“People Mover. Bad decision,” Sufjan Stevens croons on his 2003 song “Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!)”. As a Metro Detroiter, it’s practically my civic duty to hate the Detroit People Mover, the city’s curious attempt at light rail – an elevated “subway” that whirs above the streets of downtown Detroit.
The usual argument against it is that it doesn’t go anywhere and that it’s a waste of money. Let’s look at the facts: the Detroit People Mover loops around a 2.9 mile track downtown in a city of over 140 square miles, making a stop every minute or two. The costs average out to be about $3-4 per rider, and the fare is only $0.75.
That doesn’t sound so good, does it?
Still, I don’t think the Detroit People Mover was a “bad decision.”
For one, Detroit isn’t really a walkable city. It probably used to be, but now too many buildings are gone or boarded up. On top of that, parking garages, surface parking lots, and fortress-like skyscrapers and high-rises dominate most of what’s left of downtown Detroit, creating a desolate, empty atmosphere. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still plenty to see and do, but expect to walk a lot if you want to do much. If you – for example – wanted to get from the Renaissance Center to the Detroit Opera House, that’s a 15 minute walk. If you wanted to go to Foran’s Irish Pub after the show, that’s another 10 minutes. And who knows how far away you parked!
Urban planners found out a long time ago that the average American doesn’t want to have to walk more than 600 feet from their car to their destination. Call it laziness, call it what you want… – but that’s the reality of the situation. So you can see where there’s an issue.
That’s where the Detroit People Mover comes in. It can get you to almost anywhere in downtown in a few minutes. It’s safe, clean, and cheap – the perfect solution! There’s just one problem: no one wants to ride it. People, especially visitors, don’t like the idea of using public transportation in one of the country’s most dangerous cities. So the trains run nonstop, the doors opening and closing for no one, and the city loses money. All the beautiful art at the stations, commissioned just for the Detroit People Mover, begs for onlookers, unnoticed. It’s like a small tragedy.
The real mistake, I think, was not connecting the Detroit People Mover to a subway or light rail track that goes out into the city’s outer neighborhoods, or even the suburbs. That was the original plan, and the additional riders that would’ve netted could’ve raised revenue long-term and increased the perception of safety, since we usually feel safer when there are more people around.
But it wasn’t meant to be. The city could never get the money together – it’s not like any of the movers or shakers from Ford, GM, or Chrysler were going to help.
Ultimately, you can try to hate the Detroit People Mover for what it’s not, but I’d rather appreciate for what it is: a chance to “fly” around downtown Detroit, twisting and turning between all the historic architecture, taking a pigeon’s-eye view of what once made this city such a mighty metropolis.
Gliding by the glowing, featureless rectangular windows of Westin Book Cadillac Hotel, where President Herbert Hoover would stay whenever he came in town, I wonder what possibilities he saw from his window. It was the start of the Great Depression, and the city would never quite be the same.
Neither would we.