How Detroit ended up with the worst public transit
Off the rails.
Published: March 11, 2014
All that said, the historical record shows that, had some elected officials bitten their tongues and made some tough decisions, it’s likely there’d be more Jim Storms riding public transit in our region today.
The average Joe in the 1910s and 1920s had choices to get around metro Detroit: Cabs, trains, an interurban, streetcars, horse-drawn vehicles, walking. Those looking to gain some freedom from the rail monopoly of the time turned to the automobile as a saving grace. It was also a major turning point for public transit within the region, beginning with the city’s shift to municipal ownership of the streetcar system in 1922.
As more residents moved outward from the city’s core, Detroit remained connected through its Department of Street Railways, with more than 500 miles of track and feeder buses.
Numerous proposals were floated to expand the system with new subway routes. In 1920, after a rapid transit plan for the region was completed, Mayor James Couzens vetoed a bond issue to construct a subway. Toward the end of the decade, as the DSR reached its apex, voters were considering another plan to construct a subway line from the city to Ford Motor Co.’s Rouge Complex. It was actually supported by automakers, as described in an article for Progressive Planning magazine by Joel Batterman, policy director for Detroit faith-based group MOSES. But the 1929 proposal failed due to reasons all too familiar for the region.
“[The subway] met fierce opposition from the homeowners’ organizations that also held the line against neighborhood racial integration,” Batterman writes. “The subway would serve the automakers and downtown businesses, they argued, at the expense of the expanding middle class, which inhabited the city’s vast tracts of new single-family homes and no longer relied on Detroit’s extensive but slow streetcar system.” Batterman cites a historian who said the proposal garnered the most support in the black ghetto, where workers needed transit to reach their jobs.
Then, the Great Depression came, striking a blow to streetcar ridership. In part to stave off rising maintenance costs, the DSR began running buses more frequently. But it wasn’t just money that served as the chief factor for Detroit’s shift toward buses. In the mid 1930s, DSR general manager Fred A. Nolan launched an effort to convert the city’s streetcar system entirely to buses by 1953.
Bus-happy Nolan reduced the system’s rail fleet from 1,600 cars in 1934 to 908 by 1943, according to Bernard Craig, a retired terminal supervisor for DDOT who maintains an exhaustive history of metro Detroit’s public transit involvement at DetroitTransitHistory.info. But Nolan’s plan didn’t last long. World War II revived the Detroit economy, rebranding the city as the Arsenal of Democracy, giving the streetcar system a boost.
“… restrictions imposed by the U.S. Office of Defense Transportation during World War II would require the use of streetcars in place of buses where possible to help conserve gasoline and rubber, resulting in the temporary restoration of full-time streetcar service on the city’s rail lines in 1942,” Craig writes.
Ridership spiked again to more than 490 million. But the increase deteriorated DSR’s rail infrastructure. The wheels were in motion to shutter the streetcar operations for good.
The city discontinued half of its 20 streetcar lines by 1949, dropping five more in 1951. At the same time, transit workers went on strike, which took another whack at ridership levels, according to a University of Detroit Mercy study. After the DSR purchased hundreds of buses to run along the streetcar routes, the rail system was made obsolete.
In April 1956, the last streetcar rolled down Woodward Avenue.
Just two months later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower would sign the Federal Aid Highway Act, authorizing the construction of more than 40,000 miles of interstate highway. Automobile costs had dropped, becoming more affordable for the average American family. It was the first warning sign that metro Detroit transit agencies had to adapt or die.
WHAT PUBLIC TRANSIT MEANS
Even Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan focused on the need for a reliable bus system in Detroit during his State of the City speech last month.
“A job [in Detroit] means a reliable bus system,” the mayor said, before highlighting the tribulations of one resident who travels to Redford for work. The 53-year-old man rides the DDOT 38 Plymouth route in the wrong direction on his way to work, Duggan said, just to ensure he has a seat on the bus. That’s what it’s like here.
Riding along a Woodward bus last month, a male rider shared his recent woes with nearby passengers: He was standing on Eight Mile Road in sub-zero temperatures when he flagged down a DDOT bus passing by. To his amazement, the driver simply said, “I’m not working right now.” And she drove off. The next bus didn’t come for some time.
Another rider quickly chimed in with gripes: “I had to wait an hour for one yesterday!”
The mayor, who announced his administration would bring new security cameras for DDOT buses this year and have 50 new vehicles in service this fall, then became a scapegoat for one female rider, who said: “Duggan says the buses gettin’ better, but they’re not; they’re gettin’ worse!”
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