Thursday, August 7, 2014

Tunnel Visions: The Detroit People Mover

Every once in a while I hop out of Toronto, land in some other city with some other light- or heavy-rail transit system, and look around at different ways of getting around by rail, whether it's on the ground, under it, or above it all.




It shouldn't come as much of a surprise that Detroit has historically been a bit ambivalent toward higher-order transit. In the early 20th century, when cities like New York, Chicago, and Boston were investing in heavy transit systems, Detroit deftly dodged efforts to build a subway. Early plans to run trains in the medians of the city's major arteries never left the paper they were written on, and by 1956--when Detroit was the fifth-largest city in the United States and even Cleveland was laying rails in the ground--the city's last streetcar line was replaced by buses, since that sort of thing was in style at the time.

Detroit's transit deficit wasn't helped by the suburban exodus that took off after the Second World War, and which to some degree continues to this day. Higher-order transit didn't make inroads in the city until 1975, when it joined the Downtown People Mover Program. The notion of a downtown circulator isn't an unusual one--the Chicago Loop is one of North America's earlier examples, and the closely-spaced stations along the Yonge-University-Spadina line fulfill a similar role in downtown Toronto. Detroit was one of many cities that applied for federal grants through the program, and in the end it was one of only three left standing.1

Today, the Detroit People Mover chugs along, gliding above the streets of downtown Detroit with a sound familiar to those who've ridden the rails in Vancouver or Scarborough, like a whisper from another world about what might have been.


System


The Detroit People Mover track parallels Beaubien Street in the eastern portion of downtown.

In terms of architecture and general layout, Detroit and Chicago are closely reminiscent of each other; not surprising, as they're both Midwestern cities that first came to prominence during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. That similarity with Chicago--if you've been there, or if you've read my earlier Tunnel Visions article about it--can also help ground the nature of the Detroit People Mover. Imagine the Loop in downtown Chicago, where trains from half a dozen lines roll in from the outer city and suburbs to deliver their passengers to the core--now remove all of those extra lines that feed passengers into it.

The total length of the DPM is barely three miles, strung in a loop that weaves through the skyscrapers of downtown Detroit from GM's headquarters at the Renaissance Center on the riverfront and goes as far north as Grand Circus Park, though it's still well removed from the section of highway that surrounds downtown and is only about a fifteen-minute walk from the river anyway. Also, when I say the route goes through the buildings, I'm being literal--aside from some stations that are built into the sides of certain larger buildings, a significant section of track is entirely enclosed within Cobo Center, an experience that reminded me of the coincidentally-named Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover at Disney World and how it passes inside Space Mountain.

The system also operates unidirectionally: when it was first opened the trains ran counter-clockwise, but as posters still visible across the network trumpet, it now runs clockwise "and even faster!" While the half-as-wide trackbed makes it easier for the People Mover to filter through downtown Detroit, it does introduce something of a calculus to using it--if you want to go somewhere nearby, but you'd have to ride around the entire loop to reach it, it might just be easier to walk it.

One of the things that struck me as odd about Detroit was how Michigan Central Station, the city's former rail hub and now well-known for its "ruin porn" qualities, was rather isolated from downtown. It's 2.5 kilometers from Campus Martius--for a Toronto comparison, it would be as if Union Station was at King and Strachan--and though it was served by streetcars on Michigan Avenue back in the day, and Amtrak ran commuter trains to it until declining ridership forced their cancellation back in 1984, it feels cut off from the fabric today. That leads into one of the big things keeping the People Mover from being anything more than it is: aside from a stop near Rosa Parks Transit Center, where local and suburban buses and even the tunnel bus from Windsor take on passengers, nothing feeds into the People Mover. Even the prospective commuter rail link between Detroit and Ann Arbor would only go as far as the Amtrak station, and would be dependent on the M-1 streetcar line--which started construction just last week--to connect people with downtown.

As it is, though, a lot of those streetcar riders might just bypass the People Mover anyway.


Stations



Bask in the 1980s ambience of the People Mover's Broadway station.


There are thirteen stations--for good luck, of course--strung along the Detroit People Mover like pearls, but I don't know many people who board trains via crystallized calcium carbonate retreived from some kind of mollusk, and if you know any pearls that have their own turnstiles you're odder off than even I am. They're all rather small, considering they only have one track to worry about, and are rather short as well. It felt to me like there was the room to maybe squeeze a third car in there, even if passenger numbers justified it, which they don't, and then you'd have to worry about whether or not you should warn alighting passengers to mind the third rail.

Once you're inside, there's not much to them; granted, I didn't visit every station Detroit has to offer, but I think the ones I ended up at were representative. They're entirely unstaffed, which the SkyTrain back west has in common, and each station is well-appointed with public art, but to me they felt somewhat... hollow. Quiet. They're not built with significant traffic in mind, and though stations do have their architectural flourishes, they struck me as rather bare-bones and minimalistic. The ones I travelled through were pretty spotless, but then, it's a lot easier to keep something clean when you don't have a constant stream of people coming through and scuffing things up. 

Still, the stations often didn't feel connected to the surrounding neighborhood--this is partially an artifact of how so many of them are built into or adjoining larger buildings, and partially because some of them seem to have been designed specifically so that they don't have to interact with what's around them. My prime experience with this was at Greektown Station, which serves one of downtown Detroit's more touristy enclaves. From the platform there's a staircase that leads down to street level, but when I'd done what I went to Greektown to do and headed back to the People Mover, I found that the door I'd come through was exit-only. There's another entrance, an elevated one connected to the building across the street that houses the Greektown Casino, but for the life of me I could not find it--in the end, it was easier for me to follow the track to the next station. 

I only encountered other people on the platforms a handful of times, and Renaissance Center Station was the only one where there would reliably be others waiting with me--and since the RenCen includes a 70-storey hotel, and two different conventions were going on the week I was there, I'm not sure it's representative either. I don't think the GM employees make that much use of it either, given the 1970s-level profusion of parking lots and parking structures nearby. The rest of them made Toronto's Ellesmere Station look like Grand Central.


Equipment


An ad-wrapped People Mover train glides over the streetscape.

Detroit is one of three cities that makes use of ICTS2 as the foundation of its rail transit network, and of those it was the most recent to start them rolling. It uses the same 1980s-era Mark I trains that Vancouver started with and which the Scarborough RT still relies on, but in exclusively two-car trains. Inside the cars seem like they've been left the way they came from the factory, with the walls and seats all resolutely beige, and the exteriors are all taken over by whole-car wrap advertisements. Detroit's cars do have small plastic "armrests" that divide the otherwise wall-length bench seating into groups of ones and twos, something I've never encountered in Vancouver or Scarborough. The operators also seem unusually obsessed with making sure riders don't lean on the doors--one set I found had no fewer than three stickers to that effect, but let's be honest; most people probably don't bother to read them anyway.


Ease of Access and Ease of Use



One would be forgiven for mistaking this for an entrance to Greektown station. It isn't--it really isn't.


One thing that surprised me right off about the People Mover was that unlike transit systems in most other cities I've been to, signage wasn't primarily in the dominant language of the area. There are plenty of examples of trilingual signage on the People Mover, written in English, Spanish, and Arabic--which isn't surprising, given the size of the Chaldean-Assyrian diaspora community in the Detroit area. But there's not much to read, though. System maps seemed few and far between, but then, it's not particularly easy to get lost on a line that loops back on itself again and again.

Access to the stations is governed by turnstiles that exclusively eat Detroit People Mover tokens--about the size of a quarter, and one can be yours for the low, low price of $0.75. I can't remember the last time I rode anything with a fare under a dollar... those kiddie back-and-forth rides you'd find in front of mall arcades, maybe. The token vending machines themselves look like the arcade change machines I used as a kid--hell, considering the People Mover opened in 1987, they were probably manufactured by the same company.

As far as my observations went, accessibility was pretty universal across the People Mover stations, with elevator access from street level to the platform. Considering the system was built in the late 1980s, it better have such access--it's not as if it's a product of the benighted, barbarous 1950s.


Conclusion


The Detroit People Mover is, fundamentally, a mover constantly searching for people--and it doesn't always find them. One of my rides was at 10:45 AM on a weekday, through Financial District Station, and aside from me the train was completely empty. During the course of my background research, I found a few sources indicating the People Mover has come close to being shut down, and it wouldn't surprise me if it yet came to pass. I mean, Detroit is full of potential, but right now it's held back by a mountain of problems. When you watch a train glide by a grand, towering, turn-of-the-century skyscraper that is in fact completely empty, or when you look past the platform at a building that's as thoroughly decked out in graffiti as is possible for one that probably doesn't have working elevators anymore, sometimes it feels like you're looking between universes--where the People Mover is an artifact of a city that could have been, quietly rolling above the city that is.

1 The other two are the Metromover in Miami and the Jacksonville Skyway. Like Detroit, the Jacksonville system lacks major transit connections outside its service area.
2 Yeah, I know they're calling it "INNOVIA Metro" now, but that's just rebranded corporate bafflegab anyway.


Previous Tunnel Visions

4 comments:

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  2. Nice to see a new Tunnel Vision post. I always enjoy reading them! Riding transit in cities I visit has always been a travel highlight for me.

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  3. Hi Andrew, nice to read your impressions on the Detroit People Mover, saves me some time, as I was thinking of visiting it on my forthcoming US tour but in the end decided to skip it. I will link it from my UrbanRail.Net page. I maintain a similar blog where I describe my transit impressions, mostly in Europe, though, you can check it out at schwandl.blogspot.com
    Greetings from Berlin, Robert

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