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.