Transport Michigan is embarking on a multi-part series making the case for center-running light rail on Detroit’s Woodward Avenue, as against the two side-running rail alignments being considered. The question sounds like a technicality, but not all forms of transit are created equal. Choosing the best one is crucial to making sure that transit in Detroit gets done right, to provide the greatest good for the greatest number of citizens and set an example for the region.
It also has importance beyond Michigan. Given Woodward’s global significance in the development of twentieth-century transportation, what happens on the street could be a bellwether for the twenty-first. We’ll begin this series today with a short review of Woodward’s place in history, suggesting why it matters as people around the country and world strive for a better transportation paradigm.
Woodward got its start as an Indian footpath. But its major contribution to the development of transportation technology came in the twentieth century, when it served as a testing strip for the roadway infrastructure that would define the automobile era. Another rubber-tired vehicle – the bicycle – helped pave the way for Woodward’s transformation into the quintessential American artery for cars. The world’s very first mile of concrete highway was laid along Woodward in 1909, and opened by former League of American Wheelmen leader Edward Hines. The first three-color traffic light followed in 1919.
Sadly, as locally manufactured cars filled it to capacity, Woodward also came to embody traffic engineers’ devotion to moving automobile traffic at the expense of other modes of transportation, and the fabric of the city itself. Widened to 200 feet, with eight lanes all the way to Pontiac, the Avenue clipped off the fronts of adjacent buildings (the steeple of Central United Methodist Church was pushed back into the nave to preserve it). Pedestrians got pushed to narrow sidewalks on either side of Detroit’s main street, and the trolleys that once trolled it as part of the nation’s largest municipal streetcar system got booted to Mexico in the 1950s.
Woodward’s extension also presaged the abandonment of Detroit and accompanying suburbanization to the north and west. General Motors early on established headquarters in the so-called “New Center,” three miles out along Woodward from the old downtown. Martin Luther King, Jr. and over 100,000 marchers took part in a 1963 Walk to Freedom down Woodward, culminating in King’s first “Dream” speech in Cobo Hall, but by that time the region’s center of gravity had already shifted decisively in the opposite direction along the Woodward axis, as white flight tailed the automobile executives who’d built mansions along the Avenue far from the city limit, and urban renewal wiped out many of the neighborhoods that flanked it.
Today, urban freeways are Detroit’s major automobile thoroughfares. Woodward remains the number-one public transit corridor in Michigan, but bus riders and pedestrians face a hostile environment, without mid-block crossing islands or facilities for bicyclists. As money and people trickle back to the central city, the design of Woodward has changed little in the last half-century. Restoring rapid transit to Woodward offers an opportunity to return it to its historic status as metropolitan Detroit’s Main Street.
For the sake of longtime residents and newcomers alike, Woodward can be re-imagined as something more than a racetrack monopolized by cars: a transportation corridor that supports all modes of movement, and a space that encourages people to linger in the central city. Just as Woodward led the U.S. and world towards a single-use paradigm of rapid automobile movement and urban decentralization in the twentieth century, so too could it set the stage for a more humane course in the twenty-first.
For why center-running transit would best accomplish that, stay tuned.