Bus Detroit Streetcar

For Detroit, BRT or Rail First?

» 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.

Detroit Light Rail

Detroit Stakes its Hopes for Renaissance on Transit, but it has Bigger Hurdles Ahead

» A rail system cannot solve city’s huge problems.

Detroit’s half-dead nature has captured the nation’s attention over the past year. Though the whole country continues to suffer from the recession, the emptying of Michigan’s largest city is notable to the degree that its fate seems practically irredeemable: Given its economic, social, and political position, how can the city survive?

Municipal leaders and pundits from around the country are convinced that a concerted planning effort and major investments could to free it from its doldrums. The plan that has commanded the most attention recently is a regional transportation project that would begin with a light rail line down Woodward Avenue and then extend into a triangular network of bus rapid transit corridors. These would converge on a new high-speed service with direct trains to Chicago.

In a series running tonight, PBS is promoting the decidedly optimistic view that Detroit would be able to capitalize massively on new transit and proceed to rebuild the city around regenerated corridors. Higher-density residential and commercial development would allow the city to reduce per capita spending on essential services like road maintenance and sewers, which require huge expenditures because of the sprawled and vacant condition of much of the city. Detroit would reconstruct itself based on a major piece of infrastructure.

But that vision, as promising as it may be to transit promoters, is no panacea; Detroit will continue to suffer from job and residential loss even with a rail line. The project will only fulfill its promise if the city receives far more investment from exterior sources and if it develops a strong vision for its future.

Transit and development

Much of the discussion about the potential for public transportation to spur Detroit’s renaissance is premised on the idea that well-designed transit can be an effective tool for encouraging development. This is one of the primary reasons why many cities push for light rail or streetcars instead of often-cheaper variants of bus rapid transit. It is assumed that the permanent investment made manifest in the construction of a rail line — the tracks aren’t going anywhere, while bus service could theoretically change routing at any moment — will persuade the private sector to invest in dense new residential and commercial developments around station zones.

And indeed, there is plenty of evidence that new rail lines in the United States have been fantastic mediums for growth, in inner cities and in suburban transit zones.

But that kind of new construction usually only comes when there is sufficient demand for transit-oriented lifestyles. And there will only be such a market when three provisions are met: land in the urban core and in transit corridors must be already relatively well-developed and with low vacancy rates; there must sufficient neighborhood amenities to which residents can walk (or at least the promise of them arriving); and transit must provide a reasonable commute to and from workplaces and destinations of metropolitan reach.

These conditions can be met by some sections of a transit line and not others.

Detroit, even after years of decline, has been able to maintain about 200,000 jobs in the downtown area, thanks to the presence of several large institutions like General Motors, Compuware, and Wayne State University and Medical Center. People living along the Woodward Avenue light rail line would have good access to a large jobs market within easy reach of transit. They would also have direct service to several of downtown’s entertainment districts.

But would there be a strong enough incentive for the construction of new multi-family residences and office buildings along the transit line for the project to have been worth the initial investment in terms of spin-off development? Developers typically have little profit motive in constructing medium-to-high density apartment complexes for people who are not members of the upper-middle or upper classes unless government or non-profit entities provide subsidies to house people of lesser means. That means there must be adequate wealth in the market to make dense urban neighborhoods possible.

But Detroit’s population, which is one of the poorest of any municipality in the country (50% of the city’s children live in poverty), hardly fits the mold developers hope to attract. Nor does the city have much money to spend on subsidizing affordable housing.

Evidence from many American cities that have built light rail suggest that while the transit mode can focus activity around stations in areas where there is a market, it is less productive in generating development in poor neighborhoods as a direct consequence of the lack of developer interest. In cities where demand for more urban living is less strong in general relative to the overall market, there will inevitably be less construction produced, and whole sections of disinterested neighborhoods will remain in their decrepit state, with or without rail transit.

Similarly, there is so much vacant land in Detroit (note the photograph above, just three blocks from the downtown core and one block from a proposed Woodward Avenue light rail station) that even people who do want to live in the urban center won’t have much of a motivation to inhabit high-density buildings. An estimated 40 of the city’s 139 square miles are empty — that’s more land than the entire city of Miami. This means land prices are incredibly cheap and it is often less expensive to build transit-unfriendly single family homes from scratch than to buy an apartment in a multi-story building, which is usually more expensive to build per unit than a suburban house because of the former’s more sturdy construction. Even if there is a market for dense living, most investment will occur in the city’s downtown, which has dozens of vacant high-rises waiting for renovations, not further out along Woodward Avenue.

High-density construction only makes sense to developers when land prices are high: there’s a reason one rarely sees an office tower in the middle of a corn field.

Detroit also suffers from a tremendous dearth of even the most basic neighborhood amenities. In 2003, the city of 900,000 inhabitants had only five grocery stores (none of which was owned by a major chain) with more than 20,000 square feet — the standard size of a modern supermarket. Based on its population, it could support 40, but no one’s building. How can people be expected to live a walking lifestyle when they have a difficult time buying food?

Who, exactly, will choose or be able to afford to live in the thousands of new apartments adjacent to light rail stations? Detroit fits only two of the three conditions absolutely necessary for developers to be attracted to constructing new buildings on a large scale.

Prerequisites for spending on rapid transit

The construction of dense urban developments and the creation of successful transit lines go hand-in-hand: one doesn’t work without the other. But some Detroit planners argue that the primary motivation in creating improved public transportation is to improve the mobility of the city’s car-less citizens, who make up one-third of the population. Quite ironic for the so-called Motor City.

This logic, in fact, is just as meaningful as a development-oriented one, because it serves the purpose of improving social equity. If people can’t get around very easily, their poverty will only be entrenched.

Yet if the primary goal of a transportation system is to serve the needs of the poor in a city like Detroit, light rail isn’t necessarily the right answer. There are some major advantages to trains, namely that they can operate in their own rights-of-way and that they can provide large transport capacity. Cities that are spending hundreds of millions of dollars in new transit should focus on their most dense, congested corridors.

It is undoubtedly true that Woodward Avenue is the region’s premier street, so it should be first in line in receiving light rail. It is also true that the 3.4-mile corridor from Hart Plaza to New Center proposed for the initial investment by private group M1-Rail is reasonably dense, though as shown in the image above, many lots just off the corridor are completely deserted. The proposed city-funded extension from New Center to Eight Mile, however, is entirely suburban in nature, with single-family homes and auto-oriented retail making up most of the landscape. It’s hard to see how this line would attract significant enough patronage to warrant a rail investment.

Meanwhile, if good transit is also reasonably fast compared to cars, the relative lack of traffic on Woodward and parallel highways even at rush hour suggests that buses operating in much cheaper segregated lanes could be just as quick as light rail. Congestion is the best way to encourage people of all income groups to jump onto transit, but Detroit has so many freeways in its urban core that the day when traffic becomes a problem may never come.

If the city’s goal if to relieve the commuting pain of car-less citizens, it could save a lot of money by spending on a larger number of bus corridors instead of one rail line — if capital funds could be transferred to operations, since most bus spending is in the latter category. If it did so, Detroit would have better access for a larger percentage of the city’s spread-out citizenry. This would be the most direct approach to achieving more equitable transportation for the city’s most impoverished.

Growth is necessary, not optional — but it’s only possible with a game plan

Nevertheless, the city’s leaders seem intent on investing in the light rail line, and you can’t blame them, since it will provide a signature symbol of the city’s efforts to resurrect itself. The project, however, will not be successful in attracting large number of patrons nor in spurring significant amounts of spin-off development unless the city stems the mass exodus that has been a fact of life for Motown since the 1950s.

The rail line, it should be emphasized, will not be the magic bullet that makes that possible.

Indeed, there are only two realistic ways to ensure satisfactory use of the transit line and spark affiliated surrounding development: Either there must be population and job growth city-wide, including in the transit zones, or there must be population and job growth in the transit zones, to the detriment of other areas of the city. Because of Detroit’s history, the lackluster state of the automobile industry, and little evidence of a significant nationwide interest in moving to Michigan, the former seems unlikely to pan out.

So the city must endeavor to encourage movement of citizens and businesses into the transit zone. If the city goes about following the status quo, it will build a little-used light rail line surrounded by a lot of vacant land, and foster only minor development. Artist collectives and urban farming will spring up, but these will be but minor counterpoints to a continued narrative of citywide decline. It’s hard to see how a transit system in this situation will provide the stimulus to reverse the city’s course.

On the other hand, Detroit could pursue a radical change of direction in which it closes off sections of the city to housing and compels to move into newly built housing along transit corridors and in the downtown core — basically, artificially altering the city limits to the exclusion of most of the city’s residents. This approach, which would require making it illegal to build or even live in many areas of the metropolis, would increase land prices substantially near transit stations. It would only be possible, however, with enormous subsidies from the state and federal governments to pay for the construction of tens of thousands of affordable housing units. People would have to be implored to stay in the city despite being kicked from their homes.

Because of the cost of such a strategy and the political infeasibility of shuttering whole neighborhoods, such focused growth seems unlikely to occur. But without a well-planned reconfiguration of the city’s built form, Detroit may have difficulty surviving.

Hope persists

Though Detroit is unlikely to advance a complete rethinking of the city’s workings, the cancer that plagues it is not yet irreversible. The municipality’s best hope is in employment growth: if it is able to attract thousands of new jobs downtown and along the light rail line, it could create a dense urban center strong enough to justify the investment in light rail and big enough to attract a growing residential population. These new jobs, of course, will only be made possible with huge government aid; the private sector is not exactly banging down the door of city hall, with companies continuing to eliminate jobs nationwide.

However unlikely any help from Lansing or Washington may be, Detroit’s future may well rest on it. A light rail line would then be little more than icing on the cake, a complement to government-sponsored job growth if things go well, or a last gasp if the city’s fate expires.

Image above: Intersection of John R and Alfred Streets, one block from Woodward Avenue, three blocks from downtown core, from Google Maps Streetview

Congress Detroit DOT Finance

Congress Approves M1 Involvement in Detroit Light Rail

» Public-private partnerships could bring big benefits to the Motor City. But they might be sending the wrong message about governmental responsibility.

If Detroit has yet to receive the kind of huge public investment that may well be necessary to save it, it hasn’t been entirely forgotten by its natives. Over the past year, a group of individuals and corporations have donated tens of millions of dollars towards the creation of an entity that would construct a new rail line down the city’s primary corridor, Woodward Avenue. Their example of direct private involvement in a transit project for a non-profit purpose is unique, and the U.S. Congress has authorized what may be a first-in-the-nation approach. Is it the right one?

Detroit, as has been discussed over and over, has been losing population for decades and its industrial base has been disappearing for years. The city’s leaders have been notoriously poor at responding to its problems; most relevant to this website, they rejected several hundred million dollars in the 1970s for a full-scale rail system, ultimately building only a one-way loop around the city center called the People Mover — a depressing failure.

The group of private and non-profit investors, calling themselves M1 Rail, are attempting to use spending on a 3.4-mile light rail line down Woodward to revive the city’s spirits and potentially its economy. This corridor runs diagonally out from the center of the city and has always been considered the top priority for transit investment in Detroit. The group’s $125 million project would extend from downtown’s Hart Plaza to Grand Boulevard and include 12 stops, meaning one every quarter-mile. This proposal, now almost fully funded, seems on the brink of reaching the construction stage. Using federal funds, the city would eventually extend the line to a total of eight miles at a cost of $425 million.

Incapable of paying a 40% share in the project’s cost, the minimum local (or state) commitment to a New Starts rail project, Detroit officials asked their representatives in Congress to count the M1 spending as part of the local share. That way, the city would be able to qualify for a full 60% aid from Washington as long as it were able to cobble together the missing ten percent.

In the recent spending bill, Detroit got its way.  By allowing the private money to be considered part of the local match under the Federal Transit Administration’s guidelines, Detroit’s chance of extending this project further than just what is planned by M1 rises exponentially.

This sets an interesting precedent: private companies, in this case working with a non-profit motivation, can attract federal funding for an extension of their project. Will this legislation affect other cities? What happens when a private company involved is profit-motivated?

These questions may be premature, since unless the FTA alters its quite controversial cost-effectiveness guidelines, Detroit may not be able to win those New Start project dollars upon which it has staked the future of its public transportation system. Compared to other planned lines around the country, Detroit’s project is likely to attract fewer users (being surrounded by the city’s half-vacant landscape) and be just as slow as existing bus service (with so many stations).

Still, if the project goes through, with a private group taking the first step and the public coming in for a second act, Detroit may be teaching other cities a new trick — and potentially putting itself and others in danger.

If, instead of keeping its money to itself, the M1 group had simply donated the $125 million it plans on raising to the City of Detroit for the purposes of building this line, no Congressional action would have been necessary; this money, under public control, would have been considered the local match automatically. But it is apparent that those working with M1 do not trust the municipal government, and perhaps that is a justifiable position considering Detroit’s track record. As a result, the first stage of the project will be built by M1 and then operated by the group, with city involvement only on the second stage.

In Detroit’s circumstances, this seems like an acceptable compromise, especially considering that those who have donated to the project clearly don’t expect to be making money on it.

But if the government allows such funds to serve as the local match in the future in other cities, the situation could be quite different. What happens if the investors on the first stage of the line stand to reap a large monetary gain (read: real estate related in the case of most cities) from the construction of the second stage? Can there be guarantees that the initial project’s operations will be maintained over an extended timeline? Would the federal government be put in a compromising situation in such a case? Shouldn’t cities be the decision-makers when it comes to transportation investments, and if so, is there any role for private groups at all?

Detroit, in other words, has a situation that seems pretty cut-and-dry — the federal government should clearly count the M1 funds towards the local match. It’s what happens elsewhere that could be problematic.

Detroit Michigan

Insanity Rears its Ugly Head in Michigan

Michigan Hydrogen Train ProposalState is now considering private proposal for elevated, hydrogen-powered maglev trains from Detroit to Lansing and Ann Arbor

The Detroit Free Press reports today that the Michigan State House is holding hearings on whether to consider a private plan to build a maglev rail line between Detroit and Lansing, the state capital, and Detroit and Ann Arbor, where the main state university is located. The company making the proposal, Interstate Traveler Company, claims that it could build the $2.3 billion system without public money, as long as it gets to use highway right-of-way for free. As an added bonus, profits would be split 50-50 with the government, and the line could begin construction by 2010! Does it get any better?

Yes! The line would have stations at every interchange along I-96, the trains would be built by Detroit auto manufacturers (of course), and the system would be designed to handle passengers, freight, and cars! The lines themselves would carry electricity, fiber optics, and hydrogen gas, allowing them to act like giant utility lines. Trains would travel at 200 mph.

Perhaps most astonishing of all, “fares could be 5 cents a mile.” That means a trip between Detroit and Lansing would cost… $4.50!

To put it mildly, this plan is completely ridiculous. Not only does little of the technology these entrepreneurs are advocating exist, but they’ve invented a financing system that seems to rely more on witchcraft than reality. The fact that Michigan’s legislators are taking this proposal seriously enough to consider it in a legislative session reaffirms my sense that the state is on the edge of complete collapse.

Image above: Interstate Traveler System, from Interstate Traveler Company


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