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A designer made maps of past and hypothetical Detroit transit systems

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What would Detroit look like if one of these had been built?

Proposed Detroit subway system from 1918
Jacob Berman

Jacob Berman is really into transit systems. Even though he has a day job, in his free time the New York City artist researches and designs maps of transit systems, both of the past and those that never came to be, which he sells on his website.

Berman says the idea for the maps came when he was stuck in a terrible traffic jam in Los Angeles. “I asked myself, ‘Why cant I just take the stupid train to work?’ And then I went down this rabbit hole of mass transit history that continues to this day.”

While the maps span the entire country (and even fictional universes like Lord of the Rings), many are from Detroit.

Berman travels a lot for work, including to Detroit, and says he’s been interested in the Motor City for a long time. The Detroit transit “what-ifs” are many. “There’s a lot of failed plans that you can dig into because, since World War II, the local political situation in Detroit has been really complicated,” he says. “Everyone knows the suburbs and city should get along better, but instead they’re constantly at odds.”

He points to the 1913 inter-urban light rail network, which Detroit would “kill to have today,” he says. If it were still around, you’d be able to take a train all the way from Detroit to Flint or Toledo.

It’s hard to believe, but the one that came closest to passing was the 1918 subway plan (see above). In what Berman calls “one of the great cosmic ironies,” Mayor James Couzens, formerly a Ford executive, vetoed a subway plan approved by the City Council under the justification that it should be a public system, instead of owned by Detroit United Railway. The City Council was one vote shy of overriding the veto.

Later, Couzens did install municipal street railways. By 1950, the streetcars would extend along all major arteries of the city. By the end of the decade, they were dismantled.

The 1958 monorail system proposed by the Detroit Rapid Transit Commission was, Berman says, shelved in favor of freeway construction. Of course, the Detroit People Mover was built downtown in the 1980s but has never had many riders.

Another proposed subway system from 1974 never gained much traction at all, and it’s not hard to see why. The impractical plan calls for a line to run from Metro Airport, through the city, all the way north to Pontiac.

Today, sadly, the Regional Transit System which failed a millage vote during the 2016 election is now also a “hypothetical” system. It’s failed to get jumpstarted since.

Perhaps that will be Berman’s next map.