The Detroit People Mover

The People Mover in Downtown Detroit

A quick trip to Detroit was a chance for me to check the People Mover off my bucket list. As a public transit buff, I was intrigued by everyone’s derisive comments about it. People say that it doesn’t really go anywhere, and that no one rides it. Would this be Detroit’s “bridge to nowhere?” A folly? Broken transit in a broken city?

Here’s a view of the interior on a Monday morning [okay, okay, I waited until the couple of passengers had gotten off, but the train was fairly empty all morning]:

The People Mover in Downtown Detroit

I had some time to kill, so I did the full loop twice and explored most of the stations. I checked out some amazing public art, which I’ll document individually in coming weeks.

The People Mover in Downtown Detroit

Look, there’s the downtown Windsor skyline. Oh, Canada!

The People Mover in Downtown Detroit

Do these photos remind you a bit of Bladerunner? That film came out in 1982, and the People Mover dates back to 1987.

The People Mover in Downtown Detroit

Being on the train for shits and giggles, and watching the [few] passengers do their thing, I kept thinking about this transportation versus folly question. Does the People Mover offer all the urbane excitement of the El in Chicago, without any of the actual convenience? Looked at another way, DPM offers all the connectivity of a skywalk system with almost none of the walking. In downtown Detroit, that actually makes sense. I imagine that the People Mover gets a lot of use during conventions and events like that, when the distance to and from the hotel may be a bit too far to walk but not really enough to justify a cab ride. So, maybe it’s not a folly after all.

I’ve gotten to know Detroit fairly well over the past twelve years. I attended graduate school out in the suburbs, and I’ve visited many times since. This was my first visit spent almost entirely in an around downtown, alone and on foot. I’ve got lots more photos, but I’ll leave you with one observation to start — on a Sunday morning, I came across four open corner stores downtown. Four! Surprisingly, that’s a lot more than I can say about Cincinnati’s basin.


14 thoughts on “The Detroit People Mover

  1. Does it go nowhere in the same way that Cincinnati’s street car does?
    Nowhere but Great Amercian Ball Park, the busiest library in the country, Aronoff, Main Street, Washington Park, Music Hall Findlay market, etc, etc?

  2. I could go for hours on this, but an initial comment or two. Downtown Cinci has four chain drug stores, which sell a lot more than the our “party stores” (corner markets) you saw in Detroit’s downtown. While you often rhapsodize about the demise of the beloved corner store in Cinci (RIP Bang’s), the Detroit offerings are not the greatest. Flamin Hot Cheeto’s, Arizona Ices Tea and lotto emporiums notwithstanding.

    As for the Person Mover, it’s peak usage is during the Auto Show and Red Wings games. I have always found it faster for me to walk as opposed to the DPM. I only used it for novelty, and the last time I tried to take rookies on it….after scaling three or four escalators in the Millender Center (the last of which was broken) it was (unsurprisingly) out of order.

  3. (apologis for above typos, was in a rush).
    Another fun fact about the DPM is that it was only intended to be a central hub linked to a regional system. The Federal Government had funded the, at the time, sizable sum of $440 million to build the rail system. Because of city and city-suburb infighting, they could never reach an agreement on where it would go and how the system would be run….and the funding was pulled.

    The artwork in the stations is a nice touch. Hopefully they still had the brochures out describing each one.

  4. Casey, my point is never that corner stores are necessarily amazing. It’s just this kind of convenience — e.g. I need toilet paper at an odd hour, and I want to get it in two minutes — that I really miss. I have talked about the convenience of the chain drugstores in downtown Cincinnati before.

    Honestly, on a Sunday morning in downtown Detroit, my goal was to find a Dunkin’ Donuts. My hope was to find a bakery in Greektown. Both seemed sort of plausible. Instead, I came across these four [crappy, but still] independently owned corner stores. On a Sunday! In downtown Detroit! Four of them! I didn’t see any chain drugstores at all.

    As for the People Mover itself, its route is a fraction of the distance I feel comfortable walking so, if it hadn’t been for the novelty factor, I wouldn’t have bothered. Maybe I’d feel differently on a blustery January day, trying to get to an event. The other riders were a mix of businesspeople sans jackets [so, solely traveling between office buildings], people with luggage, and people in casual clothes. I can’t guess at the third group’s intentions.

    I did spot a couple of hipsters trying in vain to figure out how to get to the Millender Center station, since the escalator was closed, a couple of hours after I’d had the same struggle, which led me to the skywalk and then through the RenCen [again, it’s only the novelty that made this worth my time].

    Some of the art was cool, and the ride did offer a different vantage point on downtown buildings. If you’ve got fifty cents and fifteen minutes [or however long the loop takes] to spare, I’d say it’s decent use of your time and money. It’s not public transit in the common understanding of the term, though.

  5. What would you call the independently owned and crappy little stores, e.g. the two next to JR’s Table on Vine? Or on Main between 6th and 7th? Or 6th between Vine and Race? Or Vine between 5th and 6th? etc…

    Or are you saying they aren’t open on Sunday mornings?

    That I understand (although you can get TP at Park + Vine now on Sunday mornings).

    I just know, from living in Detroit for ten years, that it was apples and oranges as far as downtown being able to service the simple quotidian needs of a downtown dweller. I moved down here and was like “wow.” Not that Cincinnati necessarily compares favorably to many other cities in this respect….but then again Detroit is not exactly setting the bar high.

    And I would agree that some of the DPM art is quite dated…

  6. It is apples and oranges. I’m not claiming to have discovered an amazingly livable place. My point is simply that, if doing stuff in downtown Cincinnati can be a bit challenging on a Sunday morning, then downtown Detroit might have been downright impossible. It wasn’t, though my ability to purchase a pre-packaged pastry of questionable provenance is a minor victory indeed. Still, it was worth mentioning.

    Actually, that dated DPM art fits perfectly into the 1980s moment we’re currently having — Urban Outfitters could stage an au courant photoshoot in some of the stations.

    BTW, you may find the the updated Detroit Design Guide to be an interesting read. It just got posted this morning.

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