Getting the Detroit People Mover Going

 

After a friend came back from a trip to Detroit we go on the topic of transportation, which led us eventually to one unique, if quirky, piece of transit infrastructure: the Detroit People Mover. Built in 1987, it probably wasn’t the best transit investment in the beginning (let’s face it, it was a shoddy attempt at urban revitalization); and the introduction of the Q-Line street car will pivot the city’s transit priorities in a different direction. It’d be a shame to see the Detroit People Mover go to waste however and be removed like the Sydney Monorail after barely three decades in service. It still posses worth as a piece of the city’s transit infrastructure.

From even casual observation it’s quite clear urban people movers have been a less than successful form of urban transportation. The sheer dearth of systems is evidence enough. On top of that the type service they provide often does little to actually make getting around the cities any easier. Like in Detroit or Jacksonville, another U.S. with a downtown people mover, systems are spatially limited to a core central business district and specifically to sites that would most likely appeal to casual visitors: convention centers, casinos, or stadiums.

Detroit has an opportunity to make its people mover really work for the city. As the Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority moves forward with a ballot initiative to fund the construction of a transit master plan–on top of the soon-to-be-open Q-Line streetcar–an integrated, multi-modal network could help bring more use to the People Mover.

True success for the People Mover doesn’t line in how well it connects to other transit modes entirely, but also to what other areas the DPM directly connects riders. That’s what will make it a viable transit system. Although people movers (which are coming into their own as automated subway systems become more common) have limited success, the examples of the Lille Metro, Miami Metromover, and the London Docklands Light Rail show how successful these simple transit systems can be.

What I propose for Detroit is using the people mover, in conjunction with the Q-Line, as the primary downtown transit mode. This means expanding it into the surrounding neighborhoods and also to places that are attractive destinations to visitors and tourists. The DPM will never become the backbone of Detroit’s transit system, but it shouldn’t be left behind as new plans move forward.

detroit-people-mover

The people mover expansion would include approximately 12 miles of new route composed of four extensions from the Downtown loop connecting to Belle Isle, Eastern Market via , Windsor (Downtown, Windsor Viarail, and Windsor University), and (a hopefully refurbished and functional) Michigan Central Terminal. The expansion would cost somewhere in the range of $500 million dollars. This is a very vague estimation however based on the cost of the Miami Metromover and taking into account the inflation rate from 1995 when it was completed, but also recognizing that construction costs in Detroit could be very different. However, the operating costs of the Metromover are rather low and could apparently be covered by a $1 per ride fare, which indicates the recovery on investment could be rather easy.

A key element of my plan is connecting Windsor and Detroit better with the people mover. Part of this is accomplished by building two “international routes”, which would be built with stations modified to account for the complexity of having customs offices essentially all over Downtown Detroit and Windsor. The idea is that the international routes would have limited stops supplemented by more frequently stopping local routes on either side of the boarder. Another option is to use the tap-on, tap-off fare payment method that prevent you from exiting non-customs exits if you entered on the other side of the boarder while allowing riders to enter and exit the system as leisure if they remain on the same side.

The upshot of using the DPM for international mass transportation however is that the automated vehicles remove the need for employees to constantly deal with boarder crossings as well. The only concern would be with passengers. Additional precautions can be made by designing stations so that if passengers end up on the wrong train and thus wrong side of the boarder, they can return hassle free to the appropriate side. Regardless, it would be interesting as an experiment in developing international mass transportation.

Any similar steps are ones in the right direction though. It makes no sense to let the DPM go the way of the Sydney Monorail when it still has potential as part of Detroit-Windsor’s larger transit network.

**A guilty conscience forces me to admit I haven’t been to Detroit in awhile and most of this post is based off conjecture from a brief visit three years ago, what I know from other published sources, and my friend’s account of his trip (for the record he’s an urban planner too). I would absolutely love to know locals thoughts on this, what the general option of the people mover is, transit in Detroit, what I got right, and what I totally got wrong.