I was asked by a friend for my reaction to a passage from the Wikipedia article on Detroit’s People Mover:
“The People Mover operates at a high cost per rider. The system was designed to move up to 15 million riders a year, yet in 2008 saw just over 2 million riders. In fiscal year 1999-2000 the city was spending $3.00 for every $0.50 rider fare, according to The Detroit News. The system has also required costly repairs. In October 1998, the demolition of the Hudson’s building damaged the track, closing the People Mover for two months, with full service not restored until the following year. Renovation at the General Motors headquarters at the GM Renaissance Center kept the People Mover from offering full-circuit operation from September 2002 to September 2004. In 2006, the Mover (which costs $12 million annually in city and state subsidies to run) filled less than 10 percent of its seats.”
He called it “public transit done wrong.” It may seem that way to the lay person, but he was shocked to learn that a farebox recovery ratio (the amount covered by the passenger fare vs. the total actual cost of each ride) of 15% isn’t too unusual. That’s roughly the same ratio as the Staten Island Railway, a service that first started operation in 1860. Would he call that “public transit done wrong?”
From a planning perspective, yes, the People Mover is a failure because its major flaw was that it didn’t transport people from home to work, rather just around a commerical downtown core. But think about it: this was the thinking in Detroit at the time. Nobody in Detroit wanted to get people out of their cars. That mindset is starting to change within (what’s left of) Detroit’s urban core, but it’s still like pulling teeth from the wealthier Wayne County residents who work for (what’s left of) the Big 3 automakers.
If Detroit ever manages to get its act together and start its rebirth, the people mover could be the cornerstone of a public transit system. To spawn redevelopment, a streetcar line is in planning stages. The streetcar would connect to the people mover, allowing commuters to reach downtown office buildings easily.
Outside of downtown, Detroit is practically a blank slate. There’s huge potential for Detroit if the city and the state of Michigan can organize to support rebuilding the city through tax incentives and infrastructure investment that includes making the People Mover a building block for a new Detroit. It could take as long as it may take to find a new and successful business model for the outmoded automakers (streetcars, anyone?), but it’s an opportunity the city should not miss before Detroit runs the risk of putting a “closed” sign on City Hall.
(Photo via Wigwam Jones on Flickr)