QLine ridership down 40% after free period ended

Shawn D. Lewis, and Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — Ridership on the QLine is down to 60 percent of what it was before free rides ended earlier this month.

There was an average of about 3,000 daily rides between Sept. 5-17, compared to 5,000 daily rides during the free period that went through Labor Day. There had been a daily ridership high of about 5,500 in August, according to M-1 Rail spokesman Dan Lijana.

And the streetcars appear to be only collecting from less than half of the fares from riders, prompting consideration for tougher enforcement.

“We’re in the area of about 40 percent, but we don’t know exactly right now,” Lijana said. “However, according to the Federal Transportation Administration, the average collection rate for streetcars is only 35 percent nationally, so we’re actually above average.”

Lijana said QLine ambassadors on the streetcars and at stations have helped with fares being paid but stronger measures might be necessary.

“There is an increase in the amount of people paying when ambassadors are there,” he said. “We may see more of a transition to enforcement with transit police regarding all ordinances.”

Ambassadors originally were positioned on board for the first two weeks after the free rides ended to help riders adjust to paying fares. But Lijana said they’ve decided to extend the ambassador program.

Does that mean riders are boarding the streetcars without paying?

Not necessarily, Lijana said.

“We’ve only been in revenue service for two weeks, so we don’t know with what frequency passengers with day passes, monthly passes or yearly passes are riding on any given day, and it will take time to understand that data,” Lijana said.

“For example, they’re using the same ticket; it’s not like they get a new piece of paper each time they board.”

The QLine uses an automated passenger counter to calculate its ridership levels. The technology uses body heat on the streetcar among other things to determine riders on board.

A single pass provides three hours for $1.50. A day pass costs $3, a monthly pass is $30 and an annual pass, which allows unlimited rides through Dec. 31, costs $112.

The regular annual pass for an entire year costs $285. Seniors and the disabled can purchase a three-hour fare for 75 cents.

“We’re encouraging riders to download the mobile app because it allows for all fares, use of a credit card and the ability to activate a pass when they want to use it,” he said.

Lijana explained some of the issues involves more education about what is and is not permitted.

“Like no food or drink, no animals allowed on board except service animals, etc.” he said.

He also said the drop-off in ridership was not unexpected.

“We anticipated some drop-off, and we found that to be the case in every city that makes this transition,” Lijana said. “We did not have a specific number in terms of daily ridership, but we do expect it to gradually climb back up.”

He cited three reasons for that expectation.

“As service continues to become faster and more reliable, we should see more daily commuters,” he said.

He also expects to attract a larger after work crowd. Ridership was highest between 11 a.m. and 4-p.m. Monday through Saturday during the free rides.

“Now since the revenue service began, we see our highest ridership between 4 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.,” Lijana said.

The third reason was the opening of the Little Caesars Arena.

“They have about 300 event days over the course of a year,” he said. “And we just opened up the southbound stop in front of the arena about two weeks ago.”

M-1 Rail began operating the service in May, and more than 500,000 riders have used it since then, officials say.

Among them is Omar Farooqui, 29, of Windsor, who works in Detroit as an accountant. Farooqui said he didn't ride the QLine much when it was free and probably won't after a few experiences paying for it.

"It's not efficient and not as fast as I want it to be," Farooqui said Thursday.

Brandon Treets, 29 of Detroit, said he wasn't surprised fewer riders were hopping on board.

"I pay for the monthly pass, and I receive a Q reader barcode and they check to see if I have it, but they never scan it," Treets said. "I'm sure a lot of people still think it's free."

Zorreh Doosti, also 29 of Detroit who works at Wayne State, said she has seen fewer passengers after the free rides stopped.

"I have a discount through the app, and there's a person who checks it every time I get on. They usually check every person before moving forward, and it does take time to do so," Doosti said.

The QLine operates 6 a.m. -11 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 6 a.m.-midnight on Fridays, 8 a.m.-midnight on Saturdays and 8 a.m.-8 p.m. on Sundays.

The QLine is a 6.6-mile circulating streetcar route servicing 12 locations on Woodward Avenue from downtown Detroit through Midtown, New Center and the North End.

(313) 222-2296