In Curbside Rail Remarks, Gilbert Overlooks Woodward Context, Other Lines’ Attributes

One of these is not like the others. (Hint: "state highway.")
One of these is not like the others. (Hint: “state highway.”)

Quicken Loans founder and M1 Rail investor Dan Gilbert, in the news this week for buying up more downtown Detroit property, took another opportunity to stump for a curb-running light rail line. His comments revealed the incomplete understanding of Complete Streets principles, as applied to the context of Woodward Avenue, that’s led private investors to underestimate the livability advantages of a center-running rail line (not to mention its benefits for speed, safety and reliability, discussed  here).

Gilbert wants more ground-floor retail to liven up the sidewalks of downtown Detroit. Well and good: the “riot renaissance” style of blocked-up windows and bunker-like walls that prevailed in Detroit post-’67 didn’t enhance the pedestrian experience. Yet Gilbert still doesn’t get the full picture when it comes to transit. From the MLive article:

During public hearings earlier this year, advocates pushed strongly for the rail line to run along the center of Woodward. But Gilbert — pointing to cities like Portland, Minneapolis and Denver — believes trains will only have a major impact if they run up and down both sides of the street.

“There’s almost nothing you can do better for an urban core than curbside light rail,” he argued, suggesting that positioning stations in the center of Woodward would limit opportunities to interact with local businesses.

In all those cities, light rail trains do indeed run next to the curb at intervals where they  pass through downtown areas. What Gilbert misses is the context. All these trains mostly run on one-way downtown streets that are far smaller than Woodward. There, curbside tracks are a means to two major ends: providing trains with their own right-of-way, and narrowing the river of car traffic that pedestrians need to cross. The M1 design for Woodward does neither. Let’s consider each case (after the jump).

In downtown Minneapolis, the Hiawatha light rail line runs along Fifth Street, after running in tracks in a separate right-of-way alongside the road for most of the 12 miles to suburban Bloomington. Prior to the project, Fifth appears to have been a three-lane one-way street, like neighboring Sixth. Light rail, however, closed two of those lanes to car traffic along much of the street’s length. The result: in general, light rail riders only need to cross one lane of car traffic to get to the curb, and trains get their own lanes.

CO: trains in own lane, separated by a curb from two auto lanes.
CO: trains in own lane, separated by a curb from two auto lanes.

In downtown Denver, light rail runs in one direction along the “couplet” (pair of one-way streets) of California and Stout. Once again, this allows trains to run curbside, while retaining their own lanes. In the photograph, note the small yellow-painted curb that prevents cars from encroaching on the tracks. California and Stout have a total of three lanes, so passengers need to cross, at most, two lanes of car traffic.

OR: cars permitted only in leftmost lane of downtown transit mall.

In downtown Portland, light rail trains also run curbside along couplets. The rebuilt Downtown Transit Mall reserves two of three lanes for trains and buses alone. Once again, the trains get their own right-of-way, and the number of car lanes transit riders need to cross to the station is usually no more than one. A bumpy white strip, just visible by the SUV in the photo above, separates cars from the buses and trains. The Portland Streetcar is a separate case, which we’ve discussed here; it lacks its own right-of-way, but it too runs on smaller streets.

Next to those three examples, compare the M1 investors’ plan for Woodward, shown above. The trains are still running curbside, but other aspects of the alignment, and the larger context, is entirely different. The trains don’t receive their own right-of-way, and pedestrian crossings between the stations are a harrowing task. (Crosswalks are, in fact, entirely absent from the image above.) Woodward Avenue is a highway of a road – hence its M1 state designation – and since its widening in the 1920s, we’d guess its eight lanes have claimed the lives of hundreds of pedestrians in Detroit, including at least twelve between 2000 and 2009. Making transit riders dash across eight lanes of traffic, to catch a train that gets stuck behind cars at every corner, just isn’t a recipe for the kind of livable environment Gilbert wants to create in Midtown Detroit.

Only the center-running alternative under consideration – which some M1 investors have suggested they’d rather kill than fund – helps to diminish the automotive hegemony which has made the Woodward corridor in Midtown a place to speed through instead of a place to mingle. The context is still very different from the three other cities discussed above. But while the trains don’t run curbside, they do get their own lanes, and the stations in the median make access far easier, while helping shift the street back to something other than a racetrack.

Gilbert and company’s confusion over Woodward points up a more common misunderstanding of what “Complete Streets” are about. The name emphasizes that streets should serve a full range of transport modes: pedestrian, bicycle, transit, car. It conveys an all-American sense of fair treatment. Yet to be truly livable, streets like Woodward need their automobile element to be scaled down. In many traffic-clogged cities, that can be a tall order. But in Detroit, where the major arteries haven’t been at capacity in decades, there’s no reason this can’t be done.

You could add light rail, bicycle lanes, and sidewalks to I-96, and call it a “complete street” of sorts. But that doesn’t make it a livable environment. The same goes for Woodward. To make space for other modes of transportation to flourish, the highway needs to be tamed. Heresy in the Motor City? Maybe, but it’s the only way we’ll make our streets better places for people. Gilbert and others should take note.

Images:, John Smatlak, MLive, CBS Detroit