REPOSTED from January:


Last week I was at a table during lunch where I overheard someone who was asked about the M-1 project say adamantly it wasn’t going to happen. Of course, there are plenty of naysayers floating around any major project in Detroit, but the unusual part was that it was said with such confidence it made everyone at the table think she had inside information that it had been secretly cancelled. She didn’t, it was simply her opinion.  When I began to run through all of the reasons that it was not true, it turns out that her argument was only as deep as “no way it could possibly make financial sense, too expensive. It’s only 3 miles, you’re not moving people between the suburbs and the city.” This is a disturbingly uninformed view that is likely more prevalent than it should be. I have a Masters degree focusing on transportation planning and worked on this topic for 3-4 years before coming to Detroit, so thankfully I was there to run through the reasons why it is very likely that M-1 will happen. The next two weeks I will run a series of posts that will walk through in detail (2 bullet points per post) those reasons why M-1 will happen, and should happen:


  • Political hurdles: Possibly the single greatest political hurdle you could imagine, the forming of the RTA (Regional Transit Authority) has already been passed and one of the best people in Detroit for the job was just appointed as chair of the board, Paul Hillegonds. Another benefit is that the RTA format helps to a certain extent insulate the RTA from the destructive politics of Detroit City Council.
  • Lets be clear – it’s not about suburbs: LRT (Light Rail Transit) and Streetcars (yes there are major differences such as exclusivity of right-of-way, stop spacing, and speed) are not always moving people between downtown and suburbs. LRT and Streetcars are, from a development and ridership perspective, all about unleashing latent value in underutilized land, creating destinations or “places” at each station. There are dozens of cities smaller than and as transit-underdeveloped as Detroit, who have recently constructed or are planning major light rail and streetcar projects. In each instance, a fixed route transit investment signals to developers and banks that they can take a risk in developing along a fixed route transit corridor in the way they never would on a normal local bus route. LRT/Streetcars are an excellent example of public investments laying the foundation for private success. Portland, OR is the ultimate example – with somewhere north of $3 billionof private investment within half a mile (5-10 min walk) along the 3.9 mile route in less than 10 years. Some of this came from areas that were already on the upswing, but where developers significantly increased their planned investments and densities once the streetcar plans came into view. (This is comparable to the districts of Midtown and Downtown which are also already on the upswing.)This development pattern, unleashing latent value in underutilized land (a state of being ubiquitous in Detroit) can be seen in countless examples again and again across the nation, even in cities as car-centric as Houston. With it’s relatively closely spaced stations compared to subways/heavy rail, along with frequent service, LRT/Streetcar can have a tremendous impact across it’s route, creating dense nodes of development that become walkable destinations, connected by frequent transit service, individual places with a mix of uses that draw people who are living, working, and playing at each node across a linear mileage that in total from end to end may be too far to walk. Incase you were curious, studies have shown people are willing to walk about a quarter mile (5 min) to a local bus stop, while they are willing to walk double that, half a mile (10 min) to a fixed route rail transit stop. (See fun graphs on page 3-10)The amount of underutilized land within half a mile along the M-1 route is incredible, and if you imagine in the future significant nodes of living, working and playing that are destinations in their own right starting at the waterfront, moving up toward the Fox area, then lower/central/upper midtown, and New Center, and then you start imagining a connection to a future commuter rail to Ann Arbor at the Amtrak station, you can see how a streetcar would fill up easily, without any help from connecting the dispersed suburbs. The ridership on such a system is often much more evenly spread out, while suburban centric systems have ridership that peaks during rush hour and collapses during most other times and on weekends. This is about creating a truly livable urban corridor built on a more economically sustainable pedestrian, bicycle, and transit foundation, a place of real and lasting value for our urban future.


For more on the relationship between Streetcars and the Built Environment, see TCRP Synthesis 86

For more on the difference between LRT and Streetcars see this brief explanation from this alternatives screening report, or this very detailed explanation from Jarrett Walker  .


up next:  Part 2 of  “M-1 will happen, Here’s Why”