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One year in, Detroit’s QLine falling well short of expectations

May 1, 2018

After a year of constant problems, the shiny electric streetcar that hums down Detroit’s main thoroughfare has proven more troubled than trusty.

The QLine, the privately operated streetcar that launched along 3.3 miles of Woodward Avenue last May, attracted less than half of its projected riders for several months its first year, as it was beset by traffic snarls and dwindling popularity.

The train that reaches top speeds of 30 mph averaged more than five stoppages a week, a total of 267, and was frequently operating behind schedule due to parked cars on its tracks and traffic jams near the Little Caesars Arena.

Records obtained by Bridge Magazine show the streetcar fell well short of expectations of 5,000 to 8,000 riders per day.

Daily riders averaged 2,700 from November through March, down from 4,322 per day from May to October, when four of those months rides were free of charge. The QLine began its fees of $1.50 for three-hour passes in September.

And just 130 people in the city of more than 650,000 bought annual passes, while 741 bought monthly ones (an average of less than 100 per month) since they went on sale in September, according to M-1 Rail, the nonprofit that operates the streetcar.

“Ridership is one measure of success. It’s an important measure. It’s not the only measure,” said Dan Lijana, spokesman for the M-1 RAIL.

“The first hurdle that the QLine helped overcome was to demonstrate to the federal and state government that a large-scale transit project in Detroit could bring together the community,” Lijana said. “It did.”

Wealth, commerce parallel QLine

Nearly half of all new construction since 2013 is occurring in the sliver of area that straddles the QLine. It's also running through some of the wealthiest and youngest areas of Detroit.

Funded by federal grants and private donations, the QLine’s operations are subsidized by private donors until 2027. After that, officials plans to transfer oversight to the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan, which could ask voters this November for a $5.4 billion, 20-year tax to add express buses and other improvements.

Negotiations are ongoing about the regional plan, and now is not a good time for bad news, said Andy LaBarre, chairman of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners.

“Positive news is positive, negative news is negative,” said LaBarre, who supports the tax proposal.

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, who is leading discussions on the wider transit plan, remains confident the QLine can be an asset to the region.

“Any transit system is going to take time to build ridership and it’s important to keep QLine in the proper perspective, it’s just one piece of the transit puzzle. If you look at QLine’s impact holistically, it demonstrates the overall benefits of transit, particularly with economic impact,” Khalil Rahal, assistant Wayne County executive said in an email.

First year hiccups?

Lijana and others described the QLine’s problems as first-year hiccups that will get resolved. He said many problems stem from motorist education. The QLine’s tracks weave through traffic. Some stations are curbside, while others are in the middle of Woodward.

M-1 RAIL is working with officials from the city, state and Little Caesars Arena to ensure the streetcar has a clear path down Woodward, Lijana said.

The worst ridership occurred during the coldest months, when plowed snow piles forced cars to park on the tracks. About 30 percent of the stoppages were in December and January, Lijana said. In two weeks alone, vehicles parked near snow piles stopped the QLine more than 50 times, he said.

QLine ridership fell short of its goal of reaching 5,000-riders per day. Snow, traffic jams and illegally parked cars partially were to blame.
Credit Chastity Pratt Dawsey / Bridge Magazine

Ridership in April was up by 1,200 people per day to about 3,900, and Lijana said that’s an encouraging sign for its second year. The streetcar, which has an operational budget of $5.8 million, grossed nearly $1 million in revenues from fares and grants.

“New systems take time to mature, (for) people to understand their options and ridership to grow,” said Mario Morrow, spokesman for the Regional Transit Authority.

“As Detroit grows, so will the numbers for the QLine. We will continue to support the QLine, and do whatever we need to do in our power to make it a success.”

Keys to success

Some had hoped the QLine one day could serve as a link in a regional transit plan that includes buses to Detroit Metropolitan Airport and light rail. In 2017, just as the streetcars began service, operators expressed optimism that the QLine could be extended within 10 years.

But the streetcars haven't been a central part of the discussions about the future of transit in Southeast Michigan, said Bill Mullan, a spokesman for Oakland County.

He said the county’s major concern about the QLine is ensuring that its operations aren’t assumed by the Regional Transit Authority before 2027.

“If the QLine were to come on board out of private hands it could be competing for same limited transit money that (suburban and city bus systems) are getting,” he said. “You can see how we’d want to hold that off.”

Megan Owens, executive director for Transportation Riders United advocacy group, said the QLine succeeded in introducing transit to people who never ride the bus.

But she said it needs to be faster and more frequent. The streetcars are supposed to arrive every 15 minutes.

“It will be hard for the QLine to be part of a daily commute for people if it’s not more reliable,” she said. “I do think ridership will increase as the system improves.”

The Detroit Journalism Cooperative is a collaboration by Detroit Public TV, Bridge Magazine, WDET, New Michigan Media, and Michigan Radio. Support for the Detroit Journalism Cooperative on Michigan Radio comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Renaissance Journalism, the Ford Foundation, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.