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|GRAND RIVER AVENUE:
DETROIT'S PUSH TOWARD
|Proponents of rubber-tired transit considered Grand River
Avenue in Detroit as a major victory for their cause. In 1946,
U.S. Royal Tires even featured a D.S.R. Grand River express
bus in its Fleetway Tires advertisement.
(Photo courtesy of Tom's Trolley Bus Pix—Detroit stuff)
In 1946, the DSR's Grand River line could easily be ranked
as one of the busiest streetcar lines in the city. With peak
hour service requiring approximately 50l of the Peter Witt
style streetcars to operate along its 14.1l mile route from
downtown to Seven Mile Road,l it's no doubt Grand River
was a major DSR streetcar route. l However, Grand River
would also soonl become a political battleground—-where
the l proponents of rubber–tired transportation would
soon claim that roadway as one of their major victories.
During the years following WW-II,l the city of Detroit had
a serious problem to contend with—Traffic! With the city's
population at the time pushing nearly 1.9 million, and the
proposed freeway system only in the developing stages, it
wasn't uncommon to find the city's major thoroughfares
during morning and evening rush hours jammed-pack
with automobiles. As motorists crawled along those limited
number of lanes reserved for auto traffic,l many Detroiters
began accusing the streetcarsl of monopolizing the center
lanes and contributing to the city's traffic problem.
One such thoroughfare where an anti–streetcar sentiment
was brewing was Grand River Avenue—a major six–lane
highway that extended northwesterly across the city from
the city's downtown business district. Although three fixed
lanes carried traffic for each direction, the two center lanes
were occupied by the streetcarsll and their accompanying
tracks and safety islands. Many residents and businessmen
along Grand River had even asked that the city have the streetcars and safety islands removed,l claiming they disrupted
auto traffic in the area.l Interestingly, city officials had already been scrambling for years to find ways to increase the flow
of traffic along that roadway. This streetcar removal sentiment expressed by the surrounding residents would no doubt
give those city officials who favored the removal of the streetcars the added ammunition they would need.
|This December 1942 Detroit News photo, shows the traffic flow along Grand River Avenue at West Warren in
Detroit. Although there were six lanes that carried traffic in both directions, the two center lanes were occupied
by the DSR's Peter Witt streetcars and their accompanying passenger safety islands—both visible in this photo.
(Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University photo #57769_1 — used with permission)
Meanwhile, the demand for public transportation along Grand River during that time was still high,l with close to 100,000
riders utilizing the service daily. On October 15, 1945, the DSR began offering express bus service along Grand River to
supplement the streetcar service. Three separate express runs—beginning at Seven Mile Road; at Archdale (Southfield);
and at Ardmore (Schoolcraft)—began operating during the peak hours,ll while an "off-peak hour" express service began
operating days, evenings and on Saturdays. The off-peak hour express buses operated in local service (boarding only)
from Seven Mile to Oakman Blvd. ll Beginning at Oakman Blvd., all of the Grand River Express buses operated express
into downtown—stopping only at W. Grand Blvd.
However, in late 1946, city and state officials announced plans to repave the entire stretch of Grand River Avenue. As a
result, the city wanted the safety islands removed in order to open an additional traffic lane in each direction. Of course,
the removal of these safety islands would obviously require the removal of the streetcars and replacing them with motor
The planned repaving and conversion of Grand River to rubber–tired transit began lining up factions pro and con on the
issue—pitting Mayor Edward J. Jeffries, Jr.,l the DSR Board of Commissioners,l DSR General Manager Richard A. Sullivan,
along with area residents and businessmen along Grand River on one side; against the Common Council,ll the car men's
union—-Division 26, of the Amalgamated Association of Street, Electric Railway and Motor Coach Employees
of America (now ATU), and other pro-rail proponents on the opposing side.
The DSR Commissioners, led by President Samuel T. Gilbert,l cited the unusual long length of the route required the
addition of express buses to supplement the service, resulting in an uneconomical use of street space.l The employment
of mixed bus and streetcar service on Grand River detracted from the efficient use of the limited available street surface.
The commissioners also cited the tendency of auto drivers to utilize the center streetcar lanes-—weaving back and forth
from the tracks and the inside lane in order to overtake and pass streetcars—-contributing tol further traffic slowdowns.
The elimination of the tracks and safety zones from the middle of the street would provide three full lanes of free flowing
traffic along each side of the street.
The DSR management,l led by general manager Richard Sullivan, wanted the 50 or so streetcars needed for its Grand
River operation removed from its Coolidge Terminal in order to begin rebuilding the Coolidge site into an all-bus facility
where the department could store its increasing bus fleet. Obviously, the city's own transit department favored the bus
conversion aspect of the plan.
Of course, the Street Car and Coach Men's Union (Division 26), was looking out for the jobs of its union members and
were in opposition,ll while the overwhelming majority of the Detroit Common Council membersl heavily supported the
retention of streetcars on the city's major lines, and fought to maintain that service. Consequently, the Council rejected
the immediate total conversion,ll and implemented a temporary four month trial period of bus substitution,ll allowing only
for the removal of the safety zones from one side of the street during the trial period. The Council intended for the DSR
to reinstate all rail service on Grand River if the bus substitution proved unsuccessful and didn't live up to expectation.
Meanwhile, Lloyd B. Reid, City Traffic Engineer, was quoted as saying: "Rubber-Tired Transit with reversible
center lanes fits our Grand River problem like a glove. It has stepped-up traffic from 2500 to 3500
vehicles per hour past out testing point——besides reducing driving time by 5 minutes between
Schoolcraft and downtown Detroit (10 miles)."
Needless to say, with the safety islands removed and the rails now paved over, the streetcars along Grand River Avenue
never returned. With a major streetcar line like Grand River now being substituted by motor buses, the future of street
railway service in Detroit looked bleak. Grand River had become the first major streetcar line in the city to be taken-over
by motor buses, and became a major victory for those who supported rubber-tired transportation.
|Although electric trolley-coaches were now operating on Grand
River when this photo was taken during the early 1950's, express
bus service had continued on since October of 1945. This DSR
express coach (built by White Motors) is seen here southbound
along Grand River, just south of W. Grand Blvd.
(Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University photo #2880_1)
Beginning Monday, May 5, 1947, 98 motor coaches (including
local and express buses) replaced the 50 Peter Witt streetcars
on Grand River. However, on that very same day, and without
Council's approval, Mayor Edward J. Jeffries, Jr. ordered the
city's Department of Public Works to pave over the street-
car tracks along Grand River, between Trumbull and Joy Road.
The Mayor cited the extensive rail and pavement deterioration
along that stretch of right-of-way as the reason for his decision.
With streetcars no longer operating along Grand River, the two
center lanes were now open for vehicular traffic. However, the
traffic congestion problem along Grand River would continue to
increase—prompting the Mayor's office to push for the remain-
ing tracks along Grand River to be covered in order for the city
to begin implementing a proposed "reversible lanes" traffic plan.
To help accommodate the increased rush-hour traffic, the "two" center lanes would be made reversible—carrying traffic
downtown in the morning and back in the evening. The two remaining lanes were used for opposite direction traffic.
|BEFORE STREETCARS – AFTER STREETCARS: The above photo was taken from a Timken Axle Company |
advertisement (Timken Axles manufactured axles and brakes for trolley-coaches and motor buses). The
company used the left photo in their ad to show how streetcars limited the traffic flow along Grand River,
while the right photo (taken shortly after the streetcars were removed in 1947) was used to show the same
thoroughfare operating with Rubber Tired-Transit and reversible center lanes. After the bus substitution, four
lanes along Grand River were used for heavy traffic flow, while the two remaining lanes were used for less
heavy traffic in the opposite direction. (Photo courtesy of Tom's Trolley Bus Pix—Detroit stuff)
|This June 1950 photo, taken along Grand River Avenue at the DTRR crossing just east of Oakman Blvd., looks
north-westward along Grand River during the period between 1947 and 1951, when the DSR only operated motor
coaches along that route. With the streetcar tracks now having been paved over some years ago, the reversible
center lanes were still going strong. (Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University photo #47212)
|This photo, taken during the 1950s, looks north-westward along Grand River Avenue at Clarendon S. (four blocks
south of Joy Road). By the time of this photo, the St. Louis Car Co. built electric "trackless" trolley-coaches were
operating along Grand River, as evident by the one operating in the northbound lanes. However, the reversible two
center lane operation—with four southbound lanes and two northbound—were still being used along Grand River.
(Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University photo #28257 — used with permission))
Over the years, the traffic pattern flow along Grand River Avenue would change. l As new expressways were built, traffic
congestion along a number of major thoroughfares would ease somewhat. By the late–fifties, the two reversible center
lane concept would give way to another Detroit phenomenon—the center left-turn-only lane. These were initiated along
other major arteries in the city after the streetcars were removed during the mid–fifties. Interestingly, for a number of
years left turns were forbidden on Grand River during rush hour traffic, while the center 'left-turn-only' lane was reserved
for through-traffic only—-inbound traffic during the morning rush, and outbound traffic during the evenings.ll However,
this practice was later abandoned as well, as the traffic along Grand River diminished considerably over the years.
Below, is a recent photo of that same intersection of Grand River and Clarendon S., seen in the previous photo. l Today,
the center lane is used only for making left turns. Of course, a number of the buildings, businesses and cars along Grand
River visible in the other photo, and those reversible center lanes, are all a part of Detroit's rich history, long gone bye.
Information for the above article was compiled from various articles written by Jack E. Schramm on the Detroit Street Railways, including "Detroit's DSR. Part
3" (Motor Coach Age Magazine–May-June 1993) and "DETROIT'S STREET RAILWAYS Vol II: City Lines 1922-1956" (Bulletin 120 - Central Electric Railfans'
Association, by Schramm, Henning, and Dworrman), and from miscellaneous articles posted at Tom's Trolley Bus Pix — Detroit. Additional information from
the recorded minutes of various sessions of the Detroit Common Council as recorded in the "Journal of the Common Council — City of Detroit – 1947."
Virtual Motor City Collection photos #57769_1, 2880_1, 47212, and 28257 used by permission of the Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State
All rights, including those of further reproduction and/or publication, are reserved in full by the Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University. Photographic
reproductions may be protected by U.S. copyright law (U.S. Title 17). The user is fully responsible for copyright infringement.
|(Photo courtesy of DDOT Senior Service Inspector (SSI) Carl Dutch)
© 2007 (PAGE LAST MODIFIED ON 11-04-10)
|In the above photo, DSR buses can be seen operating northbound along Grand River Avenue at West Grand Blvd.
back on July 12, 1949. Although these motor buses were used to replace the streetcars on Grand River in 1947,
electric powered "trackless" trolley-coaches would take over the main operation of the line in September 1951.
And Yes!, that is the old Northwestern High School peeking out from behind the trees. (Detroit News photo)
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