Durable Growth, Transportation

CNU 24: Getting around Detroit

Downtown Detroit and the Detroit River

Downtown Detroit and the Detroit River

Being newly returned from the annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism, CNU 24, I have pages of notes to review, with the goals of extracting the best quotes and stories to share and also of reminding myself about the subjects into which I should dig more deeply.

But CNUs are more than four days of chatting with other urbanists and listening to speakers expound, often eloquently, on topics of city-building interest.  It’s also spending the better part of a week living in a city and learning its quirks.  Not having visited Detroit since 1999, I was particularly interested in wandering about the city that has become the focus of much debate about the functions and failures of cities.

So, before I get to the content of CNU 24, I’ll write about my experiences as a visitor to Detroit.  Today, my topic will be mobility, both as a pedestrian and a transit rider.

Crossing the Street:  I was slow in making my reservations for CNU 24.  As a result, all of the hotel rooms set aside for attendees had been claimed by the time I began making plans.  After casting about, I found an acceptable hotel near the other end of downtown from most of the conference venues but connected to the center of CNU activity by the Detroit Peoplemover, about which I’ll write below.

I arrived in Detroit on a Monday night, two days before the conference was to officially open.  I was there early to partake in a bus tour elsewhere in the state, which is another story I’ll eventually share.  Being in town early and at a distance from where I might bump into other early arrivals, I had a free evening.  After a day of flying, I was also hungry.

I have an aversion to hotel dining rooms, but Yelp quickly came to rescue, alerting me to a brewpub directly across the street.  It seemed a perfect solution.  I tidied up, headed downstairs, charged out the front door, spotted the brewpub no more than 100 yards away, and then came to a halt.  There was an eight-lane high-speed arterial between me and the brewpub.  And there was no crosswalk, at least not a direct crosswalk.

To walk to the brewpub, one had to cross the side street, then the arterial, and then back across the side street.  A total of three signal crossings to get to a front door that was no more than a long pitching wedge from where I stood.  There can be intersections where omitting a crosswalk is caused by legitimate site constraints.  But this one seemed solely the result of prioritizing drivers over pedestrians.

Wait, did I write three signal crossings?  Make that four.  The arterial was eight lanes wide, with a similarly wide median.  The lane count can be seen in the photo above.  And the same traffic engineer who had omitted the crosswalk also decided that cars shouldn’t wait for pedestrians to cross eight lanes of traffic plus the median, so timed the cycles such that walkers had to stop on the median.  So now four signal cycles were required to cross the street.  Four complete cycles as my hunger grew worse.

Except that four didn’t quite work out either. The second crossing of the side street adjoins a right turn only lane heading into a tunnel under the Detroit River.  As I waited for the light to turn green, drivers began making right turns on red in front of me.  It was a perfectly legal traffic motion.  But the turning cars gave momentum to the queued cars and when the light turned green, they kept on turning.  Fifteen cars and a city bus turned in front of me as I waited for someone to give me the right-of-way that was mine.  When the lane was finally empty, the light was again red.

So that was five signal cycles for a pedestrian to walk a hundred yards from a hotel to a brewpub.  Not much walkable urbanism in that equation.

Trying It Again:  The food and especially the beer were good enough that I returned to the brewpub twice more during the week.  Both times, I made the trek in four signal cycles, but both outings were still eventful.

The first time, I had to skip away from two cars that began slowing making the right turns without looking for pedestrians, one driven by a pair of young ladies flirting with a guy on the sidewalk and the other driven by someone absorbed in a cell phone call.

The second time, I left the brewpub to find myself fighting upstream through a sidewalk full of excitedly chattering folks.  A police officer told me to make my way quickly because beers and punches were beginning to be thrown.  I took her advice.

At least at this intersection, walking the sidewalks of Detroit was inefficient and eventful.

Transit Training: A truism among transit managers is that getting a new rider to take a first trip is one of the biggest challenges.  Even as a fan of transit, I concur that the first trip can be a source of trepidation.  Learning how to pay the fare, deciphering the route map, and knowing where to stand to catch the right train are all sources of uncertainty.

My schedule required me to catch the Peoplemover early Tuesday morning to the hotel where I would board my tour.   So I decided to take a trial run Monday evening to learn the system.  The plan worked out fine, with the only surprise being that the loop was recently reversed to run clockwise after years of running counterclockwise, so I was determinedly looking for a train in one direction only to have it sneak up behind me.

I finished the outing comfortable with the Peoplemover, an outdated but functional rail system that runs autonomous two-car trains around a loop of perhaps three miles through downtown Detroit.  A total loop takes perhaps twelve minutes, so having two trains running gives a headway of about six minutes.  It could have been a component of an efficient transit system if it connected to transit hubs.  Unfortunately, those transit hubs were never built, although Detroit is finally taking steps in that direction.

With my first trip complete, I looked forward with confidence to my Tuesday morning outing.  Perhaps too much confidence.

I hopped on the first train Tuesday morning, with my destination station firmly in my head.  As the train pulled into the station, I noted the location of the hotel where I would catch the tour about a block away.  I stepped to the doors, ready to complete my trip.  And the doors didn’t open.  As the only passenger on an autonomous train, there was no one to whom to complain.  A pair of would-be passengers looked back at me through the door but seemed impassive.  Perhaps early morning door malfunctions were common.

After a thirty-second pause, the train moved on, the doors having never opened.  I quickly recalibrated, disembarked at the next station and found my way to the hotel in plenty of time.  But it took me several days to again trust the Peoplemover, which isn’t the way to build ridership.  However, the system never let me down again.  Indeed, it was integral to the success of my time in Detroit.

So walkability and transit had their small Detroit failures, much like most cities.  Perhaps Detroit isn’t as unlike the rest of the country as many would argue.  Lessons were being learned.

When I next write, I’ll return to the theme of becoming active North Bay urbanists, again listing opportunities to get publicly involved.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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