On Friday, a new addition to Detroit’s downtown landscape arrives: a 3.3-mile streetcar line along its main artery, the first to service the city in more than a half-century. To Detroit boosters, it’s the potential first step in solving the city’s notoriously bad public transit. But it’s nothing more than a publicity stunt that’ll boost the artificial narrative that Detroit is “back.”
If you’ve paid attention to what’s happening in Detroit, you might’ve heard a narrowly focused fairy tale of a city that’s experiencing a full-on renaissance, replete with posh restaurants and cute boutique shops—a remarkable achievement, given that it’s only three years removed from municipal bankruptcy.
As the city whizzed through bankruptcy court, plans solidified for a new publicly subsidized hockey arena near downtown, a facility to be serviced by the proposed streetcar. At the time, it was called M1 Rail, named for the busy downtown corridor it follows: Woodward Avenue. The renewed sense of vitality in downtown Detroit has been bolstered by the relocation of mortgage titan Quicken Loans from the suburbs, bringing thousands of employees to walk previously quieter streets.
Put together, the development boom throughout downtown has given birth to the more uplifting narrative about Detroit that the national press has adopted, even though it only represents a fraction of the city’s nearly 140 square miles.
The crowning achievement in that story is the streetcar project that debuts Friday. Now dubbed The QLine, it’s held up as the potential foundation of a more robust public transit system in Detroit, something desperately needed in a city where one-in-three residents don’t own a vehicle and nearly 40 percent are impoverished. Poor transit options are a well-known factor that can trap people in poverty.
But even its backers will admit the streetcar line won’t be much of a transit system—despite that it was seen as a test case for a ballot proposal last fall that would’ve established a public transit authority for metro Detroit and created a tax specifically to fund the region’s transit systems. The failure of the proposal was anticipated; Detroit is, after all, the home of the automobile, and its suburbs have long been adverse to public transit expansion.
There was a caveat to the ballot measure: the QLine’s long-term plan actually depends on the creation of such an authority to assume control of the system. Without one, it’s unclear how the line will operate in the future after its initial funding runs out.
That’s what makes Friday’s ceremony in Detroit so peculiar. There’s an air of uncertainty hanging over the $182 million streetcar—funded through a mix of public funds and private capital from Detroit corporations and institutions—whether its backers want to acknowledge it or not. It was portrayed as a linchpin for the ballot measure’s success, and there was only a minimal effort made in ensuring its passage. (Voters rejected the Regional Transit Authority millage by about 18,000 votes.)
While the streetcar is certainly a milestone for the city, the evidence that it’ll serve as a catalyst for public transit in the region is thin.
Rather, it’ll likely be a boon for corporate leaders situated near the city’s core—particularly Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert, the billionaire behind downtown’s nascent development boom and a man who singlehandedly has contorted the city’s national perception into something of an optimistic story of revival. It’s an incomplete narrative, when significant chunks of the city continue to deal with poverty, mass municipal water shutoffs and lack of access to jobs.
So the QLine celebration feels off-kilter. It illustrates the problems with Detroit’s overhyped revitalization story, a masking of significant issues that linger to this day. It’s the culmination of a narrative that began with Gilbert.
Streetcars represent a strange what’s-0ld-is-new-again phenomenon in public transit. Formerly a mainstay of urban cores, streetcar tracks were ripped up over time across the U.S. and eventually destroyed. Detroit’s first brush with streetcars ended like this: On April 8, 1956, the last streetcar in the city’s system rolled along Woodward.
When construction of the QLine began, you could still see tracks from the old system protruding from the ground. In recent years, they’ve come back into vogue, with proposed projects scattered across the U.S. (Buses still carry an unfortunate stigma that makes it hard for new commuters to ever consider them as a transit option over, say, their car.)
But the idea that a new streetcar could begin to make up Detroit’s public transit shortfalls is strange, when you consider the performance of the systems the QLine is modeled after. They’re not particularly known for speeding up travel time — a reporter in Portland once walked the length of that city’s streetcar line faster than the train itself — and, without a dedicated lane for travel, it can actually slow down the travel time for buses. A full trip down the length of the QLine is estimated to take 25 minutes, with one of the six trains owned by the system arriving at stops every 7-15 minutes. Without a dedicated lane, the chance for hiccups along the QLine route is much higher.
Detroit’s new ride also relies on fledgling hybrid streetcar technology. Rather than relying entirely on vehicles powered by overhead cables, the QLine uses trains that run on batteries part of the way. As the third city in the U.S. to use a hybrid streetcar, it’s a bit of a risk, as other cities’ experiences have shown, according to a report from a local outlet in Detroit, Motor City Muckraker.
That’s why the official line of the QLine—a potential catalyst for public transit in Metro Detroit—is puzzling.
It’s not a solid form of public transit—besides, maybe, for the residents and workers in Midtown and downtown. Most realize that streetcars likely only serve to attract economic development, which is why partly why their construction can be viewed solely as a boon to the corporate tycoons who control significant parts of downtown Detroit.
A plan backed by the city several years ago to build a light rail line along Woodward to the city’s northern boundary at Eight Mile—one the QLine organizers went along with it for a period of time—would’ve been a better example for the region of public transit can do. But Detroit declared bankruptcy, the light rail was scrapped and the QLine was revived. Unfortunately, the streetcar doesn’t even appear designed for future expansion.
Sure, it’s commendable that the private backers of the project stuck through all the twists and turns that plagued it over the last decade. They did make something happen. But with the sky-high expectations facing the QLine, it seems destined for a lukewarm reception.
Indeed, during a trial run last week with reporters and community members on board, a train’s traffic signal malfunctioned. Riders were stalled for 15 minutes, according to a report in Bridge magazine.
It’s not just signal malfunctions, though. QLine organizers have been trying to educate motorists not to park on the track; those who do so could face fines of up to $650.
Yet, a week out from launch, there’s folks lining the rail tracks:
You can almost be assured that won’t be the only time that a car has to be towed out of the QLine’s path.
It’s that type of scenario that could prove fatal to the streetcar’s future success. The QLine already depends on sky-high ridership estimates to break even: 5,000-8,000 passengers per day. If it achieves that total, it’d be the second most trafficked streetcar route in the U.S., Bridge reports. That’s similar numbers for the long-derided transit loop in Detroit’s downtown, The People Mover. But anyone who’s taken a ride on The People Mover—a roughly 3-mile loop that circles above downtown Detroit—midday during the week knows it’s not hitting the roughly 5,500 daily rides the system claims to have. (I’d know; I once spent 12 hours riding the damn thing for a story.)
The People Mover’s numbers are artificially inflated thanks to events like the North American International Auto Show, as Bridge explains.
The thinking behind the QLINE ridership projections is simple: If the People Mover can do it, so can the streetcar. Its organizers expect ridership to come from tourists, new residents and workers flocking to the area because of its booming economic development.
But it’s hard to picture the tourist or new resident being gung-ho about waiting for a ride for upward of 15 minutes, and then potentially experiencing some sort of delay. And event day traffic doesn’t equate to sustain daily ridership.
With a new hockey arena, and events planned through downtown on a regular basis, I suppose the target of 5,000-8,000 daily passengers, at $1.50 per ride, is doable. Whether they’ll be sold on the idea, I’m not sure.
Another possible means of attaining those levels (proffered by libertarian magazine Reason), might be a mandate for employees to use the streetcar. Gilbert has scooped up parking garages in the New Center area, along the north end of the streetcar line. Subsidized or free passes for employees don’t seem out of the realm of possibility.
So, I’d expect, in a few months, chances are you’ll come across a rather empty QLine train puttering down Woodward Avenue, a scene that’s all too familiar on The People Mover that looms above it.
If you believe the QLine’s organizers, the streetcar can be the catalyst for mass transit. But they’ve been saying that since before the ballot measure for a public transit authority failed last fall.
“We’ve always wanted to be a catalyst for regional transit,” the QLine’s CEO told MLive in 2015.
When it came time for the campaign to support the creation of a regional transit authority, the evidence that QLine backers showed up to support it isn’t terribly persuasive.
It was known as early as the fall of 2015 that the QLine’s opening would be delayed until 2017, well after the vote on the transit authority ballot measure. The measure was significant, too: Besides the creation of an authority, it would’ve created a new tax to raise $4.6 billion over 30 years to install new bus rapid transit lines across the region and better coordinate already existing public transit systems in operation.
And yet, the public awareness campaign to generate support for the measure never appeared too strong. When I interviewed Detroit public transit passengers last fall for a story about the ballot proposal, none of them knew about it or what the proposal could’ve done. They thought I was talking about the new streetcar. (All thought its route should be longer.)
You’d imagine a fiercer output of campaign materials to illustrate why the transit proposal was a good idea, particularly with the Woodward streetcar construction already being well under way. Again, the QLine’s future depends on the creation of such an authority. With the QLine as the only project in the works to show for any tangible change beyond the status quo, you’d think its organizers would be working like hell to help win support from the outlying metro Detroit communities that were voting on the measure.
Instead, the defense mounted by Gilbert and other allies who feel transit is so vital to Detroit’s forward progress was this: a letter.
“We have come too far, after too long, to see our best shot at regional transit in a generation fall before the people are able to decide,” they wrote.
Wouldn’t you know it, a letter didn’t sway the suburban transit skeptics of Oakland and Macomb County on Election Day. The ballot measure was rejected by voters, but the Woodward streetcar’s construction still trudged along.
The failure to wage an overwhelming campaign in support of the ballot proposal should be regarded as one of the biggest political misfires in Detroit history. After so many shelved plans and false starts, how could the opportunity of a transit millage be taken for granted?
“[The QLine] is going to make connections both literally and figuratively that we can’t even imagine yet,” Gilbert told The Detroit News this week.
Well, the city won’t be able to imagine much, if the ballot measure doesn’t pass next time around.
Until then, sure, enjoy the QLine—flaws and all. If it works for downtown, that’s great. For transit cynics, it’s a remarkable feat to see a train moving up and down city streets again. But in the meantime, the rest of Detroit will still be waiting for the service it deserves.