A half-dozen rail cars will start rolling again in the coming weeks on the iconic elevated loop downtown, but upwards of $100 million will be needed to keep the People Mover going and relevant in the years to come.
The low-fare landmark with 13 stops along its 2.9-mile track ceased operations two years ago amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Plans to relaunch last fall were delayed amid testing, inspection and state certification.
Limited service is set to resume for free in mid-April at nine of the People Mover stations and some stops will pilot QR code entry as officials hope to eventually do away with an antiquated token system, said Garry Bulluck, who heads the Detroit Transportation Corporation.
Bulluck said the city is aiming to boost ridership among residents and intends to study whether a regional transportation pass could be implemented to unify the People Mover with other modes of transit in Detroit, including DDOT and SMART buses or the QLINE.
“We recognize that for us to complement the services that DDOT and SMART already provide, we need to investigate where our riders come from,” he said. “We’ll get a portion (of our riders) from transfers from one of those systems, but minus social and event activities the ability to connect the existence of the People Mover and the way it can afford a 3,000-foot view of the city is a bit unique.”
The service is among the transit options in and around downtown that are putting increased emphasis on service connections, partnerships, free fares or other perks to attract and retain riders following an exodus of visitors prompted by COVID-19.
For the People Mover, Bulluck said the goal is to strengthen ties with community organizations, school systems and Detroit’s cultural institutions to offer free day passes or other draws for use.
“We also recognize that there’s this branding piece that has to be tied in too as we look at major investment in the system over the next five years,” he said.
The People Mover commissioned an assessment last summer on the capital needs of the system. The most pressing, Bulluck said, is a new fleet of about a dozen rail cars, which would run $50-60 million.
The existing cars are original to the system and only have about five years of useful life left.
“New trains are the first priority for the long-term life of the People Mover,” he said.
Mikel Oglesby, the city’s executive director of transit, oversees the Detroit Department of Transportation and the Detroit People Mover and told Detroit City Council during a budget hearing last week the capital upgrades, chiefly the new rail cars, are essential to keep the service viable.
“The vehicles used (today) aren’t made anymore,” he said. “It’ll look a lot more futuristic. I’m not going to say it’ll look like the Jetsons, but pretty close.”
The People Mover would work through the federal government and other partners to secure funding for the new cars. Capital needs of the rail service have historically been funded with federal dollars.
On Wednesday, the QLINE streetcar service along Woodward announced it would extend a free fare pilot in place since it reopened in September. It also will launch a “rider-benefits” program to encourage residents, visitors and downtown workers to return to public transit. The initiative will offer rewards at retailers, restaurants and other institutions along the corridor.
“We promised a new QLINE experience that provides reliable streetcar service, stronger connections to the institutions, shops, and restaurants along the route, and more open communication with our riders,” M-1 RAIL President Lisa Nuszkowski said. “Since relaunching we have worked hard to deliver on those promises, and the programs we are announcing today are another important step in that direction.”
Jeremiah Ruffin, a Wayne State University student who has used the QLINE and People Mover to get around, said he’s supportive of investments that will keep the People Mover going. It’s worth it, he said, but he also expects the undertaking will be more costly than projected.
“Detroit needs connection,” said Ruffin, 19. “The issue with mass transportation here is that there’s not a lot of unity. If we had a central transit system, it would make everything more connected.”
In the proposed 2022-23 fiscal budget, the People Mover is seeking $6.5 million, primarily to support staffing and operations.
People Mover fares will be free for the first 90 to 120 days after it reopens and the trains will run from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday; from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday; and from noon to 7 p.m. Saturday. Masks will be required and the trains and stations will be sanitized several times per day.
The initial hours are based on the level of activity in the city’s downtown, Bulluck said.
“We are committed to reviewing the usage at the end of 30 days and adding more service hours where they are needed,” he said. “Ideally, we’ll be back up to our full schedule prior to the fall. We have to rebuild ridership.”
The People Mover is not estimating what ridership will be like when it restarts service. In the 2018 calendar year there were about 1.9 million riders, 1.6 million in 2019, and the People Mover served close to 270,000 in 2020 before the COVID-induced shutdown.
Today, the service is working to reform how it serves the downtown, with less than one-third of workers back in the Central Business District.
During its height, the People Mover generaged $800,000 to $1.2 million per year in fare revenues.
“The million is not a large portion of our operating budget. It helps support other activities,” Bulluck said. “Can we live without it? That’ll be a question that we can examine.”
A rider study conducted in 2018 evaluated the demographics of riders, trip purpose and where they came from, said People Mover spokeswoman Ericka Alexander. The face-to-face surveys, conducted at People Mover stations, found most riders were from the tri-county area, mainly Wayne and Oakland counties. Most – or 44% of the 757 individuals surveyed – used the service for entertainment or tourism, another 37% used it for work-related travel.
The People Mover began operating in the late 1980s with potential spurs along Jefferson, Gratiot, and Michigan. The cost of pursuing those at the time was substantial and it took a backseat, Bulluck said.
“An immediate expansion is not part of the (current) review,” he added. “If we look at it solely as a circulator and support for the downtown, then it serves its purpose.”
Wayne County Community College student Sophie Sy said she takes a 35-minute ride down Van Dyke by bus and then walks the rest of the way to get to class. The People Mover hasn’t been a factor in her travels, but she believes it is important for others.
“People need it,” said Sy, 18. “It’s important for the city.”
Claire Nowak-Boyd, outreach manager for Transportation Riders United, said riders are glad that the system will be back and they are already eager for it to return to the pre-pandemic service schedule.
“I’m very excited that they are coming back and that we’re seeing more transit, even though the pandemic does continue,” said Nowak-Boyd, a Hamtramck resident who also has lived in Detroit.
She said besides events and conventions, the service has been useful for residents near the stations. The system, she said, would have been more useful if it had been built-out as originally proposed. But “people do use it,” she said.
“It does serve people and we should keep that going,” she said. “It’s one of those things, it can be kind of specific in its use, but if you are one of those people, it is helpful.”
And Nowak-Boyd, who formerly had two jobs in two different corners of the downtown, said she has been.
“I had a day job in local government and then worked at the (Detroit) Opera House in the evening,” she said. “The spirit of wanting to make it for Detroiters first and figuring out how they can help is the right way to go about it. I’m really glad to hear it.”