As RTA Proposal is Defeated, Detroit Left with Uncertain Future

Loud, noisy, and distracting: residents can not help but look up at the elevated track to watch Detroit’s People Mover rumble by. Yet, the automated train only moves riders in a 2.94 mile loop around downtown Detroit, reaching less than one tenth the area of the city.

“The city was built with the idea that everyone would have a car,” says Marion Berger, lifelong Detroit resident and Program Coordinator for University of Michigan’s Semester in Detroit program. The city measures around 140 square miles, over 6 times the size of Manhattan. In Berger’s opinion, not having public transportation to help nearly 700,000 people navigate that distance is “pretty absurd.”


The November 8th ballot in Oakland, Macomb, Wayne, and Washtenaw counties included an initiative by the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan to support a property tax measure allowing a regional transit system to be implemented. The proposal was defeated in a tight race, leaving many wondering if Detroit will catch up with similar improving cities.

Detroit grew with the boom of the automobile. However, when the automobile industry began to collapse in the mid-twentieth century, Detroit began to collapse. Many residents moved out of the city and to the suburbs, a phenomenon that occurred in similar cities across the country.

“Detroit has a history of disinvestment,” Phil D’Anieri, University of Michigan Lecturer for the Program in the Environment and the Urban and Regional Planning Program, explains. When population declines, demand for property goes down and value depreciates. This does not leave the city with much tax revenue from the population to pursue public functions as basic as keeping street lights on and it especially does not allow considerable funds for improved public transportation.

Similar cycles of economic decline and population loss occurred throughout the Rust Belt, attacking cities such as Cleveland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo. “It’s an almost universal phenomenon across the Rust Belt,” D’Anieri says.

In terms of public transportation, the Detroit People Mover has continuously been seen as inefficient to residents. It does not cover enough land area for residents outside of the downtown center to have access.

“The People Mover was originally designed to be the centerpiece of a broader transit system,” says Megan Owens, Executive Director for Transportation Riders United, the nonprofit behind the regional transit proposal. She believes that the People Mover would be most useful if it was combined with a regional transportation system that was able to bring residents downtown.

Robert Shibley, Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of Buffalo, explained the common chain of events in the Rust Belt of city populations declining due to suburbanization. “One of the problems in [Buffalo] and in many other regions has been the way in which the development patterns over the last thirty, forty years have occurred,” Shibley says.

Detroit is in a similar position. In the case of the People Mover, it does not work effectively because it does not give commuters an easy way to come downtown from the suburbs without a car or vice versa.

Yet some Rust Belt cities, despite decline, have improved development within the cities and installed effective transportation initiatives.

Cleveland has improved its reach to the suburbs through the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority and Cincinnati with the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority.

Buffalo’s development plan, for example, outlines the chasm between jobs and housing within their city. Through Transit Oriented Development, public transportation can connect job and housing centers, attracting residents.

“We have held the same population or less in our region and consumed significantly more acres of developable land and in that process have greatly expanded the cost to service all that infrastructure without adding positive capacity to the tax base.” Shibley says. “So you can’t afford it. That’s part of the reason these regions are in such distress.”

The problem is evident throughout the Rust Belt, but it seems that public transit is helping these cities improve, bring in more residents, and grow the economy.

“Our transit is maybe the worst for a city of its size,” says Jeff Horner, Senior Lecturer in Wayne State’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning. He explains that cities should give commuters a choice in taking public transportation and at least give those who do not have a choice a semi-reliable form of transit to get them to where they need to be.


Owens has a similar perspective. Those who are physically unable to drive—too young, too old, or can not afford a car— still need to have access to jobs, groceries, recreation, etc.

She says that many people, especially young adults, would prefer to live in a walkable city with transit options, attracting top talent and businesses. “You can’t have a vibrant urban center if you have to have parking lots on every corner.”

While other cities are seeing improvements in public transit bringing in new residents, the defeat of Detroit’s regional transit proposal stalled this initiative.

“It’s a big step back,” Owens says. “People will continue to struggle to get to where they need to go.”

New initiatives, such as the shared bike program, provide hope in Detroit when seeing the success of similar programs in other Rust Belt cities.

“We’re making progress,” says Owens. Almost 9,000 people voted to approve the transit measure, which includes residents who do not rely on the current system. The effort to improve transit in Detroit has gone on for decades, but organizations like Transportation Riders United have gotten farther than before in recent months.

The People Mover continues to rattle as it bumbles around downtown. While it might not reach the entirety of the city, it continues to help workers, tourists, sports fans, and more get around downtown Detroit. Detroit may be taking longer than cities, but the improvements happening in other areas of the Rust Belt signals a positive future for Detroit. However, if transit initiatives are not set in place, Detroit might stay as a disconnected hub of two cities.


About Erin Dolan

I am a junior at the University of Michigan with an International Studies major and Sustainability minor.

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