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.
For now, besides the insufficiently funded Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT) and Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART) bus systems, the region has the People Mover. A simple question many have about the circular monorail: "Who rides it?" Does it really attract thousands of riders daily? (The Detroit Transportation Corp., which operates the manual, reports the People Mover carries an a daily ridership of 5,300 — most of which likely occurs on weekends, or during a Detroit Lions, Tigers, or Red Wings game. That works out to roughly two million rides annually.)
For that alone, it was worth the time to see what the system looks like during the day: I planned to spend 12 hours on the People Mover and the only places I could exit to use the restroom or eat something would be any stop that feeds directly onto a platform for the system. That would mean only Greektown, the Renaissance Center, the Millender Center, and Cobo Hall. I sat quietly, I chatted briefly, I gambled a bit, and thought aimlessly. It was, by all accounts, a long day.
6:58 a.m. — Armed with a bagel filled with a spicy red lentil spread, I call for a ride to the Fort/Cass Avenue station from my apartment. The weather bites, I'm not feeling too excited about anything at the moment, and I'm looking forward to whatever I might be eating for dinner. Finally, my ride arrives.
7:02 a.m. — Standing on the platform, I jot down a streaming list of questions that quickly hit my brain, in particular, one perhaps every People Mover rider has imagined while awaiting their automated vehicle to arrive: "Will I even get a chance to talk to anyone about anything?"
More importantly, I ask, "Where will I eat?"
I hear that beautiful screech, the grinding of metal on metal, and know that in moments, I'll be seated inside a warm vehicle because the People Mover keeps the heat rolling when it's cold outside.
7:03 a.m. — It's freezing inside. Immediately, the pre-recorded announcer hits the airwaves: "The next. Station. Is ... Michigan ..."
7:07 a.m. — A few stops later, an older black woman walks on. She's wearing black shoes. She crosses her legs, and huddles over her phone, a flip-phone, and says to me, "God bless you this morning." I politely nod my head and say, "Hello. "
"I passed my midterm on Wednesday," she says without a pause. She attends nursing school at Wayne County Community College. She tells me she scored "an eight." I don't think to ask if that's good or bad. She says something quietly to herself and then directs her attention toward me: "At least I'm trying to do something with my life!" I hope that wasn't actually a direct comment to me. She's wearing a long, dark blue jacket, a tan scarf, and has caramel skin and beautiful, striking eyes.
I ask her what her name is, and she says, "[inaudible] Porter." The People Mover is screaming bloody murder and I wish it would stop. I ask her again, and she simply says, "Ms. Porter." I tell her, "I'm Ryan."
"God bless you," she says, before asking me what I do for a living. I tell her I'm a reporter and that I've been tasked to spend a day on the People Mover. This doesn't draw the stupendous amount of laughter I anticipated from her. She says, "A news reporter? What station?"
It's not a station, I tell her. I work for a newspaper.
There's a long pause.
A Detroit transit cop hops on. Even though I've only been riding for mere minutes, I immediately consider if the officer is irritated that I'm aimlessly riding the People Mover in circles. I consider telling him my reason for partaking in something so taxing. I don't.
7:15 a.m. — I text my girlfriend, "I'm already going crazy." I realize that I said I wouldn't use my phone while engaged in this exercise of fun. I write down, "Rules: 1. Don't step foot onto, or into, any structure that doesn't directly feed into the People Mover, and, 2. Don't use your phone."
7:16 a.m. — We arrive at the Fort/Cass station and Ms. Porter gets up to leave. I wonder if I'll ever see her again. I realize the officer is actually a security guard and feel foolish.
7:20 a.m. — Grand Circus Park is currently being renovated due to the rehabilitation efforts at the David Whitney Building. So, the pre-recorded announcer says, "The next. Station. Is ..." and I realize he's meant to say Grand Circus Park. I realize now that he won't and that I'll have to listen to him say this broken, blank phrase on and off again for the next 11-and-a-half-hours.
The security guard gets off at the Times Square station, a woman gets on at the Michigan Avenue station, and I want to ask them questions, but I feel so tired that I can't imagine saying a word.
I jot down in my notebook: "need coffee" next to a miserably drawn coffee cup.
The vehicle keeps stopping for awkwardly long increments near the Broadway station. I wonder if this is the end. At Grand River and Farmer avenues, I notice a sea of people inside the YMCA throwing balls into the air. I assume this is for exercise.
7:23 a.m. — I'm starving. This is the first predicament of many I feel like I'll have today: Do I eat at Greektown or the Renaissance Center? The woman who hopped on at Michigan gets off. Total count of people I've seen on my ride so far: three.
At the Bricktown Station, a white man with a mop of red hair jogs up the steps to catch the train before it departs. He heads to the other cart. I decide to eat at the Renaissance Center.
7:35 a.m. — Standing on the platform of the Renaissance Center station, I admire the view of downtown. Whatever dissenters of the People Mover say, it unquestionably offers a lovely view of the central business district. I walk through the skyway into the Ren Cen and immediately consider how good a basic breakfast of eggs and hash browns with a piping hot cup of coffee sounds. Soon, I find out the Ren Cen doesn't have a Coney Island. Why did I ever think it did in the first place? There's something eerie about the Ren Cen at this time of the morning: With the illuminated walkways circling around the various towers of the building, it reminds me of some futuristic scene out of Brazil, or something. Everyone appears to be totally bummed out about being at work. I quickly realize my options for breakfast are limited and settle on McDonald's for what turns out to be one of the most depressing meals I've had in awhile.
7:42 a.m. — I order an Egg McMuffin without Canadian bacon, a hash brown, and a cup of coffee. It's nowhere near what I wanted. After finishing my meal, I sit and read and people watch for the next half-hour. A steady stream of men file into the food court dressed in junior CEO attire and they sit nearby and begin to laugh non-stop for reasons I can't quite hear. I make it a point to leave.
8:36 a.m. — I pass the Ren Cen's CVS, head back to the People Mover and hop on. At this point, there's actually some chatter on the train, with eight people on board, including me. Someone, inexplicably, says aloud, "Civilization is the accumulated culture of men," though I'm not sure who said it or who they're talking to.
After completing another rotation of the People Mover loop, each of which takes about 12-and-a-half minutes, a woman on her phone steps off at the Ren Cen platform and says, "No." She turns back around and steps back inside. She corrects herself again by saying, "Yes," and steps back off. This draws a laugh from everyone in the immediate vicinity.
8:45 a.m. — I realize I've lost track of what stops other riders hop on. I have no idea how many times I've gone around the loop. At some point, I'm alone again in the vehicle. A tiny black woman with a slight hunch in her back hops on. She immediately starts talking.
She says she'll turn 92 years old Feb. 23. I find it incredible she's moseying about downtown with ease. It reminds me of the older women I saw last year in Paris carrying baguettes off the subway walking at a snail's pace. But, they were still flying solo.
"Grandma seen many moons," she says. "One thing I know, in my next life, I'm not gonna have any kids." She tells me she has two daughters. She became estranged with both due to drugs, she says. I tell her I'm sorry about that. She says "whateva" a number of times.
"Hey, they don't bother me," she says. She offers a comment on my handwriting, saying it's awfully disjointed and sloppy. I agree. She stands up and prepares to leave. I forget to ask her name.
"You have a good day now," she says. "I'm on my way to Bingo — gonna win me some money!"
Traffic in downtown is backed up to a halt; I hear faint car alarms blaring in the distance. Nothing is happening on the People Mover.
9 a.m. — I let out a sigh because, as I put it in my notebook, "God damn, it has already been two hours."
I'm sitting inside a vehicle that has been wrapped by an ad for Fishbone's in Greektown. Where I sit, a freakishly cartoonish fish stares at me. The fact they placed the fish in a way riders can stare into its eyes, without any context whatsoever, is awful.
I notice a sign that says, for emergency assistance, to use, press red button "and speak slowly." It feels tempting because I have no idea who would answer and have so many questions to ask. I take a look at Joe Louis Arena as the vehicle whizzes by and agree with (just about everyone it seems) that it really is an ugly facility.
At the Fort/Cass station, I notice Louis Aguilar, a reporter for the Detroit News, walk off the other vehicle. Two transit officers are inside my vehicle. One of them asks a man dressed in an all-white suit with a goofy hat how he was doing. The man, apparently caught off guard, shouts, "I think I remember you from years ago!" It's unclear if he's certain about this.
9:25 a.m. — A guy wearing giant headphones on the third floor of the Madison Building near the Broadway Station is sitting on a windowsill while drinking a cup of coffee. I wonder if this is partly why Quicken Loans and its affiliated companies are rated as some of the greatest companies to work at.
I notice a guy decked out in Sons of Anarchy gear hasn't left the cart in one full rotation. I wonder if he's in the same boat as me, but as soon as I get ready to say something to him, he gets up and leave. And again, I'm alone on the cart.
9:30 a.m. — It seems like in most towns, you can tune out your surroundings when using the subway or bus or any public transit system. The People Mover, at many bumps and skips in the route, screams with a piercing screech every time it arrives at a destination — which is every 30 to 75 seconds.
9:45 a.m. — I'm starting to feel anxious and tired. I remember how I felt when I stood on the Fort/Cass platform nearly three hours ago. We pull up to a stop and I notice a sign that says, "Report any suspicious activity." It feels like I would appear as suspicious.
We pass by the Times Square station and I think of every bad joke I've ever heard from some out-of-towner who quips, "Times Square! In Detroit? HA!"
I wonder how many people were living in Detroit when the People Mover opened. (Somewhere between 1 million-1.2 million.)