Thursday, September 22, 2011

Chicago and Detroit: comparing interurban rail

Recently metropolitan Detroit proposed a plan to create an interurban rail system in the region.  The two proposed lines would essentially restore routes that closed in the mid-80s.  This plan is interesting from a comparative as well as a historic perspective.  While Detroit sometimes makes an interesting comparison to Chicago, the unique history of the city can also shed some light on why things may be different between the two cities.

Comparing Detroit to Chicago is in some ways an apt comparison.  The city of Detroit was, at the beginning of the 20th century, a rapidly growing city.  Between 1900 and 1910 the city nearly doubled in size.  Chicago had experienced similarly meteoric growth, expanding by 54% that decade, and having doubled in size in the decade prior.  Both cities had a large industrial economy.  And both cities had an interurban rail system, bringing commuters in from the suburbs into the city core.  Finally, the two cities are less than 300 miles apart.

In Chicago the interurban lines fell on hard times and the metropolitan region created the Metra to consolidate and continue to provide passenger rail service.  The first consolidation was in 1974 with the creation of the Regional Transit Authority.  Today the Metra is the second busiest commuter rail system in America.

In Detroit the interurban lines fell on hard times as well.  The commuter rail line from Pontiac to Detroit was administered by the Grand Trunk Railroad from 1931 until 1974 when SEMTA took it over.  However by 1984 the last two commuter rail lines in metro Detroit ceased operation (Ann Arbor to Detroit in 1984 and Pontiac to Detroit in 1983).



Map of Detroit's streetcar and interurban lines from 1904

As you can see the seeds of a regional rail network similar to Chicago's Metra were spread early on, but ultimately failed to germinate. It is interesting that commuter rail service from the freight carriers folded by 1974 in both cities and administration turned to local governments.  As we have seen previously good governance is important.  It is also interesting that now, with the city population smaller than it was in the 1930s and less densely populated, an attempt is being made to revitalize the interurban rail network.

Chicago, for its part, has perhaps been more successful at maintaining the rail lines because of a more dense downtown.  Downtown Chicago has a worker population density of 160,000 people per square mile.  With downtown composed of just over 3 square miles, that gives it a worker population of almost 550,000.

Detroit, on the other hand, has a downtown worker density of 55,000 and a total worker population less than 80,000 downtown.  That is less than half the density, meaning issues like traffic congestion and parking spaces aren't as large a concern.  Since commuting times and parking are two important variables for deciding transit methods what may be most surprising is not that Detroit abandoned interurban rails, but that it is trying to rebuild them.

I hope to continue to explore the issue of transit in Chicago and compare it across the country in future posts, but I want to caution readers not to misconstrue my comparison between Chicago and Detroit.  I wish Detroit the best of luck concerning its interurban endeavors, but I am skeptical that, due to the density of downtown Detroit, this will be successful.

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