36 years ago: Detroit’s People Mover begins moving people

Detroit’s rail transit among best in US in 1920s

DETROIT – Monday marks 36 years since the People Mover began literally moving people throughout Downtown Detroit.

The July 31, 1987, opening signified a new chapter in Detroit’s long history of rail transit, which at one point was among the best in the country.

Streetcars and subways

Streetcars got their start in the late 1800s, when they were pulled through Detroit and other American cities by horses. Horse-powered railways allowed people to live further from of work, reshaping cities in the process, according to The Henry Ford.

The problem was that horses were filthy. They created up to 1.3 million pounds of manure every day in New York alone, and forced sanitation departments to remove tens of thousands of dead horses from streets each year.

A horse epidemic killed thousands of horses in 1872. Horses from Canada carried the disease to one of Detroit’s large stables, and three days later, every horse in the stable was infected.

In the following days the same disease arrived in other cities like New York City and Boston. Estimates showed between 80% and 99% of horses were infected, and up to 2% died. Other cities saw far more deaths. Farmingdale, New York watched 10% of their horses die.

Eventually, Detroit, like other cities, began relying more on electric streetcars for public transportation.

By the early 1920s, Detroit had the largest municipal system of street railways in the country. According to the Detroit Historical Society, the Detroit Department of Street Railways recorded over 357 million rides in 1923, with some lines traveling as far as Royal Oak and Wyandotte.

Meanwhile, just one vote kept Detroit from vetoing a decision by mayor James Couzens. Had the one vote been cast, Detroit would have started developing a subway system.

Then in 1926, traffic supervisor Hermann E. Taylor proposed a series of moving underground sidewalks to move passengers around Detroit. The sidewalks would have “streetcar-style seats” and travel up to 25 mph. However, the stock market crash in 1929 put plans on hold indefinitely.

Elevated trains

After a shift toward buses in the 1930s, and once Detroit’s streetcars became outdated following WWII, construction began on an elevated train system similar to Chicago’s “L” train.

The Heinze Rapid Transit System design featured expressways with four lanes on each side, separated by two elevated train tracks. Underground crossings would allow passengers to cross expressways and access elevated stations via escalators. Once at the stations, passengers would board trains that could reach speeds of 50 mph.

However, once several expressways were built, the project was abandoned in favor of buses that would travel along the expressways. In 1956, around 93 years after service began, Detroit’s streetcars transported their final passengers.

The People Mover experiment

Despite President Gerald Ford offering Southeast Michigan $600 million for a rail transit system, a lack of political support prevented Detroit from creating a mass-transit system. The People Mover was the only system to be developed using the fund.

Construction began in 1983 in an effort to determine how effective automated transit technology would be at revitalizing older cities’ central business districts, and to see if the service would cost less than bus systems.

At the People Mover’s opening, rides cost 50 cents before increasing to 75 cents in 2011. By 2008, the People Mover was moving 7,500 each day, around 2.5% of its capacity. In the same year, the trains were changed to run clockwise, increasing speeds to 56 mph.

The People Mover is a reminder of Detroit’s incomplete mass-transit rail system of the 1970s, and the city’s fall from holding one of country’s largest municipal rail systems in the 1920s. Still, the automated rail system frequently offers free rides, extends services for events like the North American International Auto Show, and receives positive reviews from tourists.

Plus, at the very least, where else can you get a quick city tour for 75 cents?

WATCH FROM THE WDIV VAULT: Detroit People Mover construction in 1985, and its grand opening 1987. ⬇️

To watch footage of the People Mover’s testing from 1987, click here.