What light rail will do for Detroit

After seeing “Beyond the Motor City,” the new PBS documentary on the future of mass transit in Detroit, I’ve been thinking more about what light rail can realistically do for the city. The first segment, after all, will only run 3.1 miles along Woodward, from Downtown out to the New Center. So won’t this end up being the People Mover Part Two — a monorail to nowhere, a la The Simpsons?

I firmly believe the answer is no. For one thing, the light rail line actually goes somewhere. Unlike the People Mover, which circles an area that’s already walkable without adding anything besides a view, the light rail line will bridge several distinct neighborhoods that collectively include nearly all of Detroit’s major institutions. For another, unlike the People Mover, the light rail line has a built-in constituency. Thousands of people already take the bus along Woodward every day.

Most importantly, though, the light rail line has the potential to revitalize the urban core in a way that the People Mover never did. That’s because the area is already undergoing slow, steady, undeniable progress. Unlike downtown in the 1980s, the Woodward corridor is not a dying district. Despite the national recession and the decade-long local depression, the area continues to rebuild, one storefront at a time.

I see it everyday as I walk through Midtown: Leopold’s Books, Good Girls Go to Paris Crepes, City Bird, Kim’s Produce, Shangri La, the Burton Theater — six new businesses in just the past year! And many more projects are underway, from the Green Garage business incubator on Second Avenue to the Garden Block restoration on Woodward. This is a walkable, urban area that has only begun to realize its potential.

And yet … it still lacks density. Despite all the development, despite the tight urban street grid, it’s hard to shake the sense that so far it doesn’t quite cohere. That’s where light rail comes in. Until it’s extended, the 3.1 mile starter line will be too short to bring in waves of new commuters. But it can serve as the backbone to the corridor, bridging its disparate parts and focusing new development along its twelve stops. It may take another decade or more to get there, but Detroit’s urban core can once again be a dense, thriving area, just as it was through the 1950s, when streetcars last crisscrossed its streets.

4 thoughts on “What light rail will do for Detroit

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  2. john

    What about dedicated bus rapid transit ? Cheaper and more cost effective. In fact a major artery like Woodward is ideal for this mode of transport. We can learn from the experience of Ottawa and Pittsburgh

  3. Sam Burkeen

    I grew up in Detroit in the 50′s and 60′s, even rode on the street cars, worked as a stock boy in J L Hudson when I was in HS. It was a great city, but it is way past time to face reality, and I did not see much of that in the expert commentary. Spain has now pulled the plug on its subsidies. Unemployment is about 18%. Greece just got bailed out by the IMF to the tune of $1T, and Spain may follow. California and Illinois are in the top ten countries and states most likely to go bankrupt in the near future. The so-called healthcare reform bill has pushed the present value unfunded liabilities of the Federal government from $108T to over $130T. What this means is that commitments have been made that cannot be kept and resources have been squandered on an unprecedented scale, and I am referring to government spending and government policy. A light rail system is not going to save Detroit to resemble what it was in 1940. Tear down the vacant buildings, and if you can avoid imploding financially provide some kind of modest transportation for the poor. If you think the Chinese and the rest of the sovereign wealth funds are going to keep financing Federal and state wish list follies, which are described here, then you really must be smoking something. And apparently as mentioned here, we are behind the Europeans once again. Judging by the G20 meeting the Europeans are now more terrified of defaulting on their debt than borrowing more money to build wind mills and high speed trains. In five years we will be at the same cross roads, and there is no Henry Ford in sight.

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