M-1 Rail rendering

Detroit was once known as 'the Paris of the West,' counting itself among the most cosmopolitan cities in America. Its growth was propelled by a booming auto industry, which greatly influenced the city's design. Home to the first paved road and site of early interstate highway development, the Motor City was ahead of the curve in updating its infrastructure to meet the growing demands of a car-crazed culture.

By the mid-1950s, large multi-lane roads stretched from city center to suburban sprawl, and remaining electric streetcar lines were decommissioned as a result. The automobile offered a convenient way for many to realize their dreams of a big backyard with fresh cut grass, even if they still worked downtown. The times were good and no one thought to focus on public transit.
As more of Detroit's affluent population took to driving the streets further from downtown, the tax base eroded; this, along with racial unrest following the 1967 riots, increased job loss and a reputation for crime led Detroit's population to dwindle from an all-time high of 1.8 million people to a mere 713,000, as it stands today.

Ever since, Detroiters have been working toward a city renaissance. Since the late 90's, Detroit has been on the move to bring more businesses back to downtown, creating a lifestyle of living local for its residents. Another major piece left to consider is how Detroiters will get around. The current, ineffective state of public transit may stunt Detroit's growth efforts if not addressed soon.

Detroit's only mass transit option, besides a less-than-reliable city bus system, is a small elevated rail line known as the People Mover. The 2.9 mile automated monorail was built in the 1980s to serve the downtown area, with plans for expansion that were never realized. As it stands, the People Mover only travels in one direction and does not connect to any other transit lines. It's daily ridership is only 7,000 people--a far cry from its daily peak capacity of 288,000.

In other words, the People Mover and bus system, in their current state, don't work for Detroit.

M-1 Rail rendering

But what about a light rail line?

A project called M-1 Rail proposes to better connect all of Detroit's transit options. A 3.4 mile light rail streetcar would run along Woodward Avenue, from downtown all the way north, through Detroit's growing neighborhoods. Stops would coordinate with local transit hubs like the People Mover, as well as Detroit's regional Amtrak station.

The Woodward corridor is a significant part of the metro area and a light rail system could provide a link for many to get downtown and enjoy a revitalized Detroit. Travelers could take the rail line to work to skip all the morning traffic, save on car costs, and help reduce carbon consumption.

A spokesperson for M-1 Rail says that, "If approved, construction will begin in winter 2013 with operations scheduled to start in mid-2015. M-1 Rail will operate and maintain the system for up to 10 years, until 2025, at which point it plans to gift the project assets and operating responsibility to a public agency, such as the proposed regional transit authority."

Total capital costs to build the M-1 rail line amount to $125 million and annual operations are estimated at $5.1 million. M-1 has raised significant private funding through business leaders in the city, including auto racing legend Roger Penske, Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert and, more recently, Sergio Marchionne's Chrysler Group. "In addition, the federal government will match up to $60 million in funds provided by our donors, which can be used towards the creation of a regional transit system, such as the proposed [bus rapid transit]. We believe that light rail will be the catalyst for the development of...other systems, in creating an effective transportation system," said M-1 Rail.

BRT HealthLine, Cleveland

Bus rapid transit, or BRT, may indeed offer a potentially cheaper, less infrastructure-altering alternative to solving Detroit's public transit problems. BRT can mean many things, but at its core is a bus system with dedicated lanes to operate in. BRT lines boast increased capacity over traditional buses with articulated or double-decker coaches, more comfortable ride with the use of guided routes (busses that run on a sort of track), and decreased operating costs by running on alternative fuels. Bus stations could offer wi-fi and other high-tech amenities to make traveling more convieneint.

The major benefits of BRT are reduced costs and flexibility for growth. We reached out to Dennis Hinebaugh, Director of the National Bus Rapid Transit Institute (NBRTI), for his take on how BRT could benefit Detroit. Hinebaugh says that, "Due to the capital-hungry nature of rail infrastructure, the amount of money that would be needed to build one light rail line could be used to build many BRT lines. In addition to providing high ridership potential in exchange for comparatively low capital expenditures, BRT applications can be bundled into a wide variety of flexible configurations to adapt to local needs and resource availability. Additionally, BRT can start small and develop incrementally to meet growing demand as funds become available."

He also pointed to Cleveland as an example city that benefited from a BRT. "[For] Cleveland, a post-industrial city that has much in common with Detroit...the HealthLine BRT has been nothing short of transformative. The project included a complete streetscape renovation of Euclid Avenue and has been credited as the catalyst for more than $4 billion in economic development along the corridor. By vastly improving how transit passengers, residents, and visitors experience some of the city's most historic districts, the HealthLine has been instrumental in helping Cleveland reclaim its identity."

But does Detroit have to choose between BRT and light rail? When asked, Mr. Hinebaugh echoed the sentiments of the urban planners we spoke to during the production of TRANSLOGIC 101. "Unfortunately, the growing focus on BRT in the U.S. has been sidetracked by a misguided 'bus versus rail' mentality. BRT and [light rail] are not competitors, but two distinct modes, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Determining which option makes the most sense will depend on each unique situation. The world's most robust transit systems have a diversity of modes that complement one another."

Old paradigm thinking would suggest that Detroit should pick between either the low-cost of BRT or the permanence of light rail. But urban planers, as well as rail and BRT advocates alike, insist that an integrated network of both will offer the most complete solution for Detroiters in desperate need of a better way to get around.