Detroit Transit Improving

Detroit Transit: Fighting Its Way Back

Detroit is a city of rejuvenation and promise for further growth. In terms of public transit, the Motor City has a great opportunity to improve. But it’s not there yet.

I recently visited the Detroit metro area for my non-urbanist job, and while my stay was brief, I was able to gather some casual observations. This was my first visit to the area in almost two years, but the first time to downtown Detroit in 13 years. The city has changed a lot in the past 20 years, with a revitalization of housing, restaurants, business, and stadia for all four major sports teams.

Indeed the city had the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, of which the five-year anniversary happened while I was in Detroit. Poverty, segregation, and dilapidation also are evident throughout the city.

But, as I also heard my Detroit-based colleagues say, the city is not making a comeback since the bankruptcy. It is back.

“It Doesn’t Go Anywhere”

Detroit increasingly has much to offer. But the city is still playing a long catch-up game to provide public transit to residents. Being in Detroit, the car is king. Funding every other mode is an afterthought. Speaking with friends and colleagues from the area, they have casually told me stories of failed referenda, long-term plans, and other nuances of transportation in the Detroit metro area. Not being from Detroit, I decided to research these stories a little further.

Historically, this city has taken multiple efforts to expand its transit service, but in the last 50 years, plans have fallen short or flat due to a lack of funding, a weakening local economy, and the post-war boom of the suburbs.

The People Mover is concrete evidence of this. While originally part of a broader transit plan to connect bus routes, light rail, and commuter train lines in downtown Detroit, it now offers a solo 20-minute loop around the immediate area. Last week, my coworkers had nothing good to say about it. That’s not to say it doesn’t serve a purpose (otherwise, it would’ve been shut down already). But it reminded me of when I first came to Detroit about 15 years ago for work. My boss told me: “Detroit also has an L. Well, it’s not really an L. It’s called the People Mover. It goes around downtown.”

My immediate response was, “So, why doesn’t it go anywhere outside of downtown like Chicago’s L?”  I was obviously unaware of the previous city plans.

This brings us to today, and the new M-1 Rail project which opened last year. Dubbed the QLine, with its backing from Quicken Loans chairman Dan Gilbert, opened with much fanfare. Unfortunately, at just over three miles long, the route is only one-third of its original planned distance, runs a somewhat redundant route along bus lines, and has been hampered by growing pains. The QLine does run through the core locations of Detroit’s economic resurgence as well as connect with both the Amtrak station and People Mover. But like with the People Mover, I observed negative sentiment from my coworkers about the QLine as we walked out of our restaurant on Woodward Ave. and a train passed.

One colleague said, “What a waste of money.” When I asked why that was, another colleague said, “It doesn’t go anywhere.”

I’ve actually read this criticism about the other tram/trolley lines that have begun in various cities around the country. They start as short routes, almost as a proof of concept, and if they catch on, there ideally is room for expansion. But in their current state, they act more as a short-line connection service for shoppers and restaurant patrons than part of a full transit system. With my coworkers’ blunt comments about the QLine, it seems like positive sentiment has a ways to go in the area, especially to people from suburban Detroit up Woodward Ave., who, even with a QLine expansion in the near term, still might not be served by it.

City, Suburbs, and Beyond

The well-documented divide between Detroit and its surrounding suburbs has created decades-long tensions and contributed to failed transit plans. Detroit’s suburban SMART buses and city DDOT buses are infamous for being separate systems and operating on their own schedules, with SMART not serving city passengers even on rush hour trips through the city. This policy was much to the chagrin of a former-Detroit-based friend of mine.

Funding plans for a broad, cohesive regional transportation network continue to hit roadblocks, leading to ongoing problems for bus commuters. Some suburbs have also opted out entirely of bus service. Detroit oddly doesn’t have significant traffic problems, so there’s also the presumption that everyone can drive. But, as all transit advocates know, not everybody has a car! In fact, Detroit recently was tagged as the worst city to drive in, adding on to its notoriously high car insurance costs. Residents, especially those who can’t afford a car, need a sound transit system for such a large metropolitan area.

Aside from the buses, rail service is sparse in the area. Like most big cities back in the day, Detroit used to have many rail lines, but as those disappeared, the area was left with a slim choice of options. The commuter rail from 40 years ago ceased operations in less than a decade. Amtrak has picked up the slack, serving various suburbs north and west of the city, but those Amtrak trains are going to and from Chicago. There’s nothing wrong with the long-distance destination, but there are only three weekday trains per day to and from Detroit and its suburbs. They’re also expensive for the distance and are at odd hours, not ideal for commuters.

(It’s not ideal for regional rail, either. At a relatively short distance and a flat terrain, there should be at least 10 daily trains between Chicago and Detroit; a full high-speed rail project. Hey, they can utilize the rail tunnel under the Detroit River into Windsor and get Canada on board to provide high-speed rail to Toronto. This is, of course, more of a federal government issue than a Detroit issue, though I do find it ironic and very Detroit that a car company, Ford, acquired the abandoned Michigan Central Station.)

So commuters mainly drive. To their jobs in the city and suburbs, south across the boarder, and west to the airport. Unlike regional rail, there are dozens of Detroit-Chicago flights per day. Travelers here do have an opportunity to ride another short-line mode of transit, the Express Tram.

Things Are Getting Better

Transit service is indeed improving. The region’s Connect Southeast Michigan plan puts its sights on improved bus service, bus rapid transit, and commuter rail. Mayor Mike Duggan has been expanding bus service and pushing for more transit options. The new FAST bus routes offer an affordable and frequent option for suburban-city commuters via three core arterial routes. FAST buses also now go out to the airport, which certainly should be welcoming to airport workers and travelers not wanting to drive, rent a car, do a rideshare, or hire a taxi (the last option has cost me $65 and $77 on my previous two trips from the airport to the suburbs north of the city).

The area continues to improve economically. All knocking of the QLine aside, one of my coworkers said Dan Gilbert has helped bring a lot of investment capital to the city. People are coming to Detroit. The New York Times called it the most exciting city in the country. It is certainly much different from the Detroit I visited in the early 2000s.

The city still has its problems, and transit is not to where it needs to be for a city of its size. But it may be on the right path.

Photo source: Shantelle McLin  

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