I recently went on a short vacation, driving down Highway 401 and Interstate 75 from Toronto to Florida’s Gulf Coast. From there, I went on to Miami and Miami Beach, before flying back north; first to New York, then back home to Toronto.

On the drive down, I took the opportunity to visit some of the cities along the way. Once I crossed the border and entered Detroit, my route followed Interstate 75 all the way. The great highway, 2,875 kilometers (1,786 miles) long, goes from the Canadian border at Sault Ste. Marie south to Naples, Florida, and via Alligator Alley to just north of Florida on the Atlantic Coast.

Interstate 75 passes through Detroit, Cincinnati, Knoxville, Chattanooga, Atlanta, and Tampa; all were stops along the way. Four of those cities — Detroit, Cincinnati, Atlanta, and Tampa, all are either building, or have completed, new streetcar lines. Tampa’s TECO Line is a vintage heritage streetcar (like those in New Orleans and Memphis), the other three are modern streetcar lines that are, or will be, similar to those in Portland and Seattle — short urban circulator routes. Nearly all streetcar routes built in the last decade have followed Portland’s model of a modern circulatory streetcar; older systems, such as Tampa’s (or those in Memphis and newer lines in New Orleans) are heritage-type streetcars, using vintage or replica equipment on lines that are part of the regular transit system, but geared more to tourists and occasional riders.

Unlike light rail, (think Calgary’s C-Train, or Los Angeles’ Gold, Blue, Green, or Expo Lines), the new streetcar systems being built in the United States have short stop spacing, usually run in mixed traffic (or in separate lanes on city streets), and are often built to promote urban development, tourism and/or local transit ridership. The systems planned or being built here in Ontario, such as Ottawa’s Confederation Line, or Kitchener-Waterloo’s ION line, should be considered as light rail (though ION will be partially running in city streets in Uptown Waterloo and Downtown Kitchener).

Former DSR tracks, last used in 1956, are removed as construction progresses on the M-1 streetcar, January 4, 2015


After crossing the border, I made a quick stop in Detroit to see the progress on the M-1 Rail streetcar.
The 12 stop, 5.3-kilometre (3.3 mile) streetcar route, now under construction, will run on Woodward Avenue, Detroit’s main street, from Congress Street, downtown near the river, up to Grand Boulevard, in the New Center district. The streetcar line will link the reviving downtown core, three major sports venues and live theatres, Wayne State University and the fabulous Detroit Institute of Arts, and Detroit’s Amtrak Station.  (MAP)

Near Wayne State University, the roadway was being rebuilt to accommodate the new tracks; crews had dug-up the old streetcar tracks last used in 1956. Detroit once had a very extensive streetcar system that was one of the first to be publicly owned (Detroit and Toronto were pioneers in this respect); Detroit’s Department of Street Railways (DSR) even had a fleet of modern PCC streetcars in the post-war era. But the Motor City opted for buses, and it, with state and federal financing, was busy building a network of freeways to serve that rapidly decentralizing urban area. The M-1 streetcar is scheduled to open in 2016; 60 years after the last Woodward streetcar pulled into the carhouse in Highland Park for the last time.

The route will mostly operate in curb lanes, much like other modern streetcar routes in Portland, Seattle, and the new Atlanta Streetcar discussed below. Interestingly, only the central section will have overhead wires; downtown and in New Center, the streetcars will operate off of battery power.

In a city emerging from bankruptcy, Detroit’s short streetcar is being built mostly with private money; downtown business interests and some public institutions, such as Wayne State University, are contributing most of the funds. These business interests include the owner of the Detroit Red Wings and Tigers, pizza magnate Mike Illitch. Illitch’s firm, Olympia Developments, is looking to build a new arena for the Red Wings right on the streetcar line. Dan Gilbert, the head of Quicken Loans, centralized his company’s offices downtown and is one of the line’s biggest backers.

Certainly the line will be an improvement and spur more development along Detroit’s most famous avenue; it will connect most of Detroit’s major trip generators. But the rest of the city is sprawling, largely poor and blighted,; the public transit system, D-DOT, has been forced to make major cutbacks in the last few years.  The city and federal governments preferred to build a bus rapid transit system that would serve suburban commuters as well as city residents; this is the main reason private funds are being used for this project.

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