their way.

The bigger question, though, is the importance of this line for the future of Detroit.

In a city that lost 240,000 inhabitants between 2000 and 2010, the necessity of this project must be evaluated. The city is overbuilt — ready for its 1950 population of 1.85 million, not the 700,000 that reside there today. What is the point of spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a new transit project in a place that has few issues with traffic congestion and where transit ridership has declined from 136,000 daily users in 1996 to 121,000 today, despite the much-heralded completion of the new transit center and the supposed revival of the city’s downtown?

Those who doubt the importance of new infrastructure for Detroit have a point — there might be some value in simply redirecting the funds appropriated for the rail line towards poverty alleviation. Yet there is no clear mechanism by which to do that: Poor residents of Detroit cannot simply be handed checks because they live in the Motor City. That would be unfair to the impoverished people everywhere else. Investing in affordable housing is unnecessary in a city with extremely high vacancy rates and the lowest housing prices in the nation. The U.S.’s lack of state-owned enterprises means direct public job creation is almost impossible. But simply abandoning government efforts to aid the city would be a cruel endnote for a city that has suffered half a century of neglect.

So transportation improvements like the light rail line act as an indirect approach in an attempt to remediate this city’s ills. It will not work alone, but perhaps it is worth the effort, especially if the city builds it in coordination with the densification of areas along the line, a process that is currently being planned.

Moreover, despite Detroit’s long downfall, the signs of its resurgence (or at least plateauing) are perking up. Though the city lost a huge percentage of its population in the last ten years, several areas along the Woodward rail line actually gained population between 2000 and 2010. Those included parts of the downtown and the New Center — the two places to be served by the first phase. And just off Woodward, the two mini cities-within-Detroit of Hamtramck and Highland Park, saw some growth in areas near the avenue.

Nor is city revival impossible. Between 1970 and 1980, we should remember, New York City lost 820,000 inhabitants. Gotham is now bigger than ever. Though a changing global economy and increasing interest in urban living likely played an important role in producing that turn-around, investments in that city’s public transportation system, which began wholeheartedly in the early 1980s, likely produced significant change as well. Who says the same approach cannot work in Detroit?

Image above: Strolling down Woodward Avenue, from Flickr user Jodelli (cc). Maps above: Potential downtown Detroit light rail alignment options, from Detroit DOT.

44 replies on “Alignment Questions for Detroit’s Rail Line, Almost Ready for Construction”

Option 3 and put it down the middle (LRT).

I’ve had an admittedly expensive and unlikely to happen idea that the rail line should go into a subway under Downtown Detroit so that it can continue under the river to a single underground ‘international’ station in Downtown Windsor complete with secure US-Canada customs facility in the station mezzanine. It would help to tie Detroit and Windsor together, they are extremely close together but worlds apart.

My experience with transit between Windsor and Detroit is waiting 2.5 hours at the entrance of the Detroit-Windsor tunnel waiting for the tunnel bus that never came. The existing tunnel bus can be greatly improved before considering the extremely expensive option of building a new international crossing.

A light rail on Woodward Ave also brings into question what will happen to the riders of existing bus routes that travel along Woodward. None of the routes travel on Woodward only – most come onto Woodward from some outside origin and/or exit Woodward to some other destination.

The problem, then, is that existing riders of those routes will have to choose between what may now be a one-seat ride from their origin to their destination, or a transfer when they get to Woodward to the light rail and then back onto a bus if they wish to continue past the Woodward corridor. It’s not likely that anyone would choose the latter. It’s possible that the City would discontinue the bus routes in order to boost light rail ridership but then they are forcing this transfer onto riders.

Finally, it is highly unlikely that this light rail will attract anyone out of their cars as there is no congestion in Detroit.

“Finally, it is highly unlikely that this light rail will attract anyone out of their cars as there is no congestion in Detroit.”

Maybe so, but will that hold at $4/gal, $5/gal, $6…?

Traffic congestion is not the only factor that shifts people out of cars.

Indeed, as gas prices rise, on of the things that keeps people in their cars for a commute with a common carrier transport alternative is a need for the car for mid-day or post-work trips. If either or both of those can be done on the light rail, the availability of the light rail can promote the shift out of the car.

Ideally (which in this context may imply, “but they won’t”), the light rail would be designed so that it can be used as an express bus corridor as well.

The possible realignment of bus routes along the corridor is a very intriguing question. As Annie points out, several suburban bus routes operated by SMART operate along Woodward for a substantial distance before branching out in different directions. Assuming these routes would terminate at a light rail station, could SMART then redeploy those resources to improve bus service in other parts of the suburbs? That would be a good result.

In order to pay for line operation, it is almost a certainty that the 53 Woodward D-DOT bus line would have to be eliminated. In fact, given the exceedingly poor financial situation of Detroit and D-DOT, I worry that bus service cuts will have to be enacted to pay for this line.

I have to agree with D-DOT and say that serving their new transit center is essential. Washington Blvd is a corridor that is ripe for redevelopment.

Annie is right – I feel that nobody is going to leave their cars for this line, primarily because, despite the improvements in the area, very few people in metro Detroit ever have a reason to even visit the Woodward corridor, which is very sad. But it will certainly be interesting to see a fancy new rail system glide by vacant lots and weed-encrusted sidewalks.

Can’t we have both alignments?

One light rail vehicle proceeds straight down Woodward past Campus Martius, for those in a hurry to get end to end. The next train heads over to the Transit Center. AND it continues into downtown with several stops, serving more like a streetcar in this area.

I wish one of the two routes got really close to the Renaissance Center, too, but I don’t see how to do it.

Having both downtown routes does awkwardly create an all-LRT intersection, not sure if that’s a problem or not. And maybe two or three stations would need to get closer to the other line. But it clears the way for new LRT lines on Gratiot and Michigan, like JRM suggests downthread. And I like that too.

Oh, yeah. We’d need a lot more money.

Then the question becomes, Do you get more patrons by having two branches or only one?

I just don’t know if that little loop downtown that passes the Rose Parks Transit Center would generate enough additional riders to be worthwhile. Or whether that short straight shot to Campus Martius is needed if you build the loop route.

Another good question is in the future, which one could be more easily extended into another LRT line, or connect to new ones.

Looking at the alignment maps, the most striking things are those desolate surface parking lots. So much space that -if it were developed- would make LRT plausible but here we have the chicken and egg problem.
This revitalization project has less of a 50-50 chance of succeeding when the locals apparently don’t even recognize the problem (see “Michigan CEO: Soul-Crushing Sprawl Killing Business” published on Rustwire). Better than nothing but…
NYC had economic activity going for it (the Wall Street paper mill) and lots of existing assets. The Detroit area is horrible. As Yonah said, “it’s finished”.

To fill the vacant lots, if not the vacant buildings, try retirement homes, assisted living, and nursing homes. The more care needed, the more the facility should be in Midtown, near Woodward and the hospitals around Wayne State. But you could put retirement homes/assisted living centers downtown from Grand Circle to Campus Martius to the riverside.

Problem is that, on their own, none of the retirement community/assisted living operators have ever built in a city, but only on major arteries with lots and lots of parking.

But why NOT have vertical retirement communities? Rooms with views (uh, careful about that, but maybe near the river front), plenty elevators and no steps, shared laundry rooms, social areas, common dining halls for those who want that, elder-friendly rooms and hallways with wider, wheel-chair accessible doorways, grab bars, easy-open door handles, non-slip flooring, fire-proofing, etc. That stuff is why I’m not saying convert the gorgeous empty office buildings; they can serve healthier, wealthier retirees and others. A bit more downmarket, lower cost and affordable, and quasi-institutional-type living, with single rooms and small apartments, rather than lofts.

Anyway, seems worth an effort to provide incentives to operators of various types of housing for the elderly to come into the city. Then the healthier residents would spill out into the streets and help support ground-floor retail in the neighborhood: the barber shop and beauty parlor, the newsstand/candy/ tobacco store, the dry cleaner, the pizza joint, the drug store, the florist, the convenience store, etc. They would add street life while their buildings filled in vacant space.

Many residents would love to walk to services in a nearby church of their choice. Some would like to be part of volunteer activities within a few walkable blocks, like reading stories to kids at the branch library or the pre-school, and puttering around in community gardens in pocket parks. Not to be too morbid, but they would also help support the local hospitals and health care industry — and all those jobs.

Of course, safety is a concern, but crime is not equally distributed across the city, and retirement living would be placed in low-crime districts. I also know racism in general would be a problem for many; but not all elderly white people in the 4-million metro area are bigots. We only need a few hundred citizens of all races to fill the first buildings, and then thousands after the first ones are a hit.

The vertical retirement communities should be located close to the LRT line(s), of course, for easy access by the residents, relatives and other visitors, and staff. A considerable number of jobs could be created, mostly the-you-can-be-trained-for-this kind of work that Detroit so badly needs.

So use the standard inducements/tax concessions/subsidies/public bribes to get a couple of nice retirement facilities built along Woodward or near it. Welcome those residents into the center city, along with the jobs they would bring. I’m betting the first buildings will fill up and be profitable, and other operators will clamor to get in on the deal. And not just in Detroit, but in other old downtowns as well.

We talked about this city in a urban planning class and what is killing it is the crime rate in that it’s in the top four cities in the US for murders and that is what is scaring people and the jobs they bring with them away from it.

Detroit could just stop arresting anyone for marijuana. That alone would cause a dramatic drop in the high ARREST figures. If the State of Michigan, or the Feds, want to keep arresting for this, let them pay for those cops.

I’m not sure if this simple measure would affect the actual CRIME rate one way or the other. I’m pretty sure that the drug itself, and the arrests therefore, have little or no effect on crime whatsoever. That is unlike the demonstrable contributions of beer and other alcohol use. (Ask any cop, or better, any criminal, if most young guys have been drinking before they get stupid enough to commit a crime. Almost 100%, by anecdote, though police don’t routinely test for it, so nobody knows.)

But stopping arrests and jail time for marijuana just might reduce other crimes by having a very dramatic effect on the attitude of many young black men. Many of them feel that the eager enforcement of these bogus laws is the main instrument of their oppression. So perhaps ending the B.S. would help cool the on-going “quiet riot” of crimes that act out a generalized anger and frustration.

Stopping marijuana arrests would free up valuable time for other police priorities, reduce a very costly waste of time in the courts, and slash the high costs (roughly $40,000 a year still, isn’t it?) of incarcerating a citizen.

I know lots of wingers favor arresting “insolent” and “uppity” young blacks and hauling them off to jail in chains — keeping the descendants of slaves in their place — for any and all reasons. But Detroit just can’t afford to waste resources in that way.

arent all the stadiums located along the woodward corridor. not to mention wayne state and lots of other attractions. I dont think the plan is to get suburbanites out of their cars considering only one station will be a park and ride. The point is to serve the people and destinations already along the corridor as well attracting new investment to all those vacant lots with out requiring parking minimums. The bus route along woodward is already very busy there are plenty of locals who would use the route.

I’m a proponent of the center-running alternative. First of all, it leaves Campus Martius open as a possible terminus for either a Gratiot (via Randolph and Monroe) or Michigan LRT line. Second, the idea of packing in so many stations, particularly between Warren and Mack, is absurd. Third, it will let bicyclists continue to ride along Woodward, which does not have very much traffic at all. Fourth, there would be no need for a weird center > side running switch that would occur at West Grand Boulevard. Fifth, it serves both the Rosa Parks Transit Center (which is where the MegaBus stop is located), as well as other bus lines that do not terminate at RPTC but on the east side of downtown.

It’s my personal opinion that the success of the Woodward LRT will spur LRT and not BRT construction on Gratiot and Michigan.

Annie: The DDOT 53 and SMART 450/460 travel the entire length of Woodward. In my view, DDOT should eliminate 53 bus service and focus on better/more frequent crosstown bus service, while making sure that the transfer from LRT to DDOT is free or minimal. And I wouldn’t say there is ‘no congestion’ in Detroit. I-75 at rush hour, while nowhere near an Atlanta/Chicago/NY, certainly isn’t anywhere near normal freeway speeds. And 696 during rush hour is a huge PITA.

Lou is correct. The idea is not a park-and-ride into Downtown for suburbanites, or even to draw Detroiters out of their cars (although it’s possible that southern Oakland Cty commuters, and people who want to get to Comerica Pk/Ford Field, would ride the line sparingly). It’s to make living car-free in Detroit easier than it currently is and more viable for a wider range of people. 33 percent of households in Detroit don’t have a car and many of them are located along the Woodward corridor. If we ever got some sort of car sharing service (ie Zipcar), living car-free in Detroit could be a real option for people.

The routes that connect to the transit center don’t mimic the people mover exactly. I still think the people mover has a purpose for travel within downtown, and I imagine it will operate more frequently and reliably given its short route.

Even the route that doesn’t directly connect to the transit center still comes very close to it. Instinctually, I hate the idea that there is not one central transfer point. Having to walk two short blocks just seems like sloppy planning to me. Maybe Woodward Ave would be a more central and appropriate location for the transit center?

Given the number of attractions on the river, it seems weird that the line isn’t planned to be extended past downtown. Even in a city as decimated as Detoit, it just seems fundamental and civilized to me that the prime avenue in a major American city would have a modern transit line. Even Detroit has the ability to bounce back. Even Rome once had a population under 50,000 in the depths of the Dark Ages.

I’ve never been to Detroit, so I could be off track with my comments…

This is about the last place on earth that needs a new rail line. If nobody is complaining about the loss of traffic lanes or parking, it seems like this would be a prime location for bus rapid transit – but it seems even that might not be cost-effective.

If so many people have moved out, maybe what they could do is build something to fill up space? If they were careful they might be able to concentrate what little development they have, by condemning certain areas and building parks in their place.

And of course, if they can come up with $528 million, I bet they would see more bang for the buck spending it on police.

Hopefully most of the buses going to the transit center cross the LRT alignment anyway. Afterall the TC is on the west side of downtown so the buses from the east will have to cross the Woodward LRT line to get to the TC. Its really just the west side buses that would be the problem but even that can be solved with through-routing them with east side bus lines (allowing a transfer to LRT at Woodward).

I’m surprised a city the size of Detroit (even still after losing 60% of its population) uses a single transfer point model… thats a small town transit model. The reason for building the transit center was probably more about utilizing some of that excess vacant land downtown that will never see a new market rate building.

Tsuyoshi, theres a lot more to this than just simply building a shiny new rail line. Its about the future of the city and actually writing off huge swaths of the city and focusing on parts with potential.

Not all buses terminate at the transit center. A few terminate on the east side of downtown without crossing Woodward, at the area that would be served by the center-running LRT alternative.

with the option 3 alignment down woodward, might it continue to hart plaza for layover tracks and crossovers? or will the track abruptly stop at larned street?

The alignment of the Woodward Avenue Light Rail, even if they get it right, is minor compared to 6 decades of poor urban planning in Detroit. Since 1947 or so, the Motor City, catering to the automotive industry, caved on every opportunity to densify residential & retail development around downtown.

Several urban planning initiatives should have been launched by Detroit politicians in the 1950s, when it’s economy was humming and population was high. Instead, it was left with a series of troubling legacy questions and coments that define its situation.

On the surface, It seems that Detroit’s politicians ignored or didn’t hire competent urban planners to promote transportation policies that would densify office, housing and retail construction in town.

By 1946 after the war, given the obvious known advantages of subways to densify an urban core, why didn’t Detroit start building a subway system? Why did Detroit rip out so many urban middle class neighborhoods to build more miles of freeway per square mile than Chicago and as much as Los Angeles? Why in the 1970s did Detroit receive the 2nd highest amount of Urban Redevelopment grants after New York City, but had less to show for it than Baltimore (3rd highest), who wisely rebuilt it much of its core housing and started building a subway & light rail system?

As many know, by the late 1960s, Detroit had the highest concentration of African Americans and one of the highest percentages of White Flight. If White Flight was the only major issue, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Cleveland would have also imploded.

I argue that White Flight hurt Detroit more than peer city Philadelphia (similar 1950-60 population), due to poor transportation policy that catered to the automotive industry.. As we know, the automotive, tire and oil industry collusion killed streetcars in the nation and and no Detroit politician could get elected by planning to build a subway system. Even as late as 1970, Detroit politicians wouldn’t dare start a subway system. Instead, the non-threatening to auto industry, ill-conceived aerial people mover became a poster-child for poor urban planning.

It will take decades for Detroit to get out of this mess. At least it has a clean slate to begin.

The often repeated population decline figures are for a city that covers 139 square miles. Most of that 139 square miles is effectively decline post war suburbs that happened to be annexed into the city. The debate discussed in this post is about an area roughly 4 square miles. That area is grown more populous, more educated, and more affluent consistently over the last 20 years. Despite major changes to the banking and auto industries, it has also held its own in terms of jobs.

Central Detroit is reaching a point where effective transit will get the ball rolling into creating a world class city (even if the other 135 square miles of mostly suburban “city” continue to decline). Without effective transit, the last couple decades of growth and revitalization may slow down significantly, the need to park cars will put a limit on the amount of construction that can be placed within walking distance of the activity nodes.

Central Detroit (that 4 square miles plus a couple of attached neighborhoods) current problem is that it is physically too large to be a walking city, but too small to work as a auto city. A fair number of people who work downtown, at the University, or at one of the hospitals do live near their workplaces and walk. The problem is that they need a car to be able to comfortably access the other parts of the central city. The rental and condo market is somewhat screwed up because most prospective residents either want to be right next to workplace/classes or they will need to drive and might as well live anywhere within 10 miles or so.

Regardless of how this first phase of rail is built, it will connect together most of the major destinations and walkable neighborhoods. It will increase the liquidity/fluidity of the residential market and exponentially increase the number or students and employees who can commute car free.

The debate over how to build the line is a question of whether it should be an effective terminus of a citywide or regional line, or if it is to be only a circulator streetcar. The proponents of curb running with many stops are wrong to say that the streetcar can accommodate expansion further out. While it is technically possible, the trip time and reliability hits will be Achilles’ heels. From what I’ve seen, proponents of this alternative are not transportation planners or engineers with transit experience.

Center running is vastly superior in the long term, even if a streetcar provides better develop incentives in the short term. One thing to realize is that stops can be added to the system if build on center running if expansion into a true lrt system isn’t built. But you can’t convert a streetcar into a LRT system.

A couple of other comments:

– From many peoples points of view, Baltimore and Cleveland have imploded as well. I don’t think there is a quantitative case for saying that Cleveland is better off than Detroit. (I will give them that the region has a more positive identification with their “Cleveland” than Metro Detroit has with “Detroit.”)

– The Rosa Parks Transit Center opened in July of 2009, so it is hard to see how it should have had an large impact on transit ridership in one year (during a recession nonetheless). And the decline in transit ridership from 1996 to 2010 covers a period of time when bus service was drastically and consistently cut in an effort to improve the city’s finances. I’m amazed that the decline is that small. In 1996 Detroit had a large bus system serving a large transit-dependent population. The downtown revival is by no means complete, but is facilitated by walking and driving. In 1996, downtown Detroit was a business district that was empty after 5pm. Now it is a mixed-use neighborhood (or a few nearby neighborhoods).

– The 53 bus that operates on Woodward is consistently crowded and suffers from frequent bus bunching. It is the only line in the city that has frequencies high enough to attract many choice riders, and it is overcrowded (and therefore unreliable) enough to chase many riders away.

– The more important question that Yonah hasn’t asked, is what are SMART and DDOT going to do to rationalize their service and make it more efficient to operate? The current bus system still a holdover from the streetcar era. There are too many parallel routes close together in some places.

Jason wrote,

“From many peoples points of view, Baltimore and Cleveland have imploded as well. I don’t think there is a quantitative case for saying that Cleveland is better off than Detroit. (I will give them that the region has a more positive identification with their “Cleveland” than Metro Detroit has with “Detroit.”

Beg your pardon Jason, but Baltimore suffers nothing close to the desperation of Detroit. The remarkably attractive Inner Harbor is being buttressed by Harbor East significant office, hotel, retail, dining, residential development and an expanding marina. Moreover, any observer can see Baltimore’s core rebuilding north, east and south of Downtown. I grant you however, that West Baltimore near Downtown still has a ways to go. That understandable because Baltimore screwed up by ripping out thousands of working class homes to build an incomplete Freeway in West Baltimore instead of a subway that would have preserved the homes and accelerated Downtown redevelopment.

Cleveland, though not as bad off as Detroit, also suffered from poor urban planning. Politicians and civic leaders build up the University Circle (Arts district) completely detached from Downtown and closer to the Cleveland Clinic. So as the Cleveland Clinic to University Circle revives more swiftly, Downtown Cleveland’s recovery proceeds at a snail’s pace. One can only imagine how much more vibrant Cleveland would be if University Circle arts district were downtown.

St. Louis, suffers many of the same issues as Cleveland with its Performing Arts District and major museums completely detached from Downtown. Fortunately for St. Louis however, it has the Gateway Arch, Lacledes Landing and the Mississippi River as attractions.

The oddball in a good way is Pittsburgh. Despite population loss to the metro area, it retains a vibrant Downtown due to geographic luck and urban planning that concentrated corporate HQs, major retail, performing arts, convention center. The only area Downtown Pittsburgh dropped the ball is that its didn’t build its subway/light rail system faster.

Cleveland has major cultural institutions in University Circle because that’s where donors wanted them. That was almost 100 years ago, and I’m more concerned about them being lured away by deeper outside pockets than I am about them being outside downtown. As it is, University Circle is one of the few Cleveland neighborhoods holding its own. The Cleveland Play House is moving downtown, as is the graduate Drama department at Case Western Reserve; both are moving to Playhouse Square, as have our PBS and NPR stations (under the joint umbrella of Ideastream), and WCLV, a classical radio station.

Detroit needs to hurry and build a basic rail line NOW, along Woodward. Woodward is Detroit’s primary corridor, and building rail now will help provide incentive to consolidate the city along Woodward. In Cleveland, the Euclid busway (I can’t call it “The Health Line”…too embarrassing) has seen increasing ridership since opening.

Yes, Cleveland is a mess. No, it’s not as bad as Detroit, because Cleveland has distinct neighborhoods which can be salvaged. I would argue that Cleveland is far better off than Detroit in terms of cultural strength, as well as having a stronger restaurant scene. Our restaurant scene is concentrated in four neighborhoods (Downtown, Tremont, Ohio City, Gordon Square) which form a contiguous bloc on the inner west side of the city.

Nobody has mentioned one of the best ironies. Detroit’s People Mover was originally supposed to be built in Cleveland. The idea was that it would be a distributor for the Rapid, since Cleveland is the only US city where a rapid-transit line has only one downtown station.

Jason, thanks for the well-argued comment.

The main purpose of the Woodward line is SYMBOLIC: To announce that Detroit is making important, visible changes — so don’t give up!

It will be an antidote to the city’s terrible brand image. (Tho Chrysler’s Super Bowl ad with Eminem made a fine start on that!) The philanthropists know the symbolic value, putting in big money even if the project doesn’t score so well on the usual measures of transportation return on investment, because the line is not just transit.

(If you don’t count the donors’ money, but only the taxpayers’, the return on the public’s investment in the transit part of the project must score well.)

Accessible retail is a very important part of living car-free, or even in one-car households. But the big-box stores and malls are outside the city limits. Everyone drives to the ‘burbs to shop, and those without cars don’t have spending power anyway. As a result, Detroit suffers from a dearth of sales tax revenue, and property taxes from retail sites, AND a lack of retail jobs.

The Woodward line invites retailers to take a fresh look. Imagine the powers-that-be making it happen. Make Meijer’s an offer hard to refuse: “We have a site for a new store on Woodward, near a stop on the LRT line. We promise dense, middle-income housing on several blocks near this location. You can have the vacant land for $1 (and whatever other inducements we can legally make) on condition that your store opens by [date tba], and that it fits in with our plans for a walkable city (no acres of surface parking, even if government pays for a garage).”

If Michigan’s own Meijer’s chain turns it down (Walmart is hurting them, apparently), talk to Target, Costco, Macy’s, Kohl’s, Kroger, Sears/Kmart, Dillard’s, Whole Foods, JCPenney, Lord & Taylor, the Dollar Store, Nordstrom, mall developers, anybody: Somebody has to go first. (And better a bunch at once).

One or more will take the bait. The new LRT line suggests a bigger catchment area of potential customers than bus routes, and higher income riders as well. The public investment in LRT indicates that government is serious about changing the city.

Of course, landing a big-name big-box store, or better, more than one — Home Depot? Lowe’s? got lots of fixer-uppers in this area!– will also send a positive, symbolic signal that things are changing in Detroit.

Have them talk to Pathmark. Pathmark’s highest performing stores are in lower middle class or poor neighborhoods. Individuals and households in the area may be poor but everybody eats. May not make as much on any individual shopper ( though poorer shoppers tend to buy store brand which have higher margins so that may not be a problem ) but there’s lots of them. Lots and lots of them because there is no other supermarket nearby….. much better to have ten shoppers going through your store spending 75 dollars a piece than having 5 shoppers going through your store spending 100 dollars a piece.
…store with the highest sales per square foot is Duane Reade. An unextraordinary chain drug store almost indistinguishable from Rite Aid/Walgreens/CVS. But they specialize in serving dense neighborhoods in and around New York City and can pump lots customers through.

I strongly believe that the Woodward Lightrail should go straight down Woodward and not meander through downtown. First, many of those streets are quite narrow, and I question what would happen to adjacent buildings. Would there be street widening? Second, the whole point of a downtown is that it’s walkable once you get there. This is the folly of the people mover in the first place. It’s pointless and takes people off the street. Frankly, they ought to consider getting rid of it. People mover riders would instead walk around downtown and maybe stop in a shop along the way. People can walk a few blocks to the bus. They may even stop along the way and do something!


There would not ever be a need to widen streets to accommodate LRT in Detroit. Those streets only seem narrow compared to some of the really wide streets in the region.

The jog to the west on either Grand River or State would be on a street that is much wider than its traffic currently warrant. The construction of the Rosa Parks center cut State St. off. Washington Blvd is extremely wide north of Michigan Ave and about as wide as Woodward south of Michigan, as are Larned and Congress.

Putting it on Woodward south of Grand Circus Park will require it to either share a traffic lane with cars or it will take away curb parking and sidewalk bump outs. It would also be a bigger issue to navigate the Campus Martius. I actually think that the jog over to Washington should occur at Grand Circus Park.

I’m aware of the width of these streets. I live in Metro Detroit. Traffic planners do crazy things in the name of maintaining traffic flow. There shouldn’t be a need to widen streets, but traffic planners like to plan for the busiest day of the year rather than everyday needs.

In Cleveland, for example, the downgrading of the West Shoreway from highway to ‘boulevard’ will precipitate the widening of Detroit Ave, which parallels to the south. This widening will necessitate the removal of several buildings. Seems pointless to me, but that’s what the planners are calling for.

I think it would be worthwhile to narrow the sidewalks on lower Woodward – where they are very wide – in order to facilitate the light rail. I simply do not see the need to make this project more expensive by having it meander through downtown. We already have the People Mover. I also think it makes the system seem less legible to travelers. A straight shot down Woodward is elegant and sensible. As others have pointed out, the success of this project is going to affect future projects. Let’s make this one as good as possible. I’m also hoping that the LRT will run in center lanes like the Cleveland BRT and run faster than street traffic.

It would be nice if the People Mover and Woodward Light Rail could be integrated, but the People Mover tracks would likely require expensive renovations because it has a third rail rather than overhead wires. Though, I suppose the trains could be designed to acquire power in either method and sense when they need to switch methods. It would certainly be worth investigating.

Nick, I dunno who suggested to you that the Shoreway project will require widening Detroit. I live on Detroit, with the Shoreway immediately behind me. The traffic volume on Detroit is well below 20k/day, and Shoreway traffic fell by something like 75% when 90 was opened through the west side of Cleveland. In Ohio City and Gordon Square, Franklin Blvd is parallel to Detroit and generally offers faster drive time (longer blocks, fewer lights, higher speed limit). I have seen documents for this project, and the only demolition proposal I’ve seen is for a two-story building at the northeast corner of West 28 and Detroit; that one demolition is contingent on the alternative pursued. It’s kinda funny you mentioned this at all–my building had roughly 16 feet sliced off the Detroit facade in 1906, to accommodate the west portal of the streetcar subway on the Detroit-Superior Bridge. In 1906, they just took part of the building; in 2011, we’d tear down the entire building. Pretty wasteful.

From a transit perspective, we’re damn lucky that Cleveland still has 24-hour bus service, including the Detroit bus, but Cleveland RTA cut something like 40-45% of service over a six-year period. I assume that just as bad has happened or will happen with D-DOT and SMART (weren’t they going to merge), and rail (whether streetcar or true light rail) is not only an upgrade from the bus-only network, but it is likely to draw a segment of suburbanites who wouldn’t dare set foot on a D-DOT (or SMART) bus. Every bit helps…

I’m sure this has been thought of and discounted for a myriad of reasons but why not simply connect the line to the People Mover at say, Grand Circus Park? Tracks would rise to elevation from ground level to run down Bagley or Broadway. Eliminate a few stops and just have trains come down Woodward, make the one way loop and head back up Woodward. Clearly the infrastructure would need to be changed/updated but my guess would be the cost would not be more to change the rail lines and infrastructure on an already built elevated system than to build new on ground level. This negates the need for alignment questions downtown.

For the Woodward line, I feel down the middle would be faster and more aesthetic. I would also include a dedicated bike lane as part of the median restructuring.

The benefit of having a pedestrian space by having the light rail run along the sidewalk does not require the light rail running along the sidewalk on both side ~ it can run with both tracks along one sidewalk. A dedicated bike lane between the light rail and the traffic, on the protected side of the traffic barriers, would give a nicely traffic-and-pedestrian separated bike lane.

Only works if the businesses on that side have a service alley in back of the buildings.

That’s specifying by specific access solution rather than by access goal. “Requires ensuring access for service deliveries to businesses on that side” has alternatives means of achieving the task, and different means can be used for different blocks, if some have service alleys and some don’t and blocks are of different lengths.

How do the deliveries get across the two trolley tracks and bidirectional bicycle lanes?

Aren’t there alleys behind a lot of the buildings? They take care of deliveries very nicely indeed.

Is the eventual plan that the light rail will reach the inner suburbs? Or just serve as an inner city connector?

The people mover uses stupid technology and retrofitting it would be much more expensive than you’d think. :-P

I would avoid having the two tracks at one side as the habits of North American drivers would make that arrangement unsafe, as typified most recently by the frequent crashes along the Los Angeles Orange Line alignment section where it parallels Victory Blvd and Oxnard St. A side benefit of the center running is the greatly increased feeling of pedestrian safety; right now Woodward is at least nine lanes wide, and the light traffic along it – in combination with very fast speeds – does not make one feel comfortable crossing it.

That’s an interesting idea connecting it with the People Mover. Replacing the Vancouver Skytrain technology of the People Mover with light rail is pretty much the same thing – I believe – that they are planning to do in Toronto by ripping out the Scarborough RT’s Skytrain technology and replacing it with light rail.

The problem with the People Mover isn’t the technology; it’s that it’s a one-way loop that doesn’t serve any non-tourist trips. Using the same technology, Vancouver has gotten high and growing transit ridership.

It’s not really the same, even if in some sense it’s the same technology. Vancouver Skytrain was designed for train-length trains with fairly generous curves and grades. The Detroit People Mover…. wasn’t.

Skytrain is basically the same as Docklands Light Rail with linear induction motors, from what I can tell. The LIMs are fine (also used in JFK Airtrain) but incompatible with everything else and therefore silly.

DLR has actually had to rebuild sections because they were built for such tight curves and grades that they couldn’t lengthen the trains. The Detroit People Mover can’t do that kind of rebuilding selectively; it’s stuck with sharp curves everywhere and trains which can’t be lengthened. They appear to have picked a constrained loading gauge, just to assist with total incompatibility….

The question of how to pay for operating this light rail lines looms ever larger now that D-DOT is planning severe service cuts effective in June. 2 routes will be cut entirely, and several others will have service eliminated on weekends. 24 hour service will be no more. More importantly, major routes such as 53 Woodward will have service cut to 30 minutes on Saturday and 60 (!) on Sunday. Will there be coordinated weekend schedules between the 53 and the SMART buses on Woodward? I would bet not. In reality, no money should be spent on this until the 2 agencies merge and obtain some kind of financial stability.

This is insane, Detroit’s problems will not be solved or even significantly ameliorated by a streetcar line.

Anyway, the Downtown People Mover already saved Detroit, ca. 1983. That was the rationale then, same as now, and the rwesult will be the same. Transportation facilities where no one lives or works or wants to open a business and employ people, is rather beside the point. Pure economic waste.

If you want a different but very persuasive perspective on what happened to Detroit, and therefore might suggest how to help it, go to:

Leave a Reply