ICYMI: A couple of weeks ago, downtown Detroit hosted a conference that attracted 600 experts, local officials and journalists from 156 cities and 26 nations to discuss challenges facing metropolitan areas.

A gathering of this stature garnered an astoundingly little amount of attention in the Motor City, but one of the United States’ top reporters covering urban/suburban transit sparked a bit of notice by declaring that her Oct. 28-30 visit to Detroit was highlighted by riding the People Mover.

The resulting Nov. 2 article written by Laura Bliss, a reporter for the City Lab website, the prime organizer of the conference, carried this sub-headline: “The city’s oft-maligned mini-train is not great transit. But it’s a magnificent tourist attraction.”

That proclamation, if any in the area took notice, certainly produced guffaws from Metro Detroit’s suburban officials, who have berated the 2.9-mile People Mover loop for decades.

Bliss added numerous caveats to her assessment, at one point calling the elevated monorail “an amusement ride through the city.” But in a recovering city desperately trying to attract visitors (from near and far) and business conventions, her overall outlook was this:

For tourists and business travelers like me, (the People Mover is) a delightful and affordable diversion; penny for penny, at $.75 a ride, it was the best investment I made as a visitor …

Exhibit A: There’s no need to pay attention to your stop! Chances are, within such a diminutive radius and zero transfers to catch, getting off late won’t screw up your plans too badly. Hop off at the next stop and walk back to the one you missed, which will take all of 10 minutes. Or if it’s cold outside, you can just wait 14 minutes to circulate again, which is how long the entire loop takes. Lucky you: You get to zone out twice before the People Mover’s unparalleled views of downtown Detroit.

Behold the exquisite Guardian and Book buildings, views of Haussman-esque Woodward Avenue and Washington Boulevard, the knot of highway at a stadium’s edge, and 15 public artworks that adorn each station. You get a nice stretch of melancholic riverfront, too. It’s an urban admiration tour that trumps any ferry ride I’ve been on. The automated service is fast, frequent, and reliable—after all, it’s only going one way.

Art at the People Mover Ren Cen station

The sensual pleasures of the People Mover — enthusiastically documented by visitors and Detroiters alike — are many. Where else can you ride aloft through a historic downtown, gawking at iconic towers, 45 feet above street level?

The writer offered some obvious downsides. Similar downtown loops in Miami and Jacksonville are far cheaper with regard to taxpayer subsidies and offer connections to longer-range transit. In addition, Detroit’s Qline street car along Woodward appears as another failed attempt to provide limited transportation in the inner city rather than a robust bus system.

At the same time, Bliss failed to specify that the People Mover loop in the 1980s was intended as the hub of an ambitious regional transit system with “spokes” — light rail along Gratiot, Woodward and Michigan avenues feeding into this downtown system.

After that broad plan, relying heavily on federal funding, failed to materialize, the People Mover’s value mostly consisted of getting around downtown efficiently for a couple of entertainment stops in one night. Go eat in Greektown, go to the Wings game. Spend some time at the Ren Cen, go to the auto show.

But then came the subsequent, subsidized construction of the three downtown sports stadiums nearly side-by side – Comerica Park, Ford Field and Little Caesar’s Arena – which collectively probably produce the vast majority of one-day visitors to the city. No need for a People Mover ride when the stadiums along Woodward — also offering concerts and other forms of entertainment — remain within walking distance of shops and pubs, and even the Greektown restaurants and casino, for the most energetic visitors.

Still, given the endless claims over past decades that the People Mover serves as a government boondoggle, it’s rather interesting that an out-of-town visitor with considerable knowledge of metro transit systems found the monorail ride quite pleasurable.


Photo: Ren Cen Station/ stacyallbritton.com