A Brief History of UMTA's Downtown People Mover Program

In 1966, Congress created the Urban Mass Transportation Administration (UMTA) and gave it responsibility for the development of new types of transit systems. UMTA funded a variety of research and development projects during its first few years and then in late 1970 let a contract to West Virginia University for construction of the first automated people mover in the U.S. In 1971, UMTA funded four companies at $1.5 million each to set up a demonstration of their automated guideway transit (AGT) development results at a transportation exposition, called TRANSPO '72. It was held at the Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C. One of the objectives of  TRANSPO '72 was to try to stimulate cities around the nation to get interested in ordering one of these four systems which had been developed with federal funds.. While a few systems were ordered for airports and zoos, as of 18 months later, no urban area had ordered an AGT system. This was quite disappointing to UMTA and Congress.

A little later, the Downtown People Mover (DPM) program was initiated by a recommendation from the Office of Technology Assessment, an agency of the U.S. Congress. On September 10, 1974, the Transportation Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Appropriations requested an assessment of Personal Rapid Transit and other new systems. Mr. Clark Henderson (of the Stanford Research Institute) chaired the OTA Panel on Current Developments in the United States. This panel reported: "With $200 million invested in Automated Guideway Transit installations, it is unfortunate that there is no such installation in a city to ascertain feasibility. There should be a concerted effort by the Federal government, municipalities, and the transportation industry to initiate a first urban application promptly." A key finding in the OTA report to Congress stated: An urban demonstration project for Shuttle Loop Transit (SLT) appears justified."

In addition, Congressional pressure was increased on UMTA to show some positive results from their research and development expenditures. So, in 1975 UMTA announced its Downtown People Mover Program and sponsored a nationwide competition among the cities, offering them the federal funds needed to design and build such a system. Since UMTA was prepared to pay most of the costs of planning and building these systems as part of  its demonstration program, the response from the cities was almost overwhelming.

In 1976, after receiving and  reviewing 68 letters of interest and 35 full proposals and making on-site inspections of the top 15 cities, UMTA selected proposals from Los Angeles, St. Paul, Minnesota, Cleveland and Houston. It also concluded that Miami, Detroit and Baltimore would be permitted to develop DPMs if they could do so with existing grant commitments. In 1977, the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate Appropriations Conference Committee told UMTA to include Baltimore, Indianapolis, Jacksonville and St. Louis as part of the program. UMTA also added Norfolk, Virginia to the program. Cleveland and Houston were the first to withdraw from the program. Later, St. Paul also withdrew after its voters did not approve their project.

In August of 1980, the General Accounting Office issued a report entitled Better Justification Needed for Automated People Mover Demonstration Projects. Projects currently planned at that time were estimated to cost the federal government about $675 million. The GAO report stated that UMTA had not shown why each of the planning projects was needed to meet program objectives. They noted that UMTA officials believed that multiple projects were necessary to (a) assure that at least one project would be implemented, (b) test different technologies (even though only technologies successfully operating elsewhere were to be used), (c) minimize the risk of failure to meet project expectations (the people mover concept for downtown use could be discredited), and (d) reflect local differences such as climate and economic conditions that might affect project results.  GAO recommended that the U.S. Secretary of Transportation direct UMTA to identify the need for each of the planned projects and seek further guidance from the Congress. The DOT responded that the four projects that were added by Congress were not needed to meet program objectives but that four of the five projects not added by Congress were necessary to meet program objectives and that each would make a unique contribution toward meeting the program's objectives.

All four of the projects initially selected by UMTA later withdrew from the DPM program but Miami and Detroit stayed the course and eventually built DPMs. Both have had a stormy history but both are still in operation in 2009. The Miami system has been extended and planning for extending the Detroit system is underway.  Current developments in downtown Detroit are having some positive effects on the utility of the Detroit Mover. Additional information on both the Miami and Detroit systems is available on-line. Later, Jacksonville built a downtown people mover system and it has recently been upgraded and extended.

To assist the cities in planning DPM systems, UMTA developed a manual called Planning for Downtown People Movers to assist the the cities that wished to undertake a DPM planning effort. A draft of the manual was published in April of 1979 as part of the Transportation Systems Center's Urban and Regional Research Series under report number DOT-TSC-UM-917-PP-79-8. It was well-done and would be useful today as a guide for DPM planning studies.

Today, there are few who regard UMTA's DPM program as having been a "success". However, it should be noted that there were a great many cities that showed interest in the program, most probably motivated by the prospect of "free" federal money but also by the hope that they might be able to actually do something positive about the congestion and parking problems in their often ailing downtowns.


Merritt, H. W., Reflections on the New Systems Study Project, Proceedings of the 4th International Conference on Automated Peoplemovers, edited by W.J. Sproule, E.S. Neumann and M.V.A. Bondada, Las Colinas, Texas, published by the American Society of Civil Engineers, New York, N.Y., 1993, pp 35-59.

Automated Guideway Transit - An Assessment of PRT and Other New Systems, U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, Washington, D.C., June, 1975, p 235.

Innovation in Public Transportation, U.S. Department of Transportation, Urban Mass Transit Administration, Fiscal Year 1978, p 59.

Last modified: November 14, 2009