Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Detroit Metro - A Fantasy Map

1/28/2014: Welcome Wired readers! This is a very old, very rough draft of what this project eventually became. For the latest version of my map, please click here: New Detroit Metro. Feel free to read on if you're interested in a bit of context and historical what-if, though!

Update: I changed the map to show the Fort Street extension as future construction and changed some wording accordingly, as well as stopping Orange at Royal Oak. Also added some suggested reading links in the comments for those interested.

I love transit systems and transit maps, not so much because it's great to ride a subway (although a lot of times it is), but because of the way they put an entire city within reach. I always laugh when people start talking about the freedom of driving a car compared to taking mass transit, because for me exactly the opposite tends to be true in a city. With a metro system and map like the one where I live in the DC area, I can instantly see not only how to get to a place that I already want to go, but a whole bunch of other places that were important enough for the city to make it easy for people to get there. Not only that, but the maps show you something about how the city is laid out. The patchwork nets of Paris and London tell a different story than the concentric rings and straight east-west/north-south lines of Beijing, or the hub and spoke model of Chicago.

There's a well-established tradition on urbanist blogs like Greater Greater Washington of offering up "fantasy maps," maps of the Metro system as we wish it were or as we hope it might one day be. Most focus on adding a new line or showing improved service patterns, while others get more ambitious with multiple lines and even multiple forms of transit on the same map. I thought it'd be fun to go all all out on this: a complete fantasy map for the historically largest US city without rail mass transit of any kind, Detroit.

Obviously this is pure fantasy in the strongest sense, but I thought it would be fun to think of it as a specific what-if. The closest Detroit ever came to building a subway was during its initial boom in the 1910s and 1920s, which would have given it a roughly Boston or New York-era subway system. (There's a nice history here if you have JSTOR access.) In this case, though, I decided to imagine a system built at about the same time as cities like Washington, San Francisco and Atlanta in the 1960s and 1970s, perhaps in some alternate universe where one of Detroit's seven Olympic bids came through and the city built the core lines in preparation. This lets me ignore pre-freeway Detroit and keep more of the Washington Metro style that I'm familiar with. At the same time, it's a bit of a compromise since I don't have any 1960s maps of Detroit and I'm not intimately familiar with the city, so the station locations and names reflect the best I had to go on from Google Maps in 2012. Places where there are no houses or businesses often got skipped, even though they may have been thriving in the 1960s and would have warranted a station at that time.

First, the map and a disclaimer that I'm a nerd, not a graphic artist. Then some detailed explanation.

So, what do we have? Basically, there are four physical rail lines on the map not counting the Windsor side of the river. The three on Woodward (Blue), Michigan (Red), and Gratiot (Green) are the core of the system and follow the main arterial roads in Detroit. This is one advantage of the city - it already has well defined main routes from the core out into different parts of the city and suburbs. Then we have an additional crossing line that runs from Dearborn along I-94, up the rail tracks that serve the Detroit train station at New Center, and then tunnels through Hamtramck before going up either Mound Road or Van Dyke to Warren and Sterling Heights (Orange/Yellow). I left the end of the Yellow and Green Lines as "under construction" because I wasn't sure how to fit the number of stations it would require to map them out, and I thought it was nice to show how planned future extensions might look on the map.

Finally, I put a line in Windsor just because I thought it would be awesome to have a (world first?) international metro system. Given Windsor's much smaller population this would probably work best as a light rail line, but nonetheless I thought it should be there. The purple line runs along the waterfront on University Avenue before turning up Ouelette Avenue downtown and then out to the major job centers on Walker Road. Customs gave another reason to make this line wholly separate.

In total the system has about 99 miles of track counting the Sterling Heights and Lincoln Park extensions with 62 stations. This doesn't count the numerous infill stations that would exist between Hamtramck and Sterling Heights on the Yellow Line or between Cobo Center and Lincoln Park on the Green, so figure ~75-80 stations in total. This compares to the Washington Metro's 103 miles of track with 86 stations before the Silver Line is included - not quite up to par, but certainly a good start. Of course, Detroit is less dense than Washington (710,000 in a 143 sq. mile city with 4.3 million in the metro area, versus Washington's 618,000 in 68 sq. miles with a 5.6 million metro), which means things are less favorable for Detroit in terms of people covered by the system. Overall, though, I don't think the comparison is too far off.

A couple small items of note:
  • I did my best to copy not only the Washington map's style but also its (ideal) policy on station names: places rather than roads wherever possible, easy to remember, additional landmarks in subtitles. That means in a lot of spots I invented names instead of labeling with a cross street, and I occasionally used subtitles to give the major crossing roads that are more familiar.
  • An operational disadvantage versus the DC Metro is that not every line intersects every other since Orange misses Green. In DC, this feature means you are never more than one transfer away from any other station in the system. But, I don't think this is a big deal since only three stations exist independently on Orange, and anyone getting from Orange to Green outside those three stations can choose a Blue or Red train instead. One option would be to send Orange south to Allen Park and Lincoln Park instead of going to the airport and then meet up with the Green line Fort Street extension down there. Alternatively, the Orange line could run on a new line from New Center back along the rest of I-94 until it hit the Green line north of Harper Avenue, rather than the interlined route out to Royal Oak that I drew, like this: 
  • Finally, a word on further expansion. The fantasy people making their own fantasy maps in this fantasy world would probably be drawing east-west horizontal crossing lines along Eight Mile Road (Mohican Triangle to Gateway), I-696 (Roseville to Warren to Royal Oak), or M-59 as the real-world Bus Rapid Transit plans call for (this would require an extended Green line to Clemens Park). Such a connecting line, and maybe another radial line up Grand River to Farmington Hills/Novi, would be the big priorities. Here's a quick and dirty map showing approximately how the extended Orange line options mentioned above, I-696 route, and Grand River line would look:

Anyway, I could write a ton more about how I came up with this and all the little things I've thought about as I designed it, but I'll leave it here. Hope any other transit/Detroit geeks out there enjoy this half as much as I enjoyed making it, and let me hear any suggestions.


Dan said...

Where's my silver line to Ann Arbor? rabble rabble!

Very impressive post! You should send it to the Detroit News or Detroit's equivalent of Greater Greater Washington (if such a thing exists).

On an interesting sidenote: I think you had left DC before they starting putting up the updated Metro maps! Nothing you haven't seen before, but my past self living at Van Dorn Street is very upset about the yellow line extension that will reduce the number of trains that can take me to Foggy Bottom at rush hour without a transfer. Also the "under construction" silver line with unlabeled empty circles for planned stations is a little too cryptic for my tastes.

Jackson said...

Ha, check out the geographically accurate map a bit down on this guy's blog and you'll see that the Washington silver line only needs a couple more stops to get to Ann Arbor.

I'm glad you liked it. I'll add some links for Detroit blogs too, there's nothing as focused and solid for transit as GGW (partly because there's not as much to focus on, obviously) but there's some great stuff.

Yeah, I did see the new Rush+, aka Rush- for Blue as you point out. The stats show that the amount of Blue trains matched the amount of Blue riders very well (about 35% that come through Rosslyn or so). So, idk. Temporary tinkering until the Georgetown tunnel is open. There's a great visualization you probably already saw here:

I do agree that I would have liked some labels on that Silver Line, but I think the station names have yet to receive final approval after they redid them from the original "Tysons East", "Tysons Central-East", "Tysons West-Reston South", "Reston Central-Outer Herndon" abominations.

Jackson said...

As to blogs, while I haven't found anyone doing quite the job that GGW does for the Washington area, there are still some great Detroit blogs out there of varying relevance:

Model D - great all-around blog on the city of Detroit.
Transportation Riders United - activist group, nuts-and-bolts transit focused.
Detroit Blog - simply great writing on, well, check it out.
Positive Detroit - day-to-day life and events in the city.

Alb said...

I'm very impressed. :-) It'd be great to have something like that in Metro Detroit! Though, I'm wondering which stops are nearest to Troy, clearly one of the ones on the Blue Line.

You did a great job emulating the style of the CTA, the DC Metro, or the BART. You should do one for Milwaukee! Or maybe I should . . . hmm. What program did you create that map on?

Anywho, I agree with Dan - Silver Line to Ann Arbor!

Jackson said...

Hey Alb, glad you liked it!

I did consider Troy but couldn't find a way to include it on a line without drawing out so many lines as to make the system just seem implausible. I mean, it's already entirely implausible, but I was trying to keep the system under the size of the Washington Metro since that seemed to me like a best-case scenario when compared to other contemporary systems like MARTA, BART, etc. In some far future Troy could be on a E-W crossing line (M-59, 16 Mile/Big Beaver etc.) or a line running up 75 between the Blue and Yellow. Probably the former (much cheaper and good to make a "net") but the latter would give more core capacity.

So, the closest stops to Troy are Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills. In my head there are DC Circulator style buses (buses marked differently that come every ten minutes and have their own route maps) that drive out north/east from Birmingham and go down Big Beaver to hit Somerset Collection and then....I don't know where else in Troy they should go since I don't know Troy well. Maybe head north and then come back west on Long Lake to end at the Bloomfield Hills Metro? (And of course, also buses running the opposite direction on that loop.)

I just made this in GIMP. I'm pretty sure real people use Adobe Illustrator but I work with what I have :)

If they built the red line with express tracks (i.e. a set of either 3 or 4 tracks instead of 2), you could run express trains out the red line to Ann Arbor. But of course they made actual plans to run on the rail line that Amtrak uses from New Center to Dearborn, the aiport, Willow Run, Ypsilanti and then Ann Arbor as a sort of commuter rail service.

Vadim Yelizarov said...

Hey Jackson!

My name is Vadim, I am writing from Detroit... Very nice fantasy!!! :-)))

Jackson, I do Detroit t-shirts on a side, as a hobby (you can check them at If you can give me exclusive permission to use your design (need it in writing), I can make "Detroit Metro Fantasy Map" t-shirt. Sure, I will credit you as a Designer... and yes, you will get tees for yourself and few of your friends or family members :-)))
Anyway, please contact me...

Thank you,

Jackson said...

Hi Vadim -

Thanks for your offer and the compliments! At the moment I'm still refining the map a bit and looking into what to do with the design. But I'm not ready to give anyone else exclusive permission, sorry.


glen broughman said...

I would run this up to at least Auburn Hills .. but i guess you could do Novi then have commuter rail that would run up to AHills, then on to flint saginaw and finally bay city or midland.. have other commuter rail run to Ann Arbor, Kzoo, GRapids and to chicago

D GEO said...

Just thought you might like to know that your map was featured on our site and it has gotten a lot of positive feedback!

Richard Scott said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Richard Scott said...

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