On Thursday, July 16, Liz Lamoste, one of Detroit Young Professionals' 2015 Vanguard Awardees, presented an event called Nerd Nite Gets Around at the Tangent Gallery & Hastings Street Ballroom located right down the street from the historic Piquette Model T Production Plant. Attendees convened for a bunch of short talks and Q&As on all things transportation in and around Detroit.
After people rolled down their driver-side windows, handed a man $5.00, and parked their cars in a grassy lot near Milwaukee Avenue, they left behind their cars and walked under a buzzing drone that hovered overhead, buzzing, rising and falling in the humid summer heat. A man controlled the drone with a handheld device and a nearby woman grilled bratwurst and chicken wraps behind a rustic outdoor wooden countertop.
Booming music pounded out of the adjacent building.
It was a nice night in Detroit. Folks mingled (and chewed on Bratwurst) in the lot that was only mere walking distance away from the streets where hundreds of Ford Model Ts had first rolled into the world. They had come for Nerd Nite, and at this particular nerd venture they were gathering to hear presentations about the city's transportation future.
This future -- while automobile friendly -- will incorporate alternative types of transportation.
This is not unlike the Detroit of yesteryear, as the night's first speaker noted: Michael Schrader, an experienced engineer and PhD student at Wayne State answered audience questions about the mythic “Michigan Left” and explained that this unique traffic feature came about largely because of the grassy medians lain atop former streetcar rails that had once snaked their way throughout the Motor City.
Following Schrader, past Vanguard Awardee Sommer Woods, Director of External Relations at M1 RAIL, gave an update on the ambitious project to bring streetcars back to Detroit.
She started by noting that Detroit once had a robust streetcar system featuring a peak count of 910 operating streetcars and said Detroit's last streetcar operation ceased in 1956, partially due to the auto company politics.
Woods emphasized that the new the streetcar system, called the M1 RAIL Line or the Woodward Avenue Streetcar, is "about making connections" and fostering "inclusion".
The 3.3 mile streetcar rail line will offer a new transit option with stops along the way from Downtown Detroit to Midtown, and finally New Center.
$140 million in capital funding is going into the construction of the streetcar system, and the M1 Rail website notes "the estimated costs to operate and maintain the modern streetcar system will be approximately $5.5-million each year. " M-1 RAIL has stated that funding has already been raised to fund the project for 10 years. [i]
Woods said the streetcars will offer an incredibly friendly user experience, and made special note of the options available for cyclists riding the streetcars.
"There are bicycle racks on the streetcar itself and bike share stops near station," Woods said.
Citizen concerns have cited fears that M1 Rail isn't inclusive enough. Some might say it is too far away from areas where commuters could find affordable housing, and likely to only further enrich the Woodward corridor that is already doing well and not enough for other neighborhoods.
Woods acknowledged there are discussions to be had about development of the city near the rail, but said that her organization, M1 RAIL's "focus is to build the rail system itself."
Woods said the City of Detroit is currently going through a planning process "as it relates to development and those things around affordable housing and all of that in addition to Midtown Detroit and the DTP so really from that perspective that comes into their plan as far as how they build around it but there will be a lot of conversation about transit orientation and development... TOP plans you'll hear a lot about that, that's a very common terminology on the East Coast."
Woods said she used to work in the Mayor's office and lamented that "the city has never really 'been on first' for development.
"We've just never been on first... everybody else is on first."
Todd Scott, Executive Director of Detroit Greenways, also spoke - advocating for a more walk-able, ride-able Detroit. Both Scott and Woods noted the importance of TIGER grant funding in the retransformation of public transportation in Detroit.
Scott was followed by Adrianna Jordan, a self-proclaimed "recovering nerd," and representative of Freshwater Transit.
Freshwater Transit was hired by the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy to develop a transit plan for the River Front. The Conservancy hopes to raise $3,000,000 to fund the plan.
Jordan spoke about the possibility of bringing on-land trolly cars and in-river water taxis to the Detroit riverfront. The water taxi boats, well-known in Baltimore, would carry passengers to different stops along the river from Joe Louis Arena to Belle Isle. Jordan mentioned that in a few years, the boats could even make stops in Windsor, Canada.
One might even be able to park somewhere a along the riverfront (for a cheaper price) and then taxi along the river for events.
Jordan said her team was hard at work at finishing and promoting a new Detroit-centered documentary called 15 Minutes or Better that seeks to answer the overall question, "what makes transit effective?"
A question on many Detroiters minds these days.
Steve Zoski (@z0ski) manages the volunteer program of the Michigan Science Center, a Midtown Detroit institution that makes STEM learning fun even for a liberal arts guy like himself. He is a proud University of Michigan alum, and is addicted to reading almost as much as he is addicted to coffee. The coolest "person" he knows is actually a dog.