Detroit People Mover schedule

We spent 12 hours riding the People Mover so you don't have to 

On Aug. 1, 1987, Virgil Knaf drove from the suburbs into Detroit to ride a monorail system that opened that day. Dubbed "the People Mover, " the maligned project was millions of dollars over budget, opened two years later than expected, and basically everyone hated it.

Everyone, except Knaf. Breathlessly optimistic about the People Mover, Knaf told the New York Times at the time, "This is better than the New York subways. At least you can see where you're going."

In hindsight, over a quarter-century later, virtually everyone in metro Detroit would agree that Knaf's point was overstated. Few see any purpose in the 2.9-mile endless loop that perpetually hovers above Detroit's Central Business District. Yet it manages to serve the exact purpose it was intended: to successfully shuttle tens of thousands of people around downtown Detroit at any given moment.

If anything, the People Mover has earned an unfortunate reputation as a boondoggle, when it was never meant to be a standalone initiative. Back in the 1970 and 1980s, plenty here wanted public transit; an Associated Press story from December 1977 declared it was "full steam ahead for mass transit" in Detroit.

At the time, it seemed like that was the case: Then-President Gerald Ford plopped $600 million on Detroit's table and said to make it happen.

Plans were floated to construct a subway line underneath Woodward Avenue into Royal Oak, which would've veered off to the northeast and eventually link up with an existing commuter rail line between Pontiac and Detroit. Amtrak wanted to run a commuter rail system between Joe Louis Arena and Ann Arbor, with 11 trains running daily. City planners looked at the bay area of the Joe Louis Arena parking garage and visioned it a perfect spot to land a commuter rail line.

A light rail line was intended to run along Gratiot Avenue as far northeast as I-94. An additional commuter rail line was planned between Port Huron and Detroit. Additional light rail lines would stretch into the suburbs along various arteries, bridging downtown and the suburbs once again. In concert with the bus systems in place, it was a blueprint for some connectivity in the region that, on paper, would allow an average Joe to jettison the automobile. It would've been a start.

Things were looking good.

Then none of it happened. Elected officials couldn't agree on anything. The $600 million (more than $3 billion in today's dollars) offer was eventually revoked. The biggest boosters of the People Mover, however, forged on, deciding to extend the monorail into the Joe, where it loops back eastward toward downtown present day.

That's why the People Mover was never going to be a success. It was destined for failure, an ideal placeholder for the conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy to call a waste of money, a "roller coaster for the rich." And yet, guaranteed, if you happened to catch a ride on a Friday night from Greektown Casino to, say, Grand Circus Park, chances are you'll hear somebody mutter something like, "God, it'd be great if this thing was extended into the 'burbs."

That last point — that is why, on a brisk fall day in late October, I decided to spend a day on the People Mover. I wanted to see if I was, in fact, out of my mind for once boringly declaring, "The People Mover is dead, long live the People Mover."

Yes, it's a costly piece of transportation that operates itself — but it is the foundation for something more. Even to this day, elected officials and planners seem hellbent on dropping nearly $1 billion to pour additional cement to widen our highways. For some context, that kind of money would buy the originally proposed $500 million light rail line on Woodward between downtown to 8 Mile Road, and then cover operation costs for years.

It gives one pause to consider what type of results the region would see if that same drive was established to construct a more efficient public transit system here — like, for instance, one that directly connects to the People Mover, as it was intended.

For instance, look at the efforts behind the 3.3-mile M-1 Rail streetcar on Woodward Avenue. Backers of that project fought like hell over seven years work to make it a reality. They clearly showed commitment to making an alternative transit project happen. Still, the project has been criticized by a number of observers as a parking shuttle of sorts for downtown employees and out-of-towners visiting the city. Yes, M-1 Rail will drop riders off at Grand Circus Park, where they can hop on the People Mover. But the transition isn't seamless: They'll have to exit onto the street and walk upstairs to the People Mover platform — and they'll have to pay an additional fare.

And if the streetcar, which is expected to open in fall 2016 runs as fast as its counterpart in Portland, Ore., a city M-1 Rail backers have highlighted during their mission to bring the Detroit project online, that might be cause for alarm: In 2013, the Oregonian found that, depending on the time of day and distance, one could walk faster to their destination than the Portland Streetcar.

In a nutshell, metro Detroit is years, if not decades, away from having an effective public transit system.

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