The Woodward Light Rail project took another step towards fruition yesterday when the Detroit City Council approved up to $125 million in bonds towards financing the project. The $125 million would be an addition to the $100 million dollars in private funding that has already been pledged the project by Roger Penske, Mike and Marian Ilitch, Peter Karmanos, and Dan Gilbert. The council also approved a $25 million grant as part of the US economic stimulus. But as this project comes closer to getting underway, there are still some who question its neccessity. Many critics beleive there are not enough people going to and from downtown to keep ridership at acceptable levels. In all honesty, that very well may be the case at this current time. But the light rail isn't being built just to service those who are already in Detroit. Its real goal and influnence will be evident as its attracts more people to Detroit over time.
Proposed rail line courtesy Detroit Free Press
According to an article by Megan Owens, the first light rail line built in Dallas accounted for 32,000 jobs created, a 40% boost in property values and a 33% jump in retail sales. In the end it equated to six dollars in local economic activity for every dollar invested. Mass transit is the wave of the future. Yes, even here in America its catching on. Many cities besides Chicago and New York now boast very successful light rail systems. As more and more young people move into urban environments, the demand for mass transit has been rising. Perhaps it is due to a generational change in philosophy on transportation or perhaps it is just the result of higher car payments and skyrocekting gas prices. Whatever the reason, Mayor Bing wants to attract 15,000 young people to move into Midtown by 2015, and a light rail connecting it to downtown and the suburbs would greatly add to the appeal of the area.
The opportunity for major economic growth resulting from the rail will rely on city planners and developers. Real estate along the rail will undoubtedly be in higher demand and will need to be properly utilizied. The areas closest to stops on the rail should be zoned and developed for more dense populations. This will not only ensure higher ridership but will also create nodes of more densely developed areas along the rail line that will be able to support local businesses. A great precendent for this is Ørestad, a new area being developed on the fringe of Copenhagen.
The raised rail and adjacent developments in Ørestad
Ørestad is connected to the main city by a raised rail line and features higher density aparment complexes and a shopping mall closest to the rail. As you move away from the rail each city block becomes less dense and you are soon back on streets of single family dwellings. Though while the scale and aestietic of Ørestad are not what Detroit would strive for at this point, the general concept is something that remains very relevant to the Woodward project. The ability for the area around the rail on Woodward to quickly grow is crucial to the rail line's success over the long term. City planners are only planting a seed with this project, and the seed alone won't turn Woodward into a fully vibrant 21st century urban corridor. Rather the full potential of the project will require extensive planning and initiatives that work in step with the opportunities created from the light rail construction. If this happens the Woodward Avenue we know today could look very different in 10 or 15 years. But just adding the rail alone won't quite bring those results. Hopefully city planners go all the way with this one.