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Riders board the Mack Avenue streetcar at Cadillac Square.
Courtesy of the Detroit Public Library, Burton Historical Collection

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Detroit’s 5 biggest transit misses

What if some of these systems were in operation today?

Although Detroit is known the world over as the Motor City, it has always had public transportation and it used to be really good.

It was slow going on Detroit’s muddy streets until rails were built. The first streetcars, which were pulled by horses, began service in 1863. By the 1890s, all lines were electrified which sped things up significantly. In 1922, Detroit purchased the streetcar lines from the Detroit United Railway, a privately owned company, making Detroit the first large American city to own and operate its own transit system. Its mostly been downhill since then.

So why don’t we still have good public transit today? Detroit transit has faced a myriad of setbacks over the years: disease, labor issues, political agendas, franchise disputes, competition from automobiles and buses, maintenance issues, lack of funding, lack of regional cooperation, and urban sprawl.

As such, Detroit went from having one of the largest public transit systems in the world to a fragmented one composed of several independently operated transit agencies: DDOT, SMART, the Detroit People Mover, and the QLine. Having several different transit providers in a city or region is not uncommon. Some cities have a mix of buses, subway, light rail, heavy rail, and even ferries. But they’re typically overseen by one transportation authority, just like our Regional Transit Authority.

Most transit agencies figured out their funding fifty years ago, but here in Southeast Michigan, we’re still trying to come to an agreement. Over the last 100-plus years there have been many attempts to improve regional transit. Had any of these projects been approved, we would be having a totally different conversation today.

Here are a few of the area’s transit misses.

The Detroit Subway Plan

In 1919, a proposal to build a subway and rapid transit system was actually approved by the city council, but vetoed by the mayor. Council tried to override the veto, but it lost by one vote.

Map by Jacob Berman

The idea of a Detroit subway had been hatched as early as 1909, as tens of thousands of pedestrians, horses, streetcars, and automobiles crowded downtown streets. In 1915, a very thorough rapid transit report was submitted to the Street Railway Commission. One of the recommendations was to build a subway, but no action was taken.

But Detroit’s population continued to rise, doubling every 10 years, and was on track to hit 1 million by 1920. A second transit report was submitted in 1917, which included a downtown subway system and a far reaching rapid transit system. The report called for the privately owned DUR (Detroit United Railway), which also operated the streetcars, to run the system.

The main problem with the plan was political. For 30 years, Detroit’s mayors had been trying unsuccessfully to break up the streetcar monopoly through municipal ownership, believing they could run the system better and keep fares more affordable.

Mayor James Couzens was a self-made businessman from Canada who considered himself a mobility expert, having worked as a general manager at Ford Motor Company and on the Street Railway Commission. He ran on a platform of municipal ownership of the streetcar system, and was opposed to a transit plan that relied on the DUR as the primary operator.

Despite the warning that purchasing the streetcar system would leave no funds to build a rapid transit system, he pushed forward anyways. After the purchase, it was discovered that the system was in bad need of infrastructure and rolling stock updates. Much of this was due to the city’s efforts to undermine the system and force its sale. As a result, DUR was hesitant to invest in a system it could lose to the city at any time.

Detroit subway plans continued to be studied and proposed almost every decade, including in the 1980s for the People Mover, which was supposed to be part of a much larger regional network that never came to be. While a subway system would be far too cost prohibitive to build today, it would certainly be a useful tool given the level of activity downtown.

Removal of the PCC Streetcar System

In 1956, the last three remaining streetcar lines in Detroit were discontinued and replaced with buses despite objections from many streetcar riders. The streetcars were less than 10 years old.

DSR tribute PCC streetcar in San Francisco.
Photo courtesy Market Street Railway

Presidential Conference Committee Streetcars (PCC streetcars) were the result of a meeting of streetcar presidents from across the country in the late 1920s who needed a new streetcar that could compete with the growing popularity of automobiles and buses—and they succeeded. Cities across the country started ordering these fast new streamlined vehicles.

But not in Detroit. Although the city had purchased the streetcar system just twelve years earlier, Fred Nolan, new general manager of the Detroit Department of Street Railways (DSR), had plans to replace all of Detroit’s streetcars with buses by 1953. Buses were cheaper to maintain and operate, and it was less costly to add bus routes than streetcar routes.

DSR went on to purchase more than 2,000 Ford buses over the next decade. Then the United States entered World War II. As gasoline and rubber were rationed for the war effort, electric streetcars returned to popularity and helped move hundreds of thousands of workers to and from factories daily. Ridership was so high that decommissioned streetcars were put back into service. With the pressure from increased ridership, DSR had no choice but to purchase 186 new PCC streetcars in 1948. But by 1950, there were only four streetcar lines left—Michigan, Woodward, Gratiot, and Jefferson avenues—as most streetcar routes had been replaced by buses.

The new general manager, Leo Nowicki, vowed to improve the streetcar system, but in 1953 he began an aggressive campaign to phase out the last remaining streetcars with buses. Some say this was a GM bus conspiracy to dismantle the streetcar system, but the switch to buses had begun as far back as 1936.

In 1956, the last streetcars to parade down Woodward and were sold to Mexico City where they continued to run for almost 30 years. In 1985, the PCC streetcars were being restored when an 8.1 magnitude earthquake flattened the building they were being housed in. Only a few survived and one was actually returned to Detroit—but that’s another story.

SEMTA (Southeastern Michigan Transportation Authority)

In 1967, the first transit authority of Southeast Michigan was established. It ran suburban bus routes and a commuter rail between Pontiac and Detroit, but could not levy a tax to expand their system or purchase DDOT.

A SEMTA train, now operating in the Boston area
Wikimedia Commons

Believe it or not, public transit used to be a profitable business. But competition from the automobile and interstate highway system eventually cut into those profits, and transit companies began to suffer.

Recognizing the importance of preserving mass transit, the federal government passed the Urban Mass Transit Act in 1964. States and cities across the country followed suit, passing their own transit authority acts and using taxes to fund transit systems. When SEMTA (South Eastern Michigan Transportation Authority) was established, it was not allowed to levy a tax for funding, but it did manage to purchase independent suburban bus lines using grants and later a 2 cent gas tax that was approved for transit in Michigan.

But it was unable to purchase the DSR bus system, one of its main goals, for a variety of reasons, the largest being lack of a permanent funding source. By 1974, DSR had been reorganized as a city department of Detroit—today, it’s the Detroit Department of Transportation—leaving SEMTA to coordinate just the suburban services.

SEMTA discontinued its commuter train between Pontiac and downtown in 1983 and was reorganized in 1989 as SMART (Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation). But it’s been hampered in its ability to be a true regional provider due to opt out cities leaving large gaps in service and public acts preventing SMART from levying a tax.

Detroit People Mover vs. Vancouver SkyTrain

The Detroit People Mover is a 2.9-mile long automated driverless system that runs on elevated track through downtown Detroit. It was meant to be the downtown circulator for a much larger system, but the funding was cut.

Photo by Michelle Gerard

Part of an effort put forth by the Urban Mass Transportation Administration, a federal program to develop new types of transit, the Detroit People Mover was meant to be the downtown circulator for a larger regional transit system, similar to the rapid transit plan that Ford dreamed up in 1970.

The federal government promised $600 million in funding and plans were developed that would include a partial subway on Woodward Avenue, light rail on Gratiot Avenue, and a commuter train to Port Huron. But due to disagreements between Detroit and the suburbs, the federal assistance was cancelled. Only the downtown loop was ever built and the system was never expanded.

Meanwhile, the SkyTrain in Vancouver, which opened around the same time, has been continuously expanded. It is now 49 miles long with three lines and 58 stations—the longest fully automated driverless system in the world. An elevated rail or subway system would be a very desirable today. Imagine if our People Mover had been extended to connect to Detroit Metropolitan Airport, Dearborn, Corktown, Downtown, along Woodward to Oakland County, and Jefferson to the Pointes.

2016 RTA Plan

In 2016 the first RTA plan to raise funds for regional transit went before voters. It lost by 1 percent.

Map of the 2016 plan for regional transit.
RTA of Southeast Michigan

The first Southeast Michigan regional transit authority was established in 1967, but was unable to levy taxes for funding, operating mostly on grants and contracts with suburban cities. In 1989, SEMTA was reorganized as SMART and reduced its footprint from seven counties to just three. Detroit did not opt into the SMART system and continued to run its own separate bus system.

In 2012, a new regional transit authority (RTA) was established with the goal of raising a millage in four counties to finally fund regional transportation in Southeast Michigan. The major difference between SMART and RTA was that SMART’s millage renewed every four years and communities could opt out of the millage, while the RTA millage would last for 20 years and include every property in four counties.

Long term plans could be made with a twenty year millage. In 2016, a plan was pitched and went before voters on the November ballot. The millage would have raised $150 million a year to fund a Detroit-Ann Arbor commuter train, more frequent bus routes, extend bus routes into more cities, airport bus routes, and four dedicated lane bus rapid transit routes. It also would have tapped into $1.7 billion in state and federal funds. The county executives from Macomb and Oakland County did not lend their support—and ultimately neither did their counties. Wayne and Washtenaw Counties approved the millage, but Oakland County and Macomb County voted no.

Here we are, four years later, and we’re still working towards these goals but with less funding and slower progress. In 2018, SMART started a frequent regional service called FAST, which is similar to bus rapid transit minus the dedicated lanes and permanent stations. On March 16 this year, the RTA began a Detroit-Ann Arbor commuter bus route instead of a train. There are some airport routes, but none that reach employment centers like Novi, Troy, or Sterling Heights. Maybe we’ll see those in a few years if more cities opt into SMART or if the RTA is able to come up with a funding source that is agreeable by the residents of the region.

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