Saturday, January 19, 2013

Detroit Street-Cars are Fools Gold

Augustus Woodward’s plan for Detroit was to build a city grid with wide avenues fanning out from the river to effectively transport goods from shipping docks throughout the city. Woodward’s plan was a noble one. But city plans, after too many years, lose funding or public will, and are tossed aside like an old tire. The spokes rust and break, and the next thing you know you’re in the market for a new set of wheels while still paying the bank for your old broken-down ride. Ah, the best laid plans.

The M-1 street-car project has big plans, admirable plans, even; plans with financial backing and, I concede, a chance at success. I admire the vision, but I think we’re missing the boat on the conversation.

Let’s admit a couple things to ourselves:

Street-cars that run from downtown to New Center do not service the city of Detroit, not even close. Street cars that run to New Center are a symbol of intent to become a modern city, not a working solution to Detroit’s transportation problems.

If street-cars eventually run farther up Woodward to Royal Oak or Birmingham, let’s also admit that they will be little more than drunk carts. Part of the draw is to take the line downtown for a Tigers game, drink seven or eight beers, and have a safe trip home. This, to be clear, is as noble a reason as any to take public transportation—to avoid drunk driving.

Of course, there’s another kind of transportation—the fun, functional kind of transportation that Detroit is quite good at. Detroit’s infrastructure is designed for the automobile, and as an added bonus, Detroit’s infrastructure is perfectly suited for any vehicle with inflatable tires. There’s plenty of space for buses, cars, and bicycles on the wide, now relatively empty avenues. With reduced automobile traffic in past few decades, extra lanes can and are being used by Detroit’s thriving community of bikers.

What Detroit needs more than anything is a functioning bus system, for the people who actually live in the city. Unfortunately, it looks like we’re going to end up with a Frankenstein system: People Mover (which I happen to love, by the way), some street-cars, an anemic bus system, high speed trains (someday, maybe), and all with the axe of federal funding constantly over our necks. When federal funds are gone, we’re left with a rusting project we can’t maintain. Are we ready to wrestle with that monster?

Unlike Portland, Oregon, where residents are accustomed to multiple modes of public transportation, Metro Detroiters aren’t about to hop a bus to the street-car, wait for the street-car, ride the street-car, walk to another bus station, wait for the bus, then ride another bus. Street-cars are convenient, but they’re the icing on the cake, not the primary mode of transportation. Primary modes of transportation are singular: bike, bus, car.

Instead of redeveloping an entire infrastructure—an infrastructure, mind you, sizable enough that it can work to the benefit of cars, bikes, and buses—wouldn’t it be easier to re-imagine the conversation than to reconstruct the city? We have roads, we have parking lots, and lord knows we have cars. Remember when cars were cool? Instead of selling the same old monorail dream, sell the Detroit dream. Own a car, cruise around town, and in some cases, use the limited public transit to get to work or get home safely. What’s old is new again. Cars are cool.

The beauty of Detroit is that it’s unique, and moving forward, it should stay that way. There’s nothing wrong with owning a car. That used to be the American dream. Detroit can keep owning that dream, while also being modern and hip. Where is it written that I can’t enjoy microbrews, Internet start-up companies, slow-drip coffee, community gardens, walkable neighborhoods AND big block engines? Sometimes I want to take a bus or a street-car, sometimes I prefer to drive with the windows down and to come and go as I please.

Woodward’s vision for using Detroit’s main thoroughfares for large amounts of cargo is now the very reason that our avenues can so readily accommodate all kinds of traffic—auto, bike, pedestrian, and, yes, street-cars. Let’s not ignore the voices of history, but make the best of the roads they left behind. Street-cars will be less about function, and more a symbol of progress—a very expensive symbol. A symbol Detroit can’t afford.


James Torrey said...

Love it. Sounds like a pipe dream in the wrong direction for the D.

Anonymous said...

I think you're right on point with your concerns about matching city revenues with infrastructure maintenance costs.
You should check out these guys:

Unfortunately, Detroit seems to have more roads and more too-wide roads than the city can maintain. More cars is not the answer. We should reserve our cars for short inter-city trips rather than encouraging more car traffic in town.

And while a single streetcar line probably will not significantly reduce the wear on the roads (by taking a lot of cars off the street), but streetcars are much cheaper to maintain than buses (yes, streetcar lines are many times more expensive to build than a new bus route on existing roads, so how many streetcars can be built?).

All valid concerns.