Detroit People Mover Turns 25

Detroit People Mover Turns 25

“I was selected as quality assurance manager for the $250 million Detroit People Mover project, complete with a full staff of engineers and technicians. Aches and pains aside, I was elated. There was no way I could refuse; the job would have all the trimmings an engineer would desire to execute a really important project in exactly the way he had been trained to do it. This would be my final job prior to retirement and the highest position I had ever attained. . . . My father was often on my mind then, and his words from the past resonated in my thoughts with increasing clarity, guiding my actions throughout the project.”

― Charles Novacek, Border Crossings: Coming of Age in  the Czech Resistance

Today Detroit’s road in the sky, the Detroit People Mover turns 25. It’s not the Orient Express, the Super Chief or the Bullet Train, but it does travel a pretty exotic route as it glides driverless through its 2.9-mile (4.7 km), 14 minute loop 15 feet above  the streets of downtown Detroit.

AKA as the CATS* project, the Detroit People Mover officially opened on July 31, 1987. The elevated light rail mass transit system runs in a continuous clockwise circuit on a single set of tracks.  When the People Mover opened, it ran counter-clockwise. In August 2008, it changed direction and now runs clockwise permanently. My husband Charles was the quality assurance manager for the mammoth People Mover project. I wonder what he would think about this change of direction.

The People Mover is similar to the downtown Metromover in Miami and its technology is like that of the SkyTrain system in Vancouver and Scarborough RT line in Toronto. It is an important attraction and asset for business travelers, tourists, residents, and downtown workers. When Charles and I lived downtown there was a station near our building and we would ride to the opera, the library. restaurants, and shopping at the Renaissance Center. Sometimes we would just ride for the thrill of being 25 feet above above the city streets looking out at the Detroit River and Ambassador Bridge.

Sculpture by H. Seward Johnson, Jr.

Or sometimes we stopped and examined one of the thirteen stations. Each station is uniquely decorated, often by important Detroit artists. The Renaissance Center features a bronze ram sculpture by Marshall Fredericks, the creator of the Spirit of Detroit. The art-deco design of the Times Square stop was decorated by Detroit’s Pewabic Pottery.  A favorite of ours was the bronze sculpture by J. Seward Johnson, Jr., of a commuter reading a newspaper. It is life-size and life-like, perfectly integrated into its surroundings. As we rode we’d talk about how important art is to having a vibrant city. And Charles would often relate his stories about the challenges of the construction project.

Charles is one of the few people who could have withstood the politics and controversy such a multi-layered undertaking brings on.  He had survived the Nazis during World War II and the Communist threat that followed. His father and uncle and Charles’ experience had prepared him to conquer almost anything – even the Detroit People Mover project!  He writes in his memoir Border Crossings about how the love, resilience and influence of his father guided him in his work throughout his life.

In the following excerpt Charles tells how his father led a group of men to construct a bridge in their community prior to the Nazi occupation:

“Two weeks later, when the river receded, Father organized the village men to build a new bridge. It was amazing how the men managed to build, with only primitive tools, a solid wooden structure strong enough to support even heavily loaded wagons pulled by horses or oxen.

I viewed the whole thing intently . . . This entire process made a remarkable impression on me. I stood in awe as I watched the design and creation of the structure and the teamwork of the men making my father’s ideas a reality, and I almost felt as if a spark had been kindled within me. Almost half a century later, when I would supervise the construction of the People Mover in Detroit, I compared the Detroit columns and steel piles to the piling in Hrachovo, and I remembered my father and his men building that bridge.

In late 1937, the noteworthy bridge erection ended, and in May of the following year I reached ten years of age. At around the same time, the general mobilization of Czech armed forces was declared, and an unforgettable episode changed both my character and my feelings toward my  father.”

Completing the project gave Charles great satisfaction, but it had its disappointments. The People Mover was intended to be the downtown distributor for a proposed city and metro-wide light rail transit system for Detroit in the early 1980s; however, funding was scaled back and it has never been expanded. Charles was disappointed with the curtailment of the expanded light rail system that we still need very much and do not have today.

The articles in the newspapers announcing the 25th anniversary celebration of the People Mover say there are special discounts being given by downtown businesses. If I didn’t have to go to work I’d go downtown to celebrate and reminisce. The $.75 ride overlooking stunning views of the city and $2 million plus of artwork in each station is one of the best bargains in Detroit. Thank you, Charles!

* Central Automated Transit Systems

Further Information on the Detroit People Mover:!.id.2.htm


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