“Downtown” Detroit: Old Dream, New Transit Solution
The rebirth of downtown should be accelerated by redefining it: let’s link our New Center, Cultural Center,
Medical Center and “downtown” assets via effective, advanced public transit!
Detroit’s People Mover is the most sophisticated steel-wheel transit technology in the world. This same
transit technology is the backbone of Vancouver's acclaimed regional rail system, as well as systems in
Kuala Lumpur, Ankara, Singapore, and New York’s Kennedy Airport. But unlike those successful
examples, Detroit never recognized the potential of extending the initial People Mover to support how our
downtown could ideally work.
Vancouver, though, provides a model for how we might make a fresh start. This Canadian city formed a
successful joint venture with its transit operator and system supplier to plan, design and construct its
system. A team effort focused on developing an effective, long-term transit solution, which factored in a
full range of transit alternatives including autos.
A fourteen-mile, double lane system (28 lane miles) was completed in less than 4 years on schedule and
under budget. In Detroit, our three-mile single lane system was completed in 6 years, was delayed, and
suffered a near 100% cost overrun.
Today, Vancouver carries over 200,000 riders per day in an expanded system, covering its operating cost
through the fare box. Detroit carries 5,000 riders per day, with a $10 million annual operating subsidy.
From the initiation of planning to the operational OK, Vancouver took 5 years, in Detroit, it stretched to
But these unhappy comparisons could be reversed!
The People Mover could be expanded with similar cost efficiencies if we adopt some of the procurement
approaches taken in Vancouver. The sunk costs for the People Mover fleet, the maintenance building, and
the operational control center, as well as the existing staff of the People Mover, do not need to be
duplicated to allow the system to expand down the Woodward Corridor, tying together the New Center,
Downtown, and all of Detroit’s great Woodward Corridor amenities.
Park your car anywhere along this route, and all of a “New Downtown” is less than 15 minutes away by
A “New Downtown” line could be operational in four years with State support, key private partners’
“purchase of service” agreements, and a modest “urban improvement” assessment placed on the 14
square miles that will benefit most from an expanded New Downtown.
Imagine a vibrant, “redefined” New Downtown. Imagine the courts, the medical center, our phenomenal
library, the DIA, Wayne State University, the AMTRAK train station, the new Riverfront and State facilities,
all interconnected and reachable with a short People Mover Ride! Imagine a connection between Ford
Hospital and the Detroit Medical Center to increase their regional competitiveness. Imagine housing stock
along the Woodward corridor benefiting. Imagine the re-creation of downtown – a New Downtown
Detroit – as an “urban destination” comparable to other cities that have successfully recreated their
centers in the past decade.
With total costs less than $200 million, it would also put meaning into over a hundred thousand existing,
idle, or underused parking spaces along the six mile route from Hart Plaza to Henry Ford Hospital.
Convenient remote parking for the downtown would increase land value, and existing parking lots in
prime locations would see higher level uses.
To make all this happen, we must bring together the public and private sectors and create a program that
will provide a credit worthy funding stream that this system expansion will require. This will require some
innovative approaches and spending some political capital.
One example is the conversion of the People Mover operator, the Detroit Transportation Corporation, into
a public private partnership. This would help open up funding and investment opportunities from both
the public sector and the private, commercial world.
Another is loosening up on other funding sources like naming rights for stations and outright grants. This
should help us significantly reduce the capital required to be financed. The increase in ridership through
the expansion will reduce the existing subsidies, potentially allowing the existing funds to flow toward
retiring the capital debt. With some funding expected that could reduce capital costs, the project could
be looking at a financing requirement of under $15 million per year.
By using the Vancouver approach to transit system construction, strengthening the People Mover’s
management into a public/private organization, and involving the State and private sector, Detroit can do
Let’s get started!
Marsden Burger is an independent transit consultant who was involved in the early development of the
People Mover and ran the system in the mid-1990s. More...
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Detroit People Mover 2.0
...a public-private partnership building transit for a New Downtown Detroit
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