How Detroit ended up with the worst public transit
Off the rails.
Published: March 11, 2014
Jim Storm has an easier time than most. In the region that gave America a set of wheels, the Ferndale resident hasn’t owned a car in years, leaving behind the perpetual repairs, insurance payments and gas pumps for the bus — and for him, at least, it works.
The thought of someone actually ditching his car in metro Detroit, however, is virtually unheard of. Living within a stone’s throw of Woodward Avenue, though, it makes sense for Storm. During the week, the 43-year-old leaves his home in the morning, walks toward the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation stop near the southwest corner of Marshall and Woodward avenues, waits for one of the numerous Woodward SMART buses — one typically arrives every 15 minutes — and rides to the Detroit Institute of Arts, where he’s worked for years as the museum’s mount designer and fabricator.
Storm knows his situation is unusual. He is the rare automobile-less alien in public transit-troubled car country.
Clutching a copy of The New York Times outside the DIA on the last day in February, Storm says of his bus route: “It works out great, I read the paper in the morning; I don’t have to worry about parking, paying insurance on a vehicle, a lot of stuff,” adding, “Thankfully, I live within walking distance to my stop.”
Of the 106,000 daily riders along DDOT’s three dozen routes, and 35,000 daily riders on SMART’S 43 routes, Storm is an anomaly — the metro Detroit transit rider who can enjoy leisurely reading the newspaper on his bus route to work. There are certainly others like him, but they’re so uncommon it’s a fool’s errand to find those who would echo Storm’s words.
Cities like New York City and Seattle have reliable public transportation, the kind of efficient, ubiquitous service that ferries commuters with few headaches besides a few grumbles about a packed bus or a temporarily closed station. But those are minor complaints, and ones many folks here would love to have in exchange for the status quo.
In metro Detroit, public transportation is a bunk concept; most riders, with no hesitation, will offer a similar refrain when asked their opinion: They hate it. It’s a sick joke; ride a bus long enough and you’d surely hear a horror story.
How’d it get this bad? Why is it that someone who wants to get from downtown Detroit via DDOT to a job at, for example, the Costco in Livonia, needs to budget two hours for the trip? When driving that route would take a mere 15 to 20 minutes? Consider the two transfers needed to make that bus ride happen, tack on the inevitable waiting period, and it begins to make sense why this region is beholden to the automobile not just by name, but in practice too.
In the case of Detroit proper, as the city’s fiscal picture deteriorated over the last four decades, its public transit has fallen in tandem. It’s an unfortunate reality for the residents of roughly 60,000 households in Detroit, of whom 80 percent are black, who have no access to an automobile.
Ask that question — why is public transportation here so unreliable? — and the finger-pointing begins: It’s the transit planners; there’s never enough funding; there’s not enough interest from the public; the divide between the suburbs and Detroit has made it near-impossible. Some bring up the General Motors streetcar conspiracy, even though it was a manager of the city’s old streetcar system who originally vowed to ditch rail for buses.
Is there a smoking gun? Most would say no, that it’s an amalgam of these issues.
The city’s streetcar system halted operations in April 1956. The web of privately owned bus systems across the region would dissolve soon after. The commuter rails that had connected Detroit, Ann Arbor and Pontiac were discontinued in the ’80s. Today, Detroit is basically left with two disconnected bus systems that generate more headaches than on-time transfers or speedy rides.
Believe it or not, metro Detroit’s public transportation was far more developed and useful in 1950 than it is today.
The city was once able to call itself the owner of the largest municipally owned street railway system. Were a rail system to be introduced today, the Southeast Michigan Regional Transportation Authority board would have to unanimously approve it, which is no small task. By contrast, only a supermajority is needed to seek voter approval for a new bus system or a rapid transit system. It’s as if Lansing scripted laws to mandate the region’s transit priorities.
In truth, Detroit could’ve easily had a more robust, efficient system in place today if decisions were made differently — even after the federal government invested heavily in the freeway system, allowing motorists to pack up and move to the suburbs. History does support some critics who blame the region’s absence of comprehensive public transportation on a lack of public interest. In some instances, it was a vocal minority choosing personal sentiments over the betterment of the region. But, some say, if the public wasn’t crying out for better public transit, it was because no one took the reins and showed them what a good system could look like.
Transit boosters have optimistically pointed to the new M-1 Rail streetcar line in Detroit as a sign of hope for the future in the region. The $140 million privately funded venture will shuttle residents and employees between New Center, Midtown and downtown. The progress heartens advocates of a more expansive system, but it remains unclear if the transit line will be tied to an economically flourishing section of Detroit, or if planners will allow for future expansion into a real rapid transit system that embraces the city limits and beyond.
> Email Ryan Felton