Whatever Happened to the Downtown People Mover?

A brief history of the trendy transport mode that never quite was

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Jacksonville Transportation Authority

The "downtown people mover" is an automated, driverless transit car that most people, such as Lyle Lanley, would call a monorail. The monorail will end up an asterisk in the annals of urban transport, but there was a brief moment in history when it was the next great thing. In mid-1970s, at the peak of its potential, nearly 70 cities wrote the government expressing interest in building an automated transit system. In the end only three were completed.

Still, the legacy of the downtown people mover is not entirely a failed one, civil engineers William Sproule and William Leder argued in a recent talk. In some sense, it cleared the way for the surge in circulator buses and streetcars taking place today.

The idea for the people mover emerged in response to amendments in the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964, which called on the housing and urban development agency to encourage "new systems of urban transportation that will carry people and goods within the metropolitan area speedily, safely, without polluting the air, and in a manner that will contribute to sound city planning." The report produced [PDF] by this directive introduced a number of innovative transit modes, including the "downtown people mover," an automated system that would shuttle people anywhere and everywhere they needed to go within the central business district of cities.

In the early 1970s, several airports embraced this type of technology. But cities didn't give it serious consideration. Congress was ticked, so it did what it often does when upset: issued another report [PDF]. This one urged the government to encourage urban automated transport projects through capital grants issued to suitable applicants. Sixty-eight cities replied with interest in this Downtown People Movers program, and 38 submitted full-blown proposals.

But the start of the Reagan administration brought with it a reduction in federal support for people movers, and in the end only three were completed: in Miami, Detroit, and Jacksonville.

The Miami Metromover opened in 1986 on about 2 miles of elevated rail, and an expansion in 1994 brought the system to 4.4 miles and 21 stations. The goal of the Metromover was to facilitate travel between the city's metro system and the downtown core, and in many respects it's been a great success. Today 8.8 million passengers a year ride the monorail; the fare is free, and the cars run nearly round the clock, arriving every 90 seconds at peak and every 3 minutes all other times. Still the price was quite high: $660 million in today's dollars.

The systems in Detroit and Jacksonville were not quite as successful. The Detroit People Mover, finished in 1987, runs nearly 3 miles and makes 13 stops. It was built at a cost of $400 million in today's money, and though it carries 2.3 million passengers a year (at a 50-cent fare), its effectiveness was limited by the city's failure to build out its transit system. The 2.5-mile Jacksonville Skyway was the least expensive people mover, at a cost of $184 million in 1999 money, but its ridership is the lowest too, at just half a million passengers a year.

Though none of the three downtown people movers were a total failure — and the case can be made that Miami's is a strong benefit to city transit — Sproule and Leder believe that the high cost of these systems has discouraged other cities from constructing their own.

Alternatives include circulator buses, which are much more cost-effective, and streetcars, which are experiencing a revival in many cities across the country, and are certainly less expensive than monorails, at roughly $50 million a mile. The success of streetcars is far from certain. Many duplicate the role of buses at much greater cost, though some have argued that their charm is a value in itself. If the streetcar revival fails, historians may well one day see the high cost of monorails as a cautionary tale that streetcar developers failed to acknowledge. But if it succeeds, streetcars may well have the people mover to thank. As Sproule and Leder conclude, people movers were part of an early push toward livability and downtown transport that's now seen "seen as a critical component for our cities":

There are few who would regard the original Downtown People Mover program as a success due to high costs. However automated guideway transit systems have become an important component in larger airports and other major activity centers.  The initiative did generate an excitement as cities sought solutions to revitalize downtown areas.

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