In the first half of the twentieth century, Detroit was a transit city. In 1922, it became home to the largest municipally-owned transit system in the country, and at its peak in 1945, Detroit’s transit network provided 492 million rides. The streetcar system alone operated almost 1,500 cars, employed 4,000 people, and operated 30 different lines along 363 miles of track. Following World War II, in 1956, after 93 years of service to the city, the last streetcar ran on Woodward Avenue downtown, giving way to the auto heyday in Detroit.
In the early 1950’s, Detroit accounted for 80 percent of worldwide automobile production, which supplied 330,000 manufacturing jobs and supported a population of nearly 2 million people. Between 1972 and 1992, when factories began moving out of the city for the suburbs, Detroit lost almost two-thirds of its factory jobs. The factories never came back to Detroit, and today the unemployment rate hovers around 30 percent with an overall population of less than a million people. A third of the “Motor City” population does not have access to a car, limiting their access to jobs and necessary goods and services.
Will a renewed dedication to mass transit in Detroit serve as a solution to its economic woes? After overcoming funding issues through the use of an innovative public-private partnership, Detroit will soon be taking its first step in creating a comprehensive regional transit network. Later this year, Detroit will break ground on a light rail line along Woodward Ave., the first modern, mass-transit initiative in the city long synonymous with the automobile.
Stakeholders hope the planned $425 million, 8-mile light rail system will spark the revitalization of Detroit, providing much-needed transportation to city residents and stimulating economic growth in the area. The Woodward light rail line will encompass some of Detroit’s best-known entertainment districts, including Comerica Park, home of baseball’s Tigers, and Ford Field, where the Lions play football. The route winds past the Fox Theater district and extends into Detroit’s New Center area, the center of gravity for many local hospitals and medical facilities, as well as much of the Wayne State University campus. The line is expected to attract 22,200 daily riders, create over 12,000 jobs, and generate $933 million in economic development upon opening.
This article was featured in Talking Transit, MPC's bi-weekly e-newsletter. To sign up to receive Talking Transit, please visit http://www.metroplanning.org/signup.html.