Are Rapid Buses a Better Solution for Detroit Than Light Rail?

A rendering of the Woodward light rail line, which was scuttled in favor of a network of high-speed buses.

It’s hard to get your head around the news that plans for a light rail system along Detroit’s Woodward Avenue are being scrapped in favor of a system of high-speed buses. There’s a lot yet to shake out from this announcement, it’s difficult to tell who exactly made the decision to kill rail, and neither the city, state or federal government have so far released many details publicly.

I spent a good deal of time Tuesday night taking to social networks after the Detroit Free Press broke the news that officials were pulling the plug on light rail after years of dedicated planning. As a supporter of mass transit who would have directly benefited (I live along the proposed route), I felt immensely disappointed, yet I can also see some possible silver lining.

But I’m plagued with the sense that the longer this saga stretches out, the more difficult it’s going to be to finally bring an effective rapid transit system — rail, bus, hovercraft or whatever — to the Motor City.

A Variety of Perspectives

On the one hand, it may make more sense to improve the region’s bus system, which can be done at less expense and on much a larger scale, benefiting more riders. I get that. But early reports suggest such a system would complement and not replace the SMART or Detroit Department of Transportation bus lines — meaning we’d have three separate bus systems operating in southeast Michigan.

Sound sensible? Didn’t think so.

Anyway, rather than blather on, here’s a roundup of astute observations or snippets from various sides of the issue.

Detroit News:

Detroit began planning for a light rail line along Woodward in 2006. The city has already received a $25 million federal grant to help fund the first stage of a 9.3-mile project that was expected to cost $500 million, but it wasn’t clear where the city would get additional matching and operating funds.

Since the mid-1970s, leaders in Michigan have unsuccessfully sought to create a regional transportation authority more than 20 times. The region is the largest U.S. metro area without high-capacity rapid transit service or a system under development.

The letter from the heads of M-1 Rail (PDF), a group of private backers, to Gov. Rick Snyder:

“The benefits of this project would be substantial on every dimension. The private and philanthropic sector came together to raise $100 million – without desire for return – in this 3.4 mile phase because of what it would mean for economic development, revitalization, mobility and transformation in Downtown Detroit. We see every reason it would be a complement to a regional (Bus Rapid Transit) network — not in that riders would transfer from a BRT to the rail for the final 3.4 miles into Downtown, but in that it would spur and support a revitalized, livable, walkable, vibrant Downtown where businesses want to invest, people want to live, and retail wants to locate.”

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“It was primarily economic,” (U.S. Rep. Gary) Peters said. “The cost of putting in a bus rapid transit system is about one-third that of light rail. For the same investment many more miles can be part of the system. One thing all of us who live in the greater Detroit area know is that we have a system that simply isn’t working.”

(U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray) LaHood told the assembled (Michigan) delegation that the Detroit metro area was 10th in demand for transit in the country, but that level of service ranks 109th.


How can federal transit officials have faith in the city’s long-term ability to fund and manage a new transit operation, when Detroit can barely keep its sputtering bus system running now? Obvious answer: They can’t.

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Bing on Wednesday called the change “a positive thing.”

“A light rail system 3.8 miles up Woodward doesn’t speak to regional transportation, not when 60 percent of the employed of the city work outside the city,” he said.

Here’s a lengthy but worthwhile video examining a comparable Bus Rapid Transit system in Bogota, Colombia:

Bus Rapid Transit: Bogotá from Streetfilms on Vimeo.

What do you think about the decision to kill light rail in Detroit? Good call, or more bad news for the city and region?


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