Big Transit News Would Mean Big Things for Woodward Corridor

At a press conference Monday morning, complete with glossy press release, thick overview booklet, fancy simulation video, moving speeches and applauding appointees, the mayor and his mother announced that transit is on its way.

"Light rail is coming. Light rail is coming to the city!" exclaimed an excited Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick while kicking off his speech at the press conference.

Well, it's just about coming. At the very least, the city is another step closer to realizing light rail.

The Detroit Transit Options for Growth Study shows a light rail line along the center of Woodward, stretching from downtown to the State Fair Grounds, is needed. Armed with the study, city officials will begin pressing the feds for more than half of the $371 million needed to build the 8-mile long line. They see construction beginning as soon as 2011 and putting people on trains within 24 to 30 months after the start of construction.

Click here or on the YouTube screen below to watch a short video of what it would look like:

There are still, of course, the nagging questions of getting approval for federal funding, finding a local funding source and traversing the minefield that has blown up so many other well-intentioned mass transit initiatives in the past. All important concerns, but not enough to take away from the big-picture changes that would come with creating the line.

"This is very, very important to the future of southeast Michigan," Kilpatrick said at the press conference. "I don’t think we'll have a future if we don't do this."

It seems that everyone is jumping on the transit bandwagon, and it's about time. And putting transit along Woodward just makes sense.

Big project, big picture

Woodward isn't called Michigan's Main Street for nothing. It's by far Metro Detroit's most dense corridor in terms of population, institutions and jobs. Its 27 miles are home to more than 300 historic sites, 150 events, 55 key venues, 11 municipalities and five of Metro Detroit's most vibrant downtowns.

Despite all of this, the thoroughfare is still pockmarked with urban prairie, strip malls and blight. But a properly done light rail line would change this. It would mean more dense developments like South University Village and fewer strip malls drowning in seas of surface parking lots like Model T Plaza.

It would also mean that just about everything along the Woodward corridor in the city would be easily accessible without a car. Palmer Park residents could easily walk to the light rail, ride it downtown for work and come back without ever looking at their dashboard.

"I see it as a linear district," says Mark Nickita, president of Detroit-based Archive DS architecture firm. "Not downtown as a district and Midtown as a district and New Center as a district and Boston Edison as a district. What you'll see is one long linear district that runs for miles."

And a lot more space dedicated toward people instead of their cars. The type of urban density normally experienced in inner cities like Chicago and San Francisco. The type of density that will make the difference between Detroit's section of Woodward in 2008 and the same strip of road in 2018 seem like night and day.

Yes, there are already high-density developments such as the Ellington Lofts being built on Woodward but there could be more, much more.

"It will be just a drop in the bucket compared to what the light rail will bring," says Megan Owens, executive director of Transportation Riders United. "It will be what people are moving to Chicago, San Francisco and New York for. We can have that here."

Low hanging fruit

The demand for that is growing in Metro Detroit about as fast as the price of gas climbs toward $5 a gallon. Nickita, a Birmingham resident and self-described urbanist, has been riding the bus to work everyday in downtown Detroit for the last 20 years.

The number of people on the bus has always been healthy, but the ridership numbers have grown stronger in recent months in his eyes. And those numbers reach across all barriers, including race, class, age and ability.

"In the last six months I have noticed that it's harder and harder to find a place to sit," says Nickita. "It's been more and more standing room only."

Numbers are starting to come out to support those observations. There have been double-digit increases in mass transit ridership in many of the state's metropolitan communities in the first quarter of 2008. Detroit's Department of Transportation is up an average of 200,000 riders per month over 2007, according to statistics collected by Transportation Riders United.

Putting in a light rail system where there is the greatest demand might be just the right domino to fall first toward the creation of a respectable regional transit system.

Getting a base hit with the system announced Monday could lead to a long rally for more of the same variety of transportation options along the rest of Metro Detroit's spokes.

Since light rail only requires a fraction of the energy to transport people that automobiles use, it makes it much more likely that alternative forms of energy could one day cover light rail's electricity needs.

"Light rail is really one of the low-hanging fruit in alternative energy," says Jim Croce, CEO of TechTown's NextEnergy. "We believe that the best alternative energy is the fuel that isn't consumed."

Building for the future

But putting this all together so people can be put on trains is still years in the future. The Detroit Transit Options for Growth Study puts riding light rail into the early teens. The private investors looking to sidestep the federal subsidy to create a similar light rail line between downtown and New Center are still at least a few years off from making it a reality.

But good things come to all those that wait, and Detroiters have been waiting patiently to ride a streetcar (again) for more than half a century. Metro Detroiters have been waiting just as long at their shot at a Woodward light rail extension into Ferndale, Royal Oak, Birmingham and Pontiac.

The planners say that is the next step and even further down the road, but still within sight. The proposed State Fair Grounds stop is listed as the gateway to a further expansion up Woodward. The planners call such an expansion a logical next step but say putting it together with the current proposal would make the project too big and more prone to fizzling.

Owens notes that the process is "frustratingly slow" but not surprising since most major public infrastructure projects take years, even decades to plan, agree on and build. Building the freeway system we have today took decades, so waiting a couple of years and a few hundred million dollars to build several miles of light rail that could move about as many people as an expressway seems like a deal in perspective.

Not to mention it's better than the alternative.

"It's better that they take it slow and do it right," Owens says. "The worst thing we could do is spend a bunch of money to do it quickly and build a bad system."

Jon Zemke is a Detroit-based freelance writer, and editor of Model D's Innovation & Job News section. He is also the news editor for metromode and Concentrate.


Woodward corridor

Mark Nickita of Archive DS

Photograph by Marvin Shaouni
Marvin Shaouni is the managing photographer for Metromode & Model D.

Read more articles by Jon Zemke.

Jon Zemke is a news editor with Model D and its sister publications, Metromode and Concentrate. He's also a small-scale real-estate developer and landlord in the greater downtown Detroit area.