New investments are tackling old frustrations with Detroit’s limited streetcars, but experts say larger problems must be solved before the QLINE can fulfill a long-stalled vision for regional public transit.
Detroit residents live in the largest American metropolis without a regional rail line, leaving the majority-Black population with less access to opportunities in nearby suburbs. Detroit-area transportation planners are reviving proposals to seek federal funding for transit projects, which could include expanding the QLINE. Long-running debates over investments in the electric streetcar, which has struggled to deliver reliable service as promised, will also start again as policymakers consider how it fits into larger plans for regional mass transit.
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“(The QLINE) is an asset that needs to be looked at as part of our transportation system,” said Ben Stupka, general manager of the Regional Transit Authority for Southeast Michigan. “We will talk about expansion of the QLINE, whether it’s up north, or east and west to Jefferson Avenue and Corktown.”
A coalition of civic elites raised $187 million in public and private funding to create the QLINE. Since 2017, it has operated along 3.3 miles of Woodward Avenue between Detroit’s downtown and New Center. Rides are free through 2039 thanks to an $85 million subsidy of Michigan hotel and liquor taxes approved by the state Legislature last December.
M-1 RAIL, the nonprofit entity that runs the streetcar, took over operations in 2021 during a pandemic-era service interruption. Since the relaunch, President Lisa Nuszkowski said more people are riding and delays are becoming less common. Expanding the QLINE is a “high priority,” she said, alongside continued service improvements.
But Nuszkowski acknowledges the QLINE isn’t likely to transform into a high-speed commuter rail line. Streetcars, she said, are designed to serve different needs at different speeds. Nuszkowski envisions the QLINE as part of a broader regional transportation system that includes bus rapid transit and micromobility options like rentable bikes and scooters.
“We hear the comment that we’re slow, but we’re going the speed limit and it’s a streetcar service,” Nuszkowski said. “It was designed to be a local service. Is that (what will) take you up to Pontiac? Probably not.”
Joe Grengs, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan, said the transportation benefits of the QLINE were oversold. The streetcar was conceived as an economic development project first and foremost, he said, and it shows.
“From an equity standpoint, by far the most important thing in a regional system is helping people who live in the city to get to suburban opportunities,” Grengs said. “I worry about what the QLINE does, because it’s so limited … We’d be better off if we stepped back and got a little more honest about it. (The QLINE) is not really serving much of a transportation purpose and if you want to use it as an economic development tool, I don’t really know how much development can be attributed to it.”
In its first years of operation, the QLINE gained a notorious reputation. Critics said the service was slow, often-delayed and did little to address Detroit’s major transportation needs. Streetcars could be easily blocked by illegally parked cars, emergency vehicles, crashes and traffic jams. State data shows at least 30 vehicles collided with the QLINE from 2017 to 2021.
When the QLINE debuted, daily ridership was around 5,000, but riders quickly dropped off when they were asked to pay. The QLINE shut down in 2020 after office workers went remote and ridership hit record lows. The streetcars had 969 daily riders when service resumed in the final months of 2021.
Average daily ridership increased to 2,460 so far this year, which remains below pre-pandemic levels. Nationally, transit ridership is down 74% since before the pandemic. M-1 RAIL data showed monthly ridership was between 87% and 109% for the first four months of the year.
Usage surges during busy downtown events. Taylor Swift’s two-day concert visit this month brought 5,500 daily riders.
Nuszkowski said M-1 RAIL invested more than $900,000 to speed up the QLINE in the last two years. A dedicated transit-only lane was established outside Little Caesars Arena. Streetcars were equipped with technology to influence traffic signals, and M-1 RAIL gained the authority to tow vehicles improperly blocking the track. The ability to tow cars means the QLINE is averaging one vehicle blockage every five days, compared to daily blockages last year.
The goal is to have a streetcar arrive at any given stop every 15 minutes. So far this year, 72% of QLINE trips met the target, up from 64% during the same timeframe in 2022. Streetcars are hitting green lights at 80% of intersections along Woodward, compared to half of the time before the traffic signal prioritization technology was implemented.
“The vision for the QLINE was always for this to be the first leg of something that is bigger, that could serve more people in the city and the region,” she added. “The investments being made today keep the door open for those future development possibilities.”
Young professionals favor cities with reliable public transportation, which will be a major focus for a new state task force recommending population growth strategies. Stupka and Nuszkowski said transit is at the core of state-level conversations about making Michigan a better place to live.
“For us to be successful as a region, both to give the people who are here today what they need to get around and also to attract other people and businesses to be here, we need to have a robust public transit system,” Nuszkowski said.
Ranganath Kathawate, a 23-year-old Wayne State University student, said Detroit isn’t taken seriously as a post-graduation destination among his peers due to the lack of transit options.
“People my age are having trouble being sold on the idea of being in an area full of parking lots that’s car-dependent,” Kathawate said. “I’m thinking of leaving the state. I’ve grown up (in Michigan), but having a car is so expensive.”
Others question whether it makes sense to keep investing in a transportation system that serves a small portion of the city. The Federal Transit Administration estimates around 22,000 people live in the QLINE service area, which represents around 3% of Detroit’s population. The last decade added 3,246 more residents to census tracts on both sides of the route.
“Until you get density along the QLINE corridor, I don’t think it needs to expand, because you’ve got buses that do a better job of moving people faster up and down the avenue,” said David Gifford, a public transit advocate and creator of Transit Guide: Detroit.
Detroit People’s Platform, a racial and economic justice organization, has opposed expansion of the QLINE while calling for more investment in DDOT. They say the QLINE creates a separate system that serves the interests of wealthier, white downtown residents rather than Detroit’s poorer, majority-Black population.
A glimpse of ridership demographics are reflected in two recent M-1 Rail surveys. An online survey in the spring of 700 riders found half are white, while 25% are Black. An in-person survey in May of 300 QLINE riders found 58% of riders are Black and 25% are white.
The online survey found 54% of riders live in Detroit while the in-person survey found 78% of riders are Detroiters. Just under half of riders surveyed in May live in households that earn less than $25,000 per year. That survey found 38% of trips are work-related, 28% of riders use the QLINE daily and 78% of riders walk to the QLINE.
Grengs said transportation planners should realize investing in buses creates “the biggest bang for their buck.” It cost $7 for each passenger trip on the QLINE in 2019, according to the Federal Transportation Authority, compared to $5 for each trip on a DDOT bus.
The QLINE has a $9.9 million budget this year. Grengs said transit advocates worry about the QLINE competing for the public funds needed to run Detroit’s bus system.
The subsidy from state hospitality taxes helps soothe concerns about the QLINE siphoning city funds, Grengs said, but the tension between investing in Detroit’s under-resourced bus system versus the shinier streetcar system will be key to watch.
“No transit system is able to fund itself through fares, not even close,” Grengs said. “Free fares are keeping with my claim of thinking about (the QLINE) in terms of an economic development project because it’s serving a very specific purpose; it’s helping hotels and entertainment industries. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as it doesn’t end up taking resources away from the bus system.”
Connecting downtown to Midtown
Kathawate, the WSU student, said he didn’t bring a car when he moved downtown from Lake Orion last year to study medicine. He expected buses and streetcars would take him anywhere he needed to go. Kathawate said he bought a car within the first month.
Kathanwate, who lives a few blocks from Woodward and the Rosa Parks Transit Center, said unpredictable QLINE and city bus delays made him late for classes too many times.
“You’re wasting so much time planning for every negative occurrence that could happen,” Kathanwate said.
Timothy Mancill, a Detroiter with disabilities who lives in a shelter, said he uses the QLINE every day. Mancill said he appreciates the free fares and is more comfortable riding the QLINE compared to a city bus because the streetcar has air conditioning. However, the air was off when BridgeDetroit met Mancill on the QLINE last week.
Willie Key, who lives on Detroit’s west side, said he’s able to use the QLINE as a “connector” to DDOT buses, like the Dexter line that links up with the end of the route on Grand Boulevard. Still, Key said Detroit’s public transportation is “poor” and the QLINE is more for “sightseeing” than anything else.
A recent poll by the Gallup Center found 44% of Detroiters said access to convenient public transportation prevented them from finding or keeping a job.
A 2022 analysis by the Regional Transit Authority found Detroiters who lack experience or education required by major employers in the city can’t get to good-paying jobs in the suburbs. The report also found new employment sites in the city, like the Amazon fulfillment center on Woodward, aren’t universally accessible within a reasonable weekday transit trip.
Census data shows only 5% of Detroiters use public transit to get to their job. The average travel time for public transit users is 58 minutes, more than double the average commute by car (23 minutes). Public transit commuters are disproportionately Black and earn $10,000 less compared to drivers. One in five workers who use public transit are below the poverty line, according to the census.
The QLINE wasn’t meant to address those problems, said Robert Boyle, a professor of urban planning at Wayne State University. It was largely intended to spur development from downtown to Midtown after expensive plans for light rail, then a regional bus rapid transit network fell through.
Conversations on rail lines were revived after the 2006 Super Bowl in Detroit exposed the need for better mass transit. Detroit failed to secure federal funding for rail investment, and plans shifted to a privately funded streetcar. Boyle said there was virtually no leadership from public officials on regional transportation at the time.
“To give it some sort of policy heft, the whole conversation of linking Midtown to downtown got tied up in the conversation about regional transit,” Boyle said. “It wasn’t real, in my opinion. The reality was that a consortium of philanthropy, private sector players and institutions thought a light rail system would be the best way to promote the connection between downtown and what was bubbling along the Woodward corridor. That’s what they built.”
The QLINE connects residents to museums, storefronts, restaurants and entertainment venues while carrying students and workers to their obligations and giving visitors a novel experience.
An estimated $5.9 billion worth of investments are cataloged in a tracking document shared with BridgeDetroit, including restaurants, stores, offices, apartments, dog parks, and anchor projects like the Little Caesars Headquarters and Detroit Pistons Performance Center. Another $5.5 billion in projects are either under construction or projected to start in the next few years. The last decade added 3,246 more residents to census tracts on both sides of the route.
Nuszkowski said not all of the progress along Woodward can be attributed to the QLINE, but it gives developers a long-term expectation of residents being able to travel along the corridor.
A broader strategy
Stupka said he’s “in the beginning stages” pulling together partners in metro Detroit to seek federal funding for public transit initiatives. Stupka said they will need a compelling pitch to convince the Federal Transportation Authority on funding a regional project.
Expanding the QLINE is on the table, he said. Nuszkowski said the QLINE has demonstrated a need to expand and transportation providers are optimistic about the federal funding to support it.
“What all transit has going for us is an administration at the federal level that has been incredibly supportive of making these types of infrastructure investments,” Nuszkowski said. “The region is well-positioned to take advantage of funds.”
Transportation planners who spoke with BridgeDetroit said taking a swing at federal funding requires a rock-solid plan and consensus among providers and regional governments. It’s easier said than done.
“It’s not that we haven’t demonstrated a need; I feel like we don’t have a completely coherent vision,” Nuszkowski said. “The federal government is reluctant to support something that isn’t a part of a broader strategy.”
Southeast Michigan voters have also been reluctant to support funding for a broad regional transit strategy. In 2016, the RTA proposed a variation of bus rapid transit, commuter rail and express bus service to the Detroit Metropolitan Airport in Romulus. Voters across four counties narrowly rejected a proposal to fund the regional rapid transit plan with a new tax that would have generated $3 billion over two decades.
A majority of Detroit voters supported the RTA millage, but the plan drew strong opposition from voters in rural areas and other places not served by the proposed bus service. It ultimately failed by less than one percentage point. Voters in Wayne and Washtenaw counties were in support, while Oakland and Macomb counties voted against.
Rejection of the plan was a major setback, but transportation advocates are encouraged by voters in Oakland and Macomb counties passing a transit millage to expand regional bus service and prevent local communities from opting out.
“We’re really starting to see some of those forces coalescing, it’s just really about bringing it all together and developing a unified vision,” Nuszkowski said.
Stupka said the RTA will “dust off” and modernize planning documents created for the 2016 regional transit plan as a starting point. State law requires the RTA to introduce ballot proposals during November elections in even-numbered years. Stupka said it’s unclear whether the RTA will go back to voters with a millage request next year.
“We need more funding in the region, end of story,” Stupka added. “However, being able to pull together a regional ballot initiative to increase that funding is politically very difficult.”
Stupka said future projects must be integrated with the QLINE, but substantial changes are needed if the streetcars can travel greater distances at higher speeds. That includes creating more dedicated transit-only lanes.
“You’d have to make some adjustments to the existing QLINE to make it make sense as a regional transit option whose purpose is to be competitive with an auto trip,” Stupka said.
Woodward remains the busiest route for Detroit Department of Transportation fixed-route buses. The RTA also runs buses from the suburbs to downtown Detroit along the QLINE route.
Stupka said the RTA has found success with incremental progress toward goals like consolidating the way riders pay for fares across different systems, electrifying buses and micromobility projects in commercial corridors. Since the millage failed, the RTA secured an express bus service between Detroit and Ann Arbor using limited grant funds. Stupka said another $1.6 million federal grant will help upgrade metro Detroit bus shelters.
Boyle said focusing on smaller projects that serve densely populated areas is the opposite of regional transportation. The QLINE’s failure to connect to Detroit’s central bus terminal, he said, shows how past projects lacked a strong commitment to improve regional transportation. That leaves him skeptical of any future efforts to create a connected system.
“A continuing vacuum of leadership has not properly forged the necessary connections,” Boyle said. “To get the different players all around the table requires enormous heavy lifting in public policy, which we have never seen.”
Editor’s Note: This story was updated on June 28, 2023, with survey data provided by M-1 RAIL.