I Spent a Day on the World’s Most Pointless Transit System

By Gizmodo on at

The Detroit People Mover, a monorail forming a 2.9-mile, 13-stop clockwise loop around downtown Detroit, is Michigan’s longest municipal rail system.

Since moving to Detroit five years ago, I’d ridden the People Mover (henceforth, the DPM) only on those very rare occasions when it was actually a convenience, like when I’d park somewhere for free and use it to go to a sports or music event.

So when my editor came to me a couple of months and asked if I wanted to spend an entire day riding the People Mover and write a story about it, I said, “Why would I want to do that?”

He gave the verbal equivalent of a shrug.

A month later, I thought, “What the hell, why not?” I think I found the absurdity of the story compelling. Or maybe I watched a video of David Blaine encased in a block of ice for nearly 64 hours and thought riding the DPM would be a worthy test of my endurance. (Later I found out I wasn’t the first person crazy enough to spend the day on the People Mover. Ryan Felton of the Metro Times did it back in December 2014. Read his excellent story about the experience here.)

So on a Friday in June, I woke up at 5:30 a.m., biked to the Broadway Station, and rode the DPM for over 17 hours minus occasional breaks to eat, relieve myself, and stretch out on platforms. Assuming a conservative 14 hours actually on the DPM, I made approximately 52 loops and “travelled” 150 miles.

I still can’t say what the purpose of the assignment was, but some interesting things did happen during my interminable ride.

Already Loopy

I arrived at the DPM’s Broadway station a little after 6:30 a.m. and bought a bunch of tokens for 75 cents each. I didn’t have to wait long for a train to arrive — riders never do. Because one loop takes about 16 minutes to complete and there are five trains on the guideway during peak hours, the longest you should theoretically ever have to wait is four minutes.

(NOTE: I timed the loop twice during the day. The morning loop was 15.44.09, and the evening loop was 16.33.11. I found out later that the trains are synchronised so they never collide with one another. If one train stays at a station for longer than the standard amount of time, say, because a rider held the door open, then all the trains idle at their next stop for the same amount of time. That likely accounts for any discrepancies in loop duration.)

I Spent a Day on the World’s Most Pointless Transit System

One silent loop in and I was already having doubts about this day beyond my ability to cope with the incredible tedium. When I told friends what I planned to do, more than one suggested I bring Dramamine to combat motion sickness. I remembered their warnings then, as I gazed out the window on the stretch that passes over the Riverwalk between the Financial District and Joe Louis Arena stops — at 1 minute 35 seconds, the longest stretch in the loop.

Here riders get an unobstructed view of Windsor, Ontario, and the Detroit River. Admittedly, it was a beautiful sight, especially when the angular early morning light hit the water. Then I imagined us veering off the track, the train and its passengers plummeting into the water. My fears weren’t unfounded — in January year the DPM derailed near the Times Square station. Nothing to worry about, I reminded myself — no one was injured in the only major accident in the DPM’s history.

People Moved By the People Mover

The train’s name, the People Mover, is rather grandiose considering its limited utility. It implies an unfulfilled promise of futurism. I could even imagine Elon Musk using this for the name of his proposed crosscountry pneumatic tube system.

In a technical sense, people are moved by the People Mover (2.36 million per year, or about 6,500 per day according to the American Public Transportation Association), and one of my goals for the day was to have conversations with said people to learn where they’re being moved to and why. During the third loop I approached my first rider, Jennifer, who was doing social media for the Grand Prix, a racing event on Belle Isle that draws big crowds of suburbanites. Jennifer was riding 10 stops from Joe Louis Arena to the Renaissance Center — the “wrong” way. Surely she could have walked there in less time than it takes to ride. “I love the DPM,” she said. “I’m really lazy, as you can tell, so this is great.”

Not 10 minutes later, someone took the DPM one stop, or about two blocks, from Bricktown to the Renaissance Center.

Around 8:00 a.m. I met Scott, who works in the Compuware Building. He and his wife bought a condo at Riverfront Towers in part because of the DPM, which he rides to work every day. Many times he’s the only person on the train. “Some days I’d think the People Mover was built only for me,” said Scott.

Soon after I met Patti, who rides the DPM daily to her job at a downtown bar after taking a bus from her home in Dearborn Heights. “Us regulars love the People mover,” she said. Patti uses public transit because she’s wary of cars. “I don’t trust other drivers. Nine times out of 10 they’re texting.”

Around 6:00 p.m., someone shook me awake. I must have dozed off. It was Patti, amused and incredulous that I was still riding. She is one of three people I see twice during the day.

 

People on the DPM were friendly and open (the only exception a laconic construction worker, who, when I ask how often he rides, said, “Not enough”... relative to what exactly, I’m not sure). My guess is that people enjoy riding public transit — especially when it’s elevated and offers fantastic views of the city. Many ride the DPM just to ride, like an amusement — to experience elevation and movement without the responsibility of operating a vehicle. From this height you can gaze at downtown life like a tourist, being eye-level with office workers in the financial district skyscrapers and the engraving on the cornice of the Skillman branch of the Detroit Public Library (“Civilisation is the Accumulated Culture of Mankind”). It gets old if you ride for 17 hours, but otherwise the eye doesn’t tire.

That’s why Sheryl rides. “I used to ride the People Mover every day during my lunch break when I worked at Greektown,” she said. “I had to get away from all the noise, so I’d put on my headphones and relax for 30 minutes.”

Around sunset, I introduced myself to a family of three who made a full loop — one of many groups and people I saw do this. Taking a few loops on the DPM is a funny idea; it’s like going for a walk, but not. The parents were from Rensselaer, Indiana, visiting their son who’s enrolled at the College for Creative Studies. They peppered me with questions about Detroit — “Is it rebounding?” and “What’s the deal with that rail line?” (referencing the under-construction M-1 Rail project on Woodward) and “Is the train really automated?” (Yes, it is). Overall, they were enthusiastic about Detroit and the DPM. The dad was really intent on getting a photograph of the new mural on the side of the Madison Building and went by at least twice to get the perfect shot.

Kids are particularly smitten with the DPM. I met an aunt and niece riding. “We’re visiting my sister and she (pointing to niece) saw the DPM from the ground and wanted to ride.” The niece stared out the window the whole conversation, slack-jawed. Later, a boy ran up and down our car, hopping on random seats to look out the window.

The most interesting — and frankly weird — person I met on my ride was Ted, a legal services coordinator who lives on Jefferson Avenue. “I’ve been riding the People Mover practically every day since it opened,” he said through gnarly grill of brown teeth. “Before I got married this was a great place to meet women. A single guy can do well on the People Mover.”

Ted’s pretty protective of his DPM. While getting up to exit, he told me the train would be perfect if not for the drunk suburbanites who ruin the riding experience during Tiger and Red Wings gamedays. “Don’t say anything nice about Livonia in your article,” he urged.

“Have You Gotten Dizzy Yet?”

I had invited people to join me for a loop or two and some took me up on the offer. One was train enthusiast and author Byron Babbish. It may seem like a failure now, but at the time of its construction, he said, the DPM made sense. “There were more people downtown when this was built. And it was supposed to fit in with a larger mass transit system.”

The city also received $600 million (££383 million) in federal subsidies for the project at a time when the nation had a peculiar infatuation with monorails, which have futuristic-looking infrastructure and are cheaper to construct than subways. (Here’s a reenactment of the town hall meeting to pursue the monorail project.)

Babbish said there has to be a regional transportation system for the DPM to be something more than an amusement ride and a limited convenience for people who work or live downtown. “There’s five transportation agencies operating in Detroit and they all have their own bureaucracies,” he said. Integration between these systems will be a challenge because there currently is no way for commuters to transfer fees between SMART buses, DDOT buses, and the M-1 rail line to the DPM.

Next I was joined by Ericka Alexander, communications manager for the Detroit Transportation Corporation (DTC), the company that operates the DPM. When we met at the Times Square Station platform, the first question she asked was, “Have you gotten dizzy yet?” So this is an actual issue! I guess I’m one of the lucky people immune to DPM-motion sickness.

Alexander is really good at her job, and conveyed the purpose and advantages of the DPM without making any exaggerated claims about its efficacy. “Every downtown has a transit system of some kind,” she said. “This happens to be ours.”

She pointed to the station guide — 27 pages of restaurants, retail, and attractions accessible from each stop that’s updated quarterly — as evidence that the DPM has a role in Detroit’s economy. “It’s an amenity that works to benefit downtown,” she said. “So we do everything we can to help other businesses. The hotels, in particular, love it.”

Unprompted, she also mentioned that the DTC’s next major goal is fare integration with other transit systems. So that at least partially addressed one of Babbish’s concerns.

I Spent a Day on the World’s Most Pointless Transit System

Alexander also touted the DPM’s stations, which are well-designed and unobtrusively integrated into the city’s sidewalks and buildings. Indeed, each station has attractive artworks, most of which are mosaics of tiles capable of withstanding Detroit’s seasonal temperature changes. Alexander told me the station art has appeared on PBS’s “Crafted in America,” where it was valued at $2 million (£1.28 million).

The only station I don’t like, and in fact developed a real loathing for over the course of the day, is Greektown. After taking a toilet break in the casino, I had a tough time locating the station. That’s because the escalator leading to the system’s most cramped and used platform is unmarked. Based on my unofficial count, riders being transported to and from Greektown were the most annoying, either drunk or loud or both. I did take one official tally — number of people wearing tiaras that came from Greektown: 3. All other stops: 0.

I’m also not crazy about the Renaissance Center station where people en route to the Grand Prix disembarked. The platform itself is acceptable — the RenCen is the problem. I’m not saying anything controversial or novel, but the RenCen is a navigational nightmare and a hindrance to effective use of the DPM. Around 9:00 a.m., I tried to take a quick coffee and bathroom break and headed for the Starbucks hovering between multiple levels of concentric circles in the Ren Cen’s central cylinder, but I had to walk 180 degrees around to reach the platform that took me to it. I asked two General Motors employees in line at Starbucks for help locating a bathroom and got two completely different, equally confusing answers. The RenCen is a major hub for riders of the DPM, whether they’re staying at the Hilton, crossing into Canada, strolling down the Riverwalk, or, as was the case for today’s Grand Prix, taking a shuttle to Belle Isle. If RenCen employees have trouble navigating its labyrinthine walkways, how can we expect visitors to?

The End of the Line

The last four hours of my day were a blur. I was dizzy, not from the train’s motion, but from fatigue, and came up with excuses for why I could leave early. “What more can I possibly learn?” “What if it rains?” (I biked that morning and didn’t want to get soaked on the ride home.) I checked my weather app — zero per cent chance of precipitation. “I really can’t stand the people getting on right now,” I wrote in my notebook. I looked on judgementally at a group that boarded at Greektown. A woman in the party shouted, “It’s my birthdayyyy!”

I talked to almost no one during this final phase. With about an hour to go I noticed a really pretty girl get on and was reminded of Ted’s advice about being a single guy riding the DPM. I said nothing to her. Meanwhile, a couple at the end of the train were practically fucking with their clothes on.

It got really quiet around 10:30 p.m. — just a trickle of riders here and there. Except for brief stretches that day, I was never alone on the DPM. Now I felt the same as Scott, like the train was built just for me. It was dark outside, impossible to make out any landmarks. I might as well have been underground. I gazed at the same posters and billboards I had seen all day. One said “Poetry in Motion” in tacky pink and purple block lettering with excerpts from Shel Silverstein and Langston Hughes poems.

My mind wandered from the lack of new stimuli. I was reminded of my conversation with Ericka Alexander and her defence of the DPM. I interpreted her argument this way: the DPM is a modest transit system, an occasional convenience, and never a need. But what it does — transport people a short distance swiftly, painlessly, and at minimal cost — it does effectively. An older man I met earlier, when asked why he liked the DPM so much, replied, “You can’t get anything for 75 cents anymore.”

Are these reasons to spend £383 million on a new transit system? Of course not. But the DPM is already here. There’s no compelling reason to dismantle it or leave its infrastructure unused. Sure, it doesn’t contribute meaningfully to the local economy or anyone’s transit needs, but as an oddity, a pure riding experience, a way for tourists or even long-time residents to experience downtown, we should embrace it. The DPM, like many things in Detroit, is an emblem of missed opportunity. But it is also part of our city’s fabric, something to be defiantly proud of.

Though Alexander assured me there’s no chance that I’ll be left on the DPM overnight because security in the control centre monitors everything on the trains, I don’t feel like risking it. That would be a disappointment I couldn’t handle in my frayed mental state. On my final loop near midnight, I tried to place my feelings about the day finally ending. Was I relieved? Elated? Angry having spent this much time on something so pointless?

No. I was bereft of feeling. I was just ready to go home.

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Published with permission from Issue Media Group, a Detroit-based media group that covers what’s next in cities, creating new narratives that document transformation and growth. This piece was originally published at Model D.