Streetcars of Desire

Imagine it's a Tuesday night and you're working late at the Graphic Arts Building on Amsterdam, just west of Woodward. You've just finished the layout of a report that's due to the printer the next day. In retrospect, you're glad you didn't drive in this morning. Your boss's surprise birthday party is tonight downtown at one of the hot new restaurants near Grand Circus Park. Afterwards, you'll only be a couple of blocks from Gratiot where you can easily hop on the reliable DSR to get back home. Even though you're still a little sore at loss of the sleek PCC cars from the Gratiot line, you'll be able to catch one to get downtown, but only for a few more days. You leave the building with a spring in your step. The weather is changing. It's the first week of April and the year is 1956.

It's been five decades since a scenario like the one described above could have happened in Detroit. The last of Detroit's streetcars, the aerodynamic PCC cars (short for Presidents' Car Commission) on the Woodward line were taken out of service April 8, 1956. They were shipped down to Mexico City, where they did their thing for another 30 years. It's hard to envision a city like Detroit with this kind of transit precedent and transit option. Not only were there streetcars on Woodward, but also there was rail all over the city and into the suburbs, connecting the whole region together in an efficient and effective way. Not many people know that during the 1920s, when Detroit's Department of Street Railways (DSR) was organized it was the largest and most comprehensive streetcar system in the United States. How things change.

But isn't there a saying about "what goes around, comes around," or something like that? Detroit is looking to the future, and utilizing transit as an economic engine to rebuild and focus development is a strategy that is gaining momentum. When the very first streetcars began running along Jefferson, Woodward, Michigan and Gratiot during the Civil War, a framework was put in place for concentrated urban development. In fact, initially, private enterprise built the systems, often in anticipation of real estate markets and residential growth. Transit and buildings worked together to create pedestrian friendly environments, where goods and services complimented commercial and residential use, and made life for people on the street as convenient as possible.

Looking around many of Detroit's neighborhoods along former streetcar routes still reveals the vestiges of this pattern. Today, planners like to use the term "POD," or "Pedestrian Oriented Development," to give this old idea a new ring. And cities across the country — from Portland to Dallas, and from Denver to Minneapolis — have discovered that the reintroduction of rail has equated to billions in related investment. With fixed rail and consistent service, there is more opportunity for vertical development and less need for providing parking at the expense of space for people. What's so intriguing about Detroit, is the potential for PODs popping up all over, but most especially in the oldest parts of the city where its urban bones are already in place.

Yet, how can the city the put the world on wheels of the rubber variety, rationalize such a shift in thinking? Detroit is definitely schizophrenic with regard to its relationship with non-auto motion. While we built up transit and a denser urban environment during the later 19th and first few decades of the 20th century, we have dismantled and divested from it during the last half century. The tremendous growth of the auto industry and our region's subsequent over-reliance on a single mode of transit leaves us shackled to only one option — this in a land where choice in the marketplace is such a valued part of the American experience.

What's important to understand is that there is more than enough room for everyone's lifestyle preference in Detroit. As a region, we've pretty much figured out the suburban way of life — and we've got that down cold. What we seem to have forgotten is how to live and build a city life. The two concepts can coexist. As evidenced in the recent successes of downtown living projects, there is a market and a growing interest. Leveraging that market is a next step, and building better transit is key.

 Holding onto tired stereotypes doesn't serve to get to the next level. The notion that the Big Three are somehow opposed to building transit doesn't hold much water anymore. While it is true that GM strategically dismantled streetcarsthrough its National Bus Lines across the country during the 1950s, leadership now knows that having a more connected and versatile quality of life matters to attracting top talent. Representatives from the Big Three all signed a letter in 2002 stating that they support the development of transit in Detroit and the necessary legislation, Detroit Area Rapid Transit Authority (DARTA), to get the wheels rolling.

A second point of contention and misinformation revolves around the question of how a place like Detroit could pay for a system. While some sort of regional tax would probably be necessary to build and properly fund transit, in the meantime Detroit-area residents throw away millions of dollars in Federal money on a yearly basis. Every time you fill up your tank, 9 cents gets collected for the Federal Government's Surface Transportation Fund. Of those 9 cents, approximately 10 percent is allocated to the Transit Fund, a fund for transit initiatives all over the country, for regions that have developed a plan and funding mechanism for transit. Because metro Detroit has not been able to develop and commit to a plan, we cannot leverage our own dollars for transit, and in essence we subsidize other cities' transit systems.

Finally, there is the misperception that nobody will ride transit even if we had it. This theory was unequivocally disproved during the recent Super Bowl XL activities when people from all over the region took DDOT buses to get downtown. Officials planned for fewer than 100,000, but got more than three times that amount of riders. People will ride if they perceive that in certain cases, transit will do it better. Despite the many shortcomings of the bus system we currently have, ridership is currently up on SMART and DDOT. Oftentimes people don't realize how convenient the buses can be. Just riding once to work or for an event can demystify the experience. And the recently begun Rosa Parks Transit Center in Times Square promises to take connectivity to the next level with buses converging downtown in an area directly adjacent to the Times Square People Mover station.

Going forward, Detroit has a golden opportunity to rebuild by reinvesting in its infrastructure and its beginnings as a more "urban" center. Today, 50 years after the last streetcar rumbled up Woodward, the Graphic Arts Building is being renovated into loft housing as part of Tech Town. After being vacant for many years, the beautiful terra-cotta facade is restored and is ready to welcome people again. It's just down the block from Woodward, where no doubt, someday soon, catching a streetcar (or subway?) won't be a phantasmal vision, but the stuff of daily life.

Two events this weekend sponsored by Transportation Riders United  celebrate Detroit's rich transit history and look to a brighter future:

On Friday evening, there will be a special progressive People Mover party and preview of "A Desire Named Streetcar," an exhibit of DSR history and future possibility. The event is a fundraiser for TRU and begins at 5:30 p.m. at the Guardian Building.

On Saturday, from 12-4 p.m., the "Desire Named Streetcar" exhibit will be on display at various stations along the People Mover.

Francis Grunow is executive director of Preservation Wayne.


Rosa Parks Transit Center courtesy of ParsonsBrinckerhoff

Streetcars Heading North on Woodward on Their Last Day

Griswold and State Streets


Streetcar Photos courtesy of Ken Schramm

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