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  • Post of the Day: Bus rapid transit in Detroit

    WSU MUP Student writes:

    For the past few years there has been a lot of effort and resources put into the development of a light rail system for the City of Detroit. About a year or so ago (I cannot recall exactly when), the various plans began to coalesce and a final plan was released which would be a line running up and down the center of Woodward Avenue (the Main Street for Detroit and its northern suburbs) from just outside of downtown eventually to 8 Mile Road (the northern city limit). Once downtown, the line would make a bit of a loop through the central area. The rail line was going to be paid for through a combination of federal and private grants, city and state funding, and a small coalition of wealthy private donors.

    From the start, I had some concerns about the system but was still hopeful it could actually get built.

    My first concern was that if the line ended at the city limit, nobody from the suburbs was going to bother to use it. I don't live far off of Woodward, but am about seven miles north of 8 Mile. I generally am not going to bother waiting for the slow and unconnective SMART bus system to take me down seven miles where I would have to transfer to the light rail system to go another 5 or 6 miles. I'm also unlikely to drive the seven miles to the train and park and to take it. At that point, I would just finish my trip in my car. I consider myself an advocate for public transit and if it's unattractive for me, it's probably unattractive for many others as well. I thought this was a great opportunity for the federal government to pump some real transportation dollars and stimulus into the region by going big or going home. They could have proposed the line along the entire length of the Woodward corridor from Detroit to Pontiac. Yes, I realize there would be about 10x as many local governments involved and fighting with each other if that were the case, but I can dream, right?

    My other major concern was that I thought the line should have been built as a loop one block off of Woodward in each direction (John R. to the east of Woodward and Cass/2nd to the west of Woodward for those familiar with the area). My belief was that building along these streets instead of Woodward would force a bit more pedestrian activity for those trying to get to something on Woodward and would put quite a few more residents and businesses within a closer radius of some form of the line. While a loop may look more expensive, I would imagine that there could be some cost, and more importantly construction time, savings by the fact that avoiding Woodward would avoid building on a state-owned trunk line and save MDOT from having to oversee aspects. Building along these relatively less traveled side streets would also help ease some of the congestion that would be caused by building on the more heavily trafficked Woodward Avenue. Lastly, a few of the major institutions that this line was intended to serve, would have been placed directly on the lines instead of a few blocks off (Wayne State University, the Detroit Medical Center, the main branch of the Detroit Public Library, the State of Michigan at the Cadillac Center, the Fischer Building). Another large institution, the Henry Ford Hospital, would also be significantly closer to the lines.

    Oh well. That's all a moot point now since the city and the federal government have announced that the plan has essentially been taken off the table for a Bus Rapid Transit system instead.

    I have seen/heard quite a bit of grumbling from friends and colleagues (planners and non-planners and urbanites and suburbanites alike) about this but I personally like the new proposal and am much more excited about it than I was about the light rail line, both about the route and the possibilities that it opens up (not to mention it just seems like a much more feasible system to get off the ground). But I will stipulate that no BRT system will likely be able to replicate the positive economic development spin offs around where the proposed light rail stops would have been.

    Here are the reasons I think this might actually be a better plan:

    Theoretically, a BRT system should be able to be implemented much more quickly than a light rail line. There will need to be some lane improvements to the streets and other infrastructure enhancements, purchasing of the buses, training, etc. but this seems much less burdensome than building a rail line (granted, I'm no engineer - civil, transportation, or otherwise).

    The new proposed route will actually run through the city and the suburbs in a big triangular loop (Gratiot Avenue out to Macomb County towards the northeast, then along M59, M53, and 16 Mile mile along the north, and Woodward back to Gratiot and downtown along the western edge of the route), plus a spur out to the west along Michigan Avenue towards Metropolitan Airport and Ann Arbor. IMO, having this connectivity between the city and the suburbs is a huge improvement in functionality.

    Hopefully this will be a catalyst for scrapping the DDOT and SMART systems entirely and having one system for the city and the burbs that operates the regular buses and the BRT.

    The added connectivity between the city and suburbs will hopefully lead to increased ridership which could further demonstrate the usefulness, need, and acceptance of public transportation in a region long thought to be adverse to it which would hopefully be a catalyst for additional lines (maybe some along Grand River, Grand Blvd, Van Dyke, Fort, The Lodge/M10/Northwestern Highway, 10 Mile/696, an extension of the Gratiot line to 23 Mile, Telegraph, and whatever roads people like to drive on out on the Westside or Downriver?).

    If the BRT system proves successful and the get to the point where they have seemingly exhausted possible new routes and are able to sustain ridership, this could possibly be an argument for and a stepping stone to the long hoped for light rail system and the spin off economic development that would occur around those light rail stations and the TOD it would bring.

    I've ridden on light rail systems and on BRT systems (in Los Angeles). And yes, BRT is not rail, but it is something, and it can work. Will it work here in Detroit? I will keep my fingers crossed.

    There are already quite a few articles on the topic on the websites for the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press, but here is one that sums up the situation pretty well: Detroit light-rail plan is dead; high-speed city, suburban buses to be used instead

    (Wikimedia: GoddardRocket)

    See the responses here.