The People Mover

 

The Detroit People Mover in full flight.

The Detroit People Mover in full flight.

We got on the People Mover at the Ren Cen, where we had just enjoyed a cocktail.  My hope had been to go to Bar One, in the Ren Cen’s spacious atrium, where we would have been able to sit in the pods arrayed around Bar One as an homage to the isolation and alienation that the invention of the car has brought to urban life.  Bar One was closed, though, so we had to settle for the River Bar on the third floor of the Marriott.

My girlfriend, Caroline, attempts to save 50 cents by jumping the turnstile on the way to the People Mover.

My girlfriend, Caroline, attempts to save 50 cents by jumping the turnstile on the way to the People Mover.

 

 

Riding the Detroit People Mover on a beautiful summer day.

Riding the Detroit People Mover on a beautiful summer day.

The following was published in the Detroit News on August 1, 1987, one day after the People Mover opened for business (“People Moved! Train leaves station, and city hops aboard” by David Everett, Theresa Blossom, and Patricia Edmonds):

“The words that thousands of Detroit workers and visitors wanted to hear came across loudspeakers at approximately 1 pm Friday:

“ ‘May I have your attention please,’ said control operator Joyce West.  ‘The Detroit People Mover is now open for revenue service.  Welcome aboard.’ 

[. . .]

“ ‘That’s a beautiful view,’ said Coleman Young, a powerful mayor.

“ ‘It will work,’ said Max Fisher, a rich industrialist.

“ ‘I liked it,’ said Angela Wheeler, a nine-year-old.’ ”

 

Empty seats on the People Mover, which tends to seat about 10% of its capacity per year.

Empty seats on the People Mover, which tends to seat about 10% of its capacity per year.

 

 

 

The People Mover is probably the most impractical mass transit system in the United States.  It runs on a track of only 2.9 miles, and almost all of the stops are within comfortable walking distance of one another.  On opening day in 1987, the Detroit News bent over backwards to record only the most enthusiastic responses by riders of the People Mover, in particular in a human-interest story, beginning with with the sentence, “Call it love at first crush,” that the Detroit News published on the same day as the above.  Love or no love, however, it’s telling that none of the riders in this article seem to be using the People Mover to get anywhere (

“Riders develop crush on new transit system,” by W. Kim Heron and Cassandra Spratling, Detroit News, Aug. 1, 1987):

 

“ ‘I loved it.  I think I’m gonna buy a yearly pass,’ said attorney John Zorza as his premier ride ended at the Financial District station.

“ ‘I love it.  I like a little adventure in my life,’ said Dorothy Tyler of Detroit as the People Mover car she rode—packed at least to its 100-passenger capacity—rolled out of the surreal cavern where the Cobo Hall expansion is underway.”

Actually, you’ll have to excuse me: I spoke too soon.  One of the riders had a destination in mind:

“At least one rider saw the mover in near-religious terms. 

“ ‘Is this the highway to heaven?’ asked Anne Alexander Jones, 83, as she left the escalator at the Financial District station.”

The People Mover began life during the Carter Administration as an ambitious plan to construct a light rail system linking Detroit with its near suburbs.  The plan would have cost $600 million in 1975 dollars, and probably would have done amazing things as far as attracting visitors, consumers, and jobs to downtown Detroit.  Yet it’s not surprising that the plan shrank down to the minuscule size that it did in a city where the most powerful people make cars, and where racism was such a decisive part of why the suburbs got as big as they did to begin with.

Joe Louis Arena as seen from the People Mover.

Joe Louis Arena as seen from the People Mover.

The reasons why the People Mover covers so little ground are easy to understand, but less easy to understand is why the People Mover was built and continues to be maintained when it seems to serve no purpose whatsoever.  Even using the term “mass transit system” to describe the People Mover feels wrong: how is it “mass” when it only fills an average of 10% of its seats on a given day, and why call it “transit” when it doesn’t go anywhere?

Accordingly to the Detroit News article that I quoted above, the answer to those questions, if there is one, lies in a series of obscure smoke-filled-room machinations perpetrated by Detroit industrialist Max Fisher, at the behest of legendary Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, somewhere in the murky depths of the Reagan Administration.  When the People Mover was being planned and constructed, the head of the Urban Mass Transportation Administration, was Ralph Stanley.  The People Mover cost $200.3 million—of which $157.2 million was paid by the Federal government, $41.1 by the state of Michigan, and only $2 million by the city of Detroit—and Stanley figured it was a waste of money, based on essentially the same considerations that I have already shared.

In “People Moved,” the journalists asked Mayor Young to explain how the People Mover came to be despite the level of bureaucratic resistance to the idea.  His answer is remarkably cryptic:

“When Ralph Stanley, the chief of the Federal Urban Mass Transportation Administration, tried to kill the money for the People Mover project, Young said he arranged for him to meet with Fisher.  At the meeting, Stanley walked in to see Fisher ‘winding the key to the back door of the White House around his finger,’ Young said.”

The journalists then ask Fisher to corroborate, perhaps in the hopes that he could provide more substance to Young’s enigmatic answer:

“Asked before the ceremony about his contacts with the White House regarding the People Mover, Fisher said, ‘No comment.’ ”

 

The Windsor-Detroit tunnel entrance as seen from the People Mover.

The Windsor-Detroit tunnel entrance as seen from the People Mover.

 

When Caroline and I rode the People Mover the other day, it served a practical purpose.  It gave us a lift from the Ren Cen to where we had parked, in a lot across the street from the Rosa Parks Transit Center.  Most of the other passengers looked like they were headed from where they had parked their cars to Comerica Park.

The People Mover is expensive to maintain (Detroit pays $3 for every 50-cent fare) and seems to exist for no other purpose besides to provide a fleeting amusement to sports tourists and fodder for bloggers, so it has a bracing effect to look back and remember that it was greeted with such overwhelming enthusiasm when it was new.  What could the reason for that have been?  Couldn’t anyone tell?  It’s hard to say, but I’d like to find out more about this.

 

A map displays the route of the People Mover, with its attendant stops, all of which are within pleasant walking distance of one another.

A map displays the route of the People Mover, with its attendant stops, all of which are within pleasant walking distance of one another.

 

In the meantime, it’s worth noting how similar to the Detroit press’s reception of the People Mover in 1987 was to its rhapsodic cheerleading of the Ren Cen at the time of its birth, exactly 10 years earlier in 1977.

In both situations, the subtext was the hope that complex, deep-seated economic problems could be solved with a single flashy, expensive gimmick with a vaguely futuristic aesthetic. It makes me wonder whether we will soon begin to see People Movers and Renaissance Centers on a national scale, as the problems facing the massively bloated, broke, suffering Neo-Detroit that increasingly is the United States itself become increasingly intractable–an amusement park in space, for example. What I’m asking is whether this tendency to invest such lavish hopes in a single gimmick is not a uniquely American trait, one which prevents us from ever leaving bad situations once we’ve gotten ourselves into them.

As we consider this possibility, let us part with the same words with which Detroit City Councilman, the Reverend Nicholas Hood, greeted the dawn of the People Mover era (“Divine guidance sought for railway,” no byline, Detroit News, Aug. 1, 1987):“Lord, you are the ultimate people mover.  And we ask that you lead the spirit of Detroit, and captivate citizens and visitors as the People Mover zips through downtown.”

 

Leaving the People Mover.

Leaving the People Mover.

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~ by electrorefutedrobo on August 18, 2009.

One Response to “The People Mover”

  1. […] who had money back in the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, always used Pewabic.  All the People Mover stops are done with Pewabic tile.” A portion of the Detroit Industrial […]

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