The $140 million QLine light rail system will connect Campus Martius in downtown Detroit to the city's New Center. The QLine features three-piece streetcars that are each 66 feet long and can carry an average of 125 passengers per car. The project was led by private businesses and philanthropic organizations in partnership with local, state and the federal government. Carlos Osorio/AP

The QLine is hardly mass transit.

Detroit’s mass transit system—an insufficient network of buses and the People Mover, a mostly useless closed-loop monorail in the central business district—can be considered paltry at best. In the birthplace of the automobile, freeways remain king.

Last week, with the christening of a 3.3-mile streetcar confined to the city’s rapidly developing core, Detroit did nothing to help the underserved and instead joined the growing ranks of American cities enamored with mostly empty streetcars financed by developers and businesses who stand to gain from such projects—instead of investing in equitable transportation that serves residents who need it most.

“I spent 12 years riding the bus and I will definitely tell you that yes the bus system is terrible,” says 33-year-old David Porter, a lifelong Detroiter and vice president of the West Evergreen Block Club in the city’s Brightmoor neighborhood. “And the amount of money they spent on this train could have been spent so many other places.”

The $180 million tab was picked up through a mix of public and private funds, from auto mogul Roger Penske to the U.S. Department of Transportation. And the city’s glittery new streetcar—originally called the M-1 before Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert bought the naming rights for $5 million and renamed it the QLine (though residents still call it both)—has been heralded as part of the city’s “revitalization.” It’s hoped that the line will help spur development along Woodward Avenue, the city’s main artery. Part of the puzzle as the city, boosters will tell you, rises from the ashes.

But, it’s been proven, time and again that streetcars are usually about as helpful as toy trains when it comes to serving as a transit option for city residents that need to get around. (Nearly 40 percent of Detroit’s population is impoverished and 26 percent of households don’t have access to a car.) “Transportation objectives were largely afterthoughts” to economic development and tourism, claims a 2015 study that examined modern streetcars in five American cities, from Portland to Little Rock. Portland, the study found, is “the clear standout performer with the highest ridership and service productivity.” And it’s no coincidence that city leaders and developers promoting or soliciting streetcars in their city often point to The Rose City as the model. But Portland, where the streetcar functions as actual transit, is the exception, not the future. Or, as Gizmodo put it, “the success of Portland’s streetcar sparked a wave of copycats in the US.”

“In most cities,” the study continues, “private sector actors from the local development and downtown business communities as well as streetcar advocacy groups were the key forces behind streetcar implementation and that these actors did so in order to use the streetcar primarily to achieve development goals.”

It’s no different in Detroit, where Gilbert has remade Downtown Detroit in his own image. An M-1-commissioned report didn’t even attempt to underplay Gilbert’s systematic land hoarding. It unironically highlighted it as an asset:

“The QLINE is going to have more of an effect than anybody believes,” said Dan Gilbert, the Quicken Loans founder and chairman who has acquired more than 95 properties near the QLINE footprint since moving Quicken Loans downtown from Livonia in 2010. His company secured naming rights for the rail line and is also a station sponsor.

Champions of the streetcar will be quick to say that Gilbert invested his money in much-needed transit (not, say, to increase the value of his “more than 95 properties near the QLine footprint”). But that misses the point that the QLine—which will run north from the city’s central business district past Comerica Park (where the Detroit Tigers play), make a quick stop at the publicly-funded Red Wings hockey arena (which opens this fall thanks to $284 million taxpayer dollars), before ending at Grand Boulevard in the New Center neighborhood—is not, in its current state, mass transit. It’s a marketing vehicle that will mostly shuttle suburbanites from parking lots and bars to concerts and sporting events and a few Quicken employees from their apartments just north of the city center to work. It’s also slow—so slow that all competitors in the rogue “Race the QLine 5K” literally outran it on Sunday. Besides, there’s already a bus route that runs exactly where the QLine does.

The project could, however, be a boon for local developers who have been snatching up land along Woodward Avenue for years. “More than $7 billion in new investment has poured into or is planned for 211 development projects on either side of the streetcar’s path since 2013,” the QLine commissioned study points out. “When a $25 million federal grant sealed a unique public-private partnership to jump-start mass transit in a Detroit region that had long resisted it.” 

“The argument for streetcars as economic development has been made in every American city that talked itself into one—it’s the first thing that is in all of the QLine’s literature.” (Carlos Osorio)

But, bars, restaurants, and taxpayer funded arenas notwithstanding, as Jalopnik notes, it’s doomed to fail financially from the outset: “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.”

It didn’t have to be this way. After years of nonexistent regional transit, Metro Detroit had a real opportunity to make some real progress. Last fall, a ballot proposal that would have funded the fledgling Regional Transit Authority Of Southeast Michigan (RTA) to the tune of $4.6 million over 20 years was rejected narrowly by voters, with the biggest opposition coming in Macomb County (the same county that helped put President Trump in the White House).

At the heart of the millage proposal was the RTA’s master plan. Which, as its name suggests, is a master plan for transit in southeast Michigan: Bus Rapid Transit in Detroit’s heavily trafficked corridors (a superior and far more equitable alternative to a streetcar without a dedicated lane), metro rail between Ann Arbor and Detroit, buses that actually connect the suburbs to the city, as well as the QLine. It made sense and, after years of missteps, was the region’s first real plan for some form of cohesive, robust, and equitable transit. The RTA can put the millage back on the ballot in 2018.

By then perhaps Metro Detroiters attitudes will have changed about transit. There’s a chance it could help change and influence behaviors which can turn up at the ballot box.

“If you can get a constituency of people to get on transit and build that interest in developing a fully regional transit system,” Francis Grunow, a native Detroiter and member of the Corridors Alliance, a local community group that works to foster equitable development in the city’s core, says. “To make this more robust. To make this a bigger impact. You could reasonably argue QLine could help do that as well.”

The argument for streetcars as economic development has been made in every American city that talked itself into one—it’s the first thing that is in all of the QLine’s literature. But in Detroit, where cars rule, it could actually serve a higher purpose: to convince people that transit is a good thing, even though the QLine in its current iteration is more of an amusement park ride than actual equitable transit.

“We haven’t seen this kind of thing in a long time,” Grunow says. “It’s sad in a way that we’re building a redundant system. DDOT [the city’s bus system] does more or less the same thing. But fundamentally, the M-1 looks different. This will hopefully accelerate our want and our desire for more. There’s lot of good reasons to critique it and ask hard questions about it. We love to make these things into silver bullets—and it’s just not. The M-1 is not going to solve our transit problems by any stretch. But we need things to give people options so that people can start thinking about this place in more than just cars and no cars.”

In the meantime, David Porter doesn’t seem to be in too huge a rush to take a ride on the QLine. “If I have the time, yeah, I’ll try it,” he said last week, laughing. “It’s just like with the People Mover. You don’t really have to have a destination—you just get on it to ride it."

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