The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

The "Reasons Behind Detroit’s Decline" Series, Part 6

Photo of a streetcar on Woodward Avenue in 1956, near the end of the streetcar’s run in Detroit.  Source: Walter P. Reuther Library (

The series to date:

Origin Post
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

We’ve finally reached the homestretch of my “Reasons Behind Detroit’s Decline” series.  Previous entries in the series, like detailing the city’s poor housing stock or freeway expansion, highlight things that Detroit was uniquely bad in implementing.  There are mistakes that Detroit was simply worse at than other cities.  Moving forward in the series, we begin to see that there are some rather Detroit-specific characteristics, constraints or limitations that created unparalleled conditions for the Motor City’s collapse.  Today, we’ll discuss Detroit’s loss of and current lack of an extensive transit system and its impact.

Here’s what I said earlier on the matter:

Detroit had an elaborate streetcar network that was in existence until the 1950’s, but was largely replaced by buses.  The auto industry took special interest in the conversion of the streetcar network to buses.  General Motors lobbied the city’s Department of Street Railways (DSR) throughout much of the ‘50s, stressing that diesel-fueled buses were an effective lower-cost alternative to streetcars (no more rail maintenance costs!) and could provide much greater flexibility to meet shifting travel demands.  Coincidentally, GM produced exactly the kind of buses that would easily facilitate the transition.  By 1953, the DSR began a three-year effort to convert streetcars to buses, and the last streetcar route was completed in April 1956. 

But there’s much more to transit in Detroit.

Detroit’s transit history is wonderfully detailed at a great (if antiquated) website,  It’s here that you find many interesting historical nuggets that contradict conventional wisdom about Detroit and transit today.  Some interesting facts:

  • By 1900, Detroit had one of the nation’s most extensive interurban rail systems, connecting downtown Detroit to Toledo, Ann Arbor, Pontiac, Flint, Port Huron and even Windsor, Ontario.
  • The myriad private transit systems operating in Detroit at the end of the 19th century were consolidated into the Detroit United Railway system by 1901, thanks in part to the efforts of reformist mayor Hazen Pingree. 
  • Detroit became the first large American city to have a municipally-owned streetcar system, when the city took control in 1922.  
Detroit United Railway map, 1904.  Source:
So yes, at one point I thought Detroit did not have the kind of interurban service that defines New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston today, but it did.  In fact, reading through the early 20th century history of Detroit transit, it becomes clear that the Motor City was one of the vanguards of public transit.  What changed?
As with so much about Detroit, the seeds of the collapse of transit in Detroit were planted long before the deed was done.  While Detroit successfully consolidated its system, its streetcar network suffered from service problems due to the fantastic growth of the city at the time.  Line extensions and maintenance could not keep up with demand, and factories were moving to locations away from existing lines.  Competition from Model Ts came early, and more Detroit residents, early adopters they were, saw the auto as a more flexible alternative to getting around in the fast-growing city. 
Meanwhile, Detroit’s extensive interurban system seems to have just fallen out of favor over the first quarter of the 20th century.  The DUR had been battered by legal challenges from the city on the ownership of the streetcar system, and quite possibly just allowed the system to wither away out of neglect.

Flash forward thirty years from 1920, shortly before the city acquired the streetcar system, to 1950.  Despite having gone through the economic crises of the Great Depression and World War II, Detroit added one million residents over that period.  By that time the city found itself with an antiquated system, built on a hub-and-spoke system that was not fitting the multi-polar nature of the city, not supplemented by a quality interurban service and facing challenges from the autos that were the foundation of the city;s economy.  It’s no wonder that the DSR was receptive to GM’s less than subtle attempts to move the city away from streetcars to buses.  \

As usual, Detroit chose the expedient course of action.

It’s true that possibly nothing could’ve saved Detroit’s streetcar network.  Similar systems were being razed throughout the country at the same time.  After losing its streetcar network, however, it was clear that Detroit’s unyielding development pattern of moderate density, small lot single family homes would make it difficult for heavy rail to be considered as a viable alternative.

This fall, Detroit took the first steps to re-esstablish a streetcar system through the construction of the privately financed and controlled M-1 Rail project.  There are great hopes that the initial 3.3 mile segment along Woodward Avenue going from downtown, through Midtown and into the New Center area will be the first leg of a newly expanded system.  Will it be a catalyst or a boondoggle?  That remains to be seen.  

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