Saturday, July 29, 2017

Motor City Mobility

Back in 1987, the year of the Iran-contra hearings and Gary Hart's fatal cruise to Bimini, the city of Detroit opened its first light-rail line since the city's original streetcar system was retired in the 1950s.  The "People Mover," as it was called, is an elevated light-rail system using driverless trains that encircles the downtown area on a track just under three miles long, just as the elevated heavy-rail train lines in Chicago encircle that city's central business district, known affectionately as the Loop.  But while the the train lines encircling downtown Chicago serve as a hub for other elevated lines that transport people from other parts of the city into the Loop, Detroit's People Mover - which borrowed its name from a similar train once used at Disneyland in Anaheim, California - only serves the city's downtown area.  The idea is to use it to get from one location in the central business district to the other, but the area it encircles is conveniently navigable on foot - meaning that it's easier to walk, which is why the few people who frequent downtown Detroit prefer to do so.  Ridership on the People Mover (below, seen passing the so-called Renaissance Center) is so low - 2.5 percent of its daily peak capacity - that it's been called a "ghost train" . . . a ghost train for a ghost town.
Now, however, there is a new effort to bring back at least some of the conventional streetcar system that served Detroit in the first half of the twentieth century . . . but that too has its problems.              
This is the new streetcar line along Woodward Avenue, the main drag through the center of Detroit.  Plans for the line go as far back as 2006, when the city expressed interest in bringing back rapid transit after the last of the original surface streetcars ran in 1956, and it initially got support from the federal government.  The line was to run on Woodward Avenue for about nine miles.  In 2011, though, Washington withdrew its support for the proposed M-1 line (so called because Woodward Avenue is part of Michigan State Route 1, or M-1 for short) when then-U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, then-Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and Michigan governor Rick Snyder decided it would be better to promote a bus system connecting the city and its neighborhoods with the suburbs.  Yet the desire for a streetcar line remained, and private investors, who had supported a shorter line, got such a line going.  The home-mortgage lender Quicken Loans, a Detroit business, was a main supporter of the project, and the M-1 line was named the QLine when Quicken bought the naming rights to it.  It opened in May 2017.  The QLine runs three miles and connects the downtown area with Grand Boulevard to the north.  Sounds pretty good, right?
Wrong.  The Woodward Avenue streetcar is efficient, and it uses conventional technology not unlike the streetcar lines in European cities like Brussels and in American cities fortunate enough to have street-surface light rail, like Philadelphia and Portland, Oregon.  But only ten percent of Detroit's residents live within a reasonable walking distance of the QLine, meaning that most Detroiters are unlikely to use it.  It doesn't work in concert with the city's buses, either, as there's no transfer system between the buses and the QLine.  Therefore, the QLine is no more effective as a serious urban public transit line than the People Mover.
Ironically, the city that put America in automobiles has a proud streetcar heritage.  In the 1920s, Detroit's streetcar network ran 534 miles through the city's neighborhoods, and it was the most effective and most cost-efficient way to get to work at the car factory or at the office downtown.  Bear in mind also that Detroit's public light-rail system was one of the first such systems to become public in the truest sense of the word; the city purchased it in 1922 from Detroit United Railway (DUR), the private company that had built it, but the sale had been anticipated by DUR long before it happened, so the company deliberately underinvested in it.  Nevertheless, the city kept the streetcars running for 34 years after the purchase, ultimately giving in to the transition to city buses, a move promoted in cities nationwide by General Motors.  (General Motors made new buses and and sold them to cities, all right, but it also sold more cars, as most people didn't want to ride buses.)  The new QLine is both a shadow of the old streetcar system and an insult to the efforts of men like Hazen Pingree, Detroit's mayor in the late 1890s, who had championed public ownership of urban transit.
But there's another wrinkle.  Dan Gilbert, the founder of Quicken Loans and a native Detroiter, relentlessly promoted the QLine - which somehow got $30 million in public funds - for a reason, and it wasn't because he wanted to help the city come back from the dead.  Apparently, a good deal of land near the Woodward Avenue corridor is ripe for redevelopment, and any mortgage lender, especially a notoriously unscrupulous mortgage lender like Gilbert, will tell you that when you build a public rail transit line through such an area, real estate values increase exponentially.  And guess who owns a large number of downtown properties near the new streetcar line.  If you said "Dan Gilbert," congratulations - you win the $64 jackpot prize!  (I'm only kidding . . . about the $64.)
Which is ironic, considering all of Gilbert's sports-franchises investments in . . . Cleveland.  (He owns the Cavaliers basketball team, among other teams in various sports and leagues.  So, LeBron James works for him, essentially.) 
Sean Tobin of Progress Michigan explains why this is a big, fat hairy deal.  "It is plain to see," Tobin wrote in March 2016, "that this rail is a private venture, hijacked by private dollars, and is not meant to support rebuilding Detroit but rather pad the pockets of predatory home loan maker Dan Gilbert, all the while leaving tens of thousands of Detroit bus riders in the lurch. The fact that the rail should be renamed to honor a company that sold the city on derivatives and profited off of so many on bad mortgages - both of which are widely accepted as main causes of the Detroit bankruptcy - is like feeding the wolf that is going to keep biting you."
But - and there's always a "but" when talking about mass transit - there is an opportunity for the Woodward Avenue streetcar line to succeed.  For starters, it connects the downtown area to another part of town instead of literally going around in a circle like the ill-fated People Mover.  Also, it connects Detroit's Amtrak station at Baltimore Street directly with downtown, providing a rail lifeline between the two points that hadn't existed before, which will make Amtrak travel into the city from Chicago more attractive (Amtrak also connects Detroit with Pontiac in Oakland County, Michigan).  The QLine has potential.  There are actually reasons to use it.  And success breeds success, so once the Woodward Avenue corridor does become more populated, as more people and businesses move into the area to take advantage of the streetcar, there should be an incentive to get the QLine's backers to figure out how QLine riders and passengers of local bus lines can transfer between the streetcars and the buses.  And once everything does fall in to place, the biggest question in Detroit will not be, "Why do we need a streetcar that doesn't serve my neighborhood?"  It will be, "When is the streetcar coming to my neighborhood?"
And hopefully by then, someone other than Dan Gilbert - say, the folks in City Hall - will be able to answer that question.              

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