|Photo of a streetcar on Woodward Avenue in 1956, near the end of the streetcar’s run in Detroit. Source: Walter P. Reuther Library (www.reuther.wayne.edu)|
The series to date:
We’ve finally reached the homestretch of my “Reasons Behind Detroit’s Decline” series. Previous entries in the series, like detailing the city’s poor housing stock or freeway expansion, highlight things that Detroit was uniquely bad in implementing. There are mistakes that Detroit was simply worse at than other cities. Moving forward in the series, we begin to see that there are some rather Detroit-specific characteristics, constraints or limitations that created unparalleled conditions for the Motor City’s collapse. Today, we’ll discuss Detroit’s loss of and current lack of an extensive transit system and its impact.
Here’s what I said earlier on the matter:
Detroit had an elaborate streetcar network that was in existence until the 1950’s, but was largely replaced by buses. The auto industry took special interest in the conversion of the streetcar network to buses. General Motors lobbied the city’s Department of Street Railways (DSR) throughout much of the ‘50s, stressing that diesel-fueled buses were an effective lower-cost alternative to streetcars (no more rail maintenance costs!) and could provide much greater flexibility to meet shifting travel demands. Coincidentally, GM produced exactly the kind of buses that would easily facilitate the transition. By 1953, the DSR began a three-year effort to convert streetcars to buses, and the last streetcar route was completed in April 1956.
But there’s much more to transit in Detroit.
Detroit’s transit history is wonderfully detailed at a great (if antiquated) website, detroittransithistory.info. It’s here that you find many interesting historical nuggets that contradict conventional wisdom about Detroit and transit today. Some interesting facts:
- By 1900, Detroit had one of the nation’s most extensive interurban rail systems, connecting downtown Detroit to Toledo, Ann Arbor, Pontiac, Flint, Port Huron and even Windsor, Ontario.
- The myriad private transit systems operating in Detroit at the end of the 19th century were consolidated into the Detroit United Railway system by 1901, thanks in part to the efforts of reformist mayor Hazen Pingree.
- Detroit became the first large American city to have a municipally-owned streetcar system, when the city took control in 1922.
|Detroit United Railway map, 1904. Source: wikipedia.org|
Flash forward thirty years from 1920, shortly before the city acquired the streetcar system, to 1950. Despite having gone through the economic crises of the Great Depression and World War II, Detroit added one million residents over that period. By that time the city found itself with an antiquated system, built on a hub-and-spoke system that was not fitting the multi-polar nature of the city, not supplemented by a quality interurban service and facing challenges from the autos that were the foundation of the city;s economy. It’s no wonder that the DSR was receptive to GM’s less than subtle attempts to move the city away from streetcars to buses. \
As usual, Detroit chose the expedient course of action.
It’s true that possibly nothing could’ve saved Detroit’s streetcar network. Similar systems were being razed throughout the country at the same time. After losing its streetcar network, however, it was clear that Detroit’s unyielding development pattern of moderate density, small lot single family homes would make it difficult for heavy rail to be considered as a viable alternative.
This fall, Detroit took the first steps to re-esstablish a streetcar system through the construction of the privately financed and controlled M-1 Rail project. There are great hopes that the initial 3.3 mile segment along Woodward Avenue going from downtown, through Midtown and into the New Center area will be the first leg of a newly expanded system. Will it be a catalyst or a boondoggle? That remains to be seen.