Jan 17, 2024 - News

Q&A with Detroit Transportation Corp.: Future of the People Mover

People Mover downtown in 2015.

The People Mover downtown in 2015. Laura McDermott/Bloomberg via Getty Images

We spoke with People Mover general manager Robert Cramer, leader of the Detroit Transportation Corp., following Mayor Mike Duggan's comments last week at the Detroit Policy Conference about ways to expand or reconfigure Detroit's automated light rail system.

  • Here's what he said:

Axios: Take us inside the mayor's comments at the DPC, what's happening now?

  • Cramer: What the mayor is talking about is having an eye to the future — how can the People Mover support the continued success and growth of the downtown?
  • It's obviously exciting and it's a good thing to be looking at the changing world into the future. The People Mover was designed 40 years ago. The discussion around what it could have possibly connected to is from 10 or 15 years before we even got to the point of having the design that exists today.
  • So how can we make sure that the alignment of the system, how it works, the configuration, how can we make sure that that is as supportive of all of those evolving and changing factors as possible — that could mean any number of things.

The mayor said these are plans that are typically 10 years in the making. What needs to happen first?

  • We don't have a concrete timeline but we are supporting the mayor's idea that we want to study what the possibilities are and be ready for when opportunities arise.
  • We need to do more work to learn more and talk to residents, business and property owners across the city. The convention center has also been doing a lot of work on this. We see us as a strong component of the package downtown has to offer. That's why we need to make sure that in our current configuration, that we're reliable, efficient, we're there for whoever is going to use us.

Where are you looking at in terms of potential changes to routes or new stations?

  • We'll be looking into whether there are changes within the current alignment that would make sense. Moving a station, something that would allow two-way operation. The other would be is there some sort of system expansion that would support and make sense, whether it's a new development, obviously West Riverfront Park and Belle Isle are huge park assets; Henry Ford Hospital which is quite a bit outside of downtown but still in the city; the U of M Center for Innovation, Michigan Central Station … There are so many things you can imagine. My background in addition to transit is planning so it's not difficult to get me into that mode.
A worker wearing a mask inside a People Mover car in May 2022.
A worker wearing a mask inside a People Mover car in May 2022. Photo: Samuel Robinson/Axios

There's a concern that maintaining the trains is a giant expense — how much is one car?

  • The cars we have right now are 40 feet each. The most we can run is trains of two cars, so 80 feet total. The majority of our platforms are 80 feet, which means it's only long enough to have two. The platforms are shorter and there are some very tight curves, but it was a design choice that allowed the system to really weave in and to really be part of the downtown area.
  • The current mass manufacturers that are filling orders for other rail systems do not make a car that's 40 feet long. The shortest one made right now is 65 feet and the longest we can have as a single car is 55 feet. So our best guess on how much it would cost for us to either modify one of those 65 to 55, or basically the only other option would be to have someone build us custom cars — which obviously drives up the price. We're talking like $8 [million] to $12 million per car.
  • Toronto has a system identical to ours that they have shut down. It's exactly the same cars and exactly the same spare parts and we're working with them to actually get that stuff. Right before they made the decision to shut down, they put several million dollars into each one of their cars to do a midlife overhaul that our cars have not had. That would allow us to increase the number of trains we have available. Our board authorized us to spend $1 million to get all of that stuff. So that's what we're working on right now. Using these transplanted cars from Toronto would give us more time to see how the technology and the trains and manufacturing methods play out, and see what our options would be at a very, very affordable price that would allow us to provide reliable, safe service for years to come.

The former Joe Louis station was renamed last year and now is right next to a new 500-unit apartment and the planned hotel. Those two buildings should increase overall ridership, right?

  • Absolutely, and that station is really fascinating. It's designed with those big concrete ramps like what you'd see at Comerica Park because it was designed to hold a lot of people for Red Wings games. The arena isn't there anymore but something that has always been connected to the station is Riverfront Towers.
  • There's actually a pedestrian bridge and a door that empties out right into the same little foyer area that the arena used to dump into. Even with COVID, that was one of our steadiest stations in terms of ridership. It's really a lifeline for the residents of Riverfront Towers to connect to all the services downtown since there's a pretty big gap between those two places.
  • That station is interesting because it was built for a very specific purpose. However, today there's just so much that's less than three-quarters of a mile and a half a mile from there. Wilson Centennial Park, the new apartments and hotel, possible renovations to the convention center, that riverwalk is beautiful, that's been extended right next to the station, too.

We learned about the changes coming ahead of the draft like added security cameras and new video screens. What else is happening?

  • We're also testing some new technology that will provide next train arrival predictions for every station on the video message system — if you're using transit apps like Google Maps, Apple Maps and you want to use our system, you'll actually see the train in real time with that blinking antenna. Next train information will be active there just like how Smart and DDOT have for a number of their buses on the transit app.
  • The other thing is that at the street and platform level, there will be an interactive kiosk installed that will have a customized map and information about trains and the operating hours.
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