QLine has fewer riders than expected, report says

Nicquel Terry, and Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Detroit — Nearly a year after the QLine debuted with much fanfare, a new report released Wednesday shows the streetcar system served less than half the riders it expected to attract.

M-1 Rail representatives had predicted the line would average about 5,000 daily riders between Sept. 5, 2017, and Sept. 5, 2018 — the first full year of customers paying — after riders enjoyed a summer of free fares following its May 2017 debut.

Once passengers had to pay for passes to use the route — which serves 12 locations on Woodward Avenue — after Labor Day, totals dropped as much as 40 percent in the weeks that followed. The report released Wednesday by M-1 Rail, which oversees the system, shows the route averaged 4,660 daily rides through October, then 2,700 between November and March.

Transit leaders in Detroit say it’s no surprise that ridership numbers didn’t meet predictions. During the cold winter months, a lower ridership is expected, and the QLine still needs time to grow, officials say.

A Q-line street car cruises northbound on Woodward Ave.**The one-year anniversary of the QLine and the revival of streetcars across the country. I will be riding the QLine to talk to riders coming and retuning., April 30, 2018, Detroit, Mi. (Clarence Tabb Jr./The Detroit News)

M-1 Rail president and CEO Matt Cullen said system operators also have spent the first year resolving issues to improve the QLine experience.

For example, Cullen said they have educated the public on avoiding parking on the QLine tracks and ensuring snow isn’t getting plowed onto the QLine path. The QLine also extended its hours of operation at the beginning of this year.

“The ridership is ramping up with the warmer weather,” Cullen said in an email. “That’s a trend we expect to continue. From an operations standpoint, we are making improvements that will lead to greater ridership.”

Cullen said there are no immediate plans for expanding the QLine, but his office is open to discussions about creating new connections. Major employers on the QLine route have expressed interest in bulk ticket purchases for employees, he said.

Revenue for the QLine, which with money from private, local, state and federal sources, has received enough funding to last through 2022, also fell short of projections.

According to the analysis: “First-year revenue projections come close to the $1.2 million target with just under $1 million in through mid-April, and this number is fully expected to go up with projected increases in ridership.”

From September through April, revenue at the fare box brought in $417,050, the report found. System expenses totaled $5.8 million for the first year.

Overall, the QLine system had 1.3 million riders through last month, when average daily ridership climbed 52 percent compared to March, according to the report.

Mario Morrow, a spokesman for the Regional Transit Authority, said the authority expects QLine ridership to increase as the city continues to develop.

“Any time you have a project like this, you like to have high expectations. And when you don’t meet those expectations, you just work hard to meet them in the future,” Morrow said. “It’s about timing and people coming into the Midtown and downtown area to participate in the multiple activities, such as the sporting venues and all the new restaurants that are popping up.”

QLine operators attributed the drop in ridership since October to the winter season, saying a decline was “expected in a city where winter brings temperatures below zero — not to mention 31 inches of snow in one month.”

The study’s authors also noted that other cold cities, such as Kansas City and Cincinnati, saw similar ridership dips in winter months.

“When ridership numbers were broken down between the warmer months and the colder months, Detroit’s numbers were roughly equivalent to other cities,” the report said. “On the QLINE, 64 percent of the first year’s ridership occurred during the warmer months, compared to 65 percent in Kansas City, 58 percent in Washington, D.C., and 71 percent in Cincinnati.”

Megan Owens, executive director of Transportation Riders United, said she believes ridership on the QLine will continue to grow as more people realize its convenience for commuting in downtown and Midtown. However, the system faces some challenges, she noted.

Owens said it will never be a fast system because it operates on a shared roadway with traffic. So expanding it north on Woodward would be a tough sell to riders who need to get places quickly, she said.

The lack of a mass transit system in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties also limits ridership, Owens said. If the region had a system in place, those riders would more likely use the QLine when they arrived downtown.

“It’s hard for the QLine to be hugely successful ridership-wise without more rapid transit connecting to it,” Owens said. “That limits its usefulness.”

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans unveiled a 20-year regional transit proposal in March that needs voters to approve a $5.4 billion tax later this year. It included commuter rail service connecting Ann Arbor and Detroit and 15 new express regional bus routes connecting major destinations across the Wayne, Oakland, Washtenaw and Macomb counties.

It’s designed to replace a smaller regional mass transit master plan voters narrowly rejected on the 2016 ballot. That $4.6 billion millage failed 50.5 percent to 49.5 percent. Washtenaw and Wayne counties favored the millage, Oakland County voters were split and Macomb County strongly rejected it.

Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson has publicly opposed plans for the transit millage. He also wasn’t optimistic about the QLine’s future.

“I’d say to all these transit advocates, proceed at your own peril,” Patterson said through his spokesman, Bill Mullan, on Wednesday. “The People Mover never hit its stride; how many more examples do we need?”

Robert Buente of Los Angeles was in Detroit for the Urban Land Institute meeting at the Cobo Center this week and took the QLine to visit the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Buente said he experienced a 20-minute wait, few passengers and not much available seating on the streetcar.

“I noticed there was really nobody on the train,” said Buente, an affordable housing developer. “And I’m wondering does this train go where people want to go? There are some (train) lines in L.A. that have taken years to develop.”

Adrienne Street said the QLine provides the perfect setup.

She takes a SMART bus from Mount Clemens to downtown Detroit, catches the QLine at Congress and gets off near her job at the DMC Hutzel Women’s Hospital every day.

Street, 26, said her only concern is QLine streetcars getting delayed by increased traffic and pedestrians during the summer months.

“I really love the QLine,” said Street, a housekeeper at the hospital. “I typically catch the QLine every single day I have to work. ... It’s always on time, and even if they have a lot of people, they always have the police come on and assist, so there are never really any problems.”

Khalil Rahal, an assistant Wayne County executive who specializes in transit issues, is hopeful the QLine’s ridership numbers grow.

“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,” Rahal said.

“If you look at QLine’s impact holistically, it demonstrates the overall benefits of transit, particularly with economic impact. With a very good four-county plan out there now for community input, the more we are talking about transit in this region, the better.”

QLine officials say the system isn’t all about numbers. The report’s authors cite its operating partner, Transdev, which employs a diverse team about 50 people, and an estimated $7 billion in economic impact they say “has helped bring Woodward Avenue to life, serving as a catalyst for investment and bringing new optimism for a regional transit system.”

The streetcars connect visitors to top cultural attractions and “are expected to bring in another $60 million in federal funds for construction of the next regional transportation project that connects” with the line, researchers wrote.

“The QLine is a testament to what we can do together — the people of Detroit, business, government, philanthropy,” said Rip Rapson, president and CEO of the Kresge Foundation, a key supporter, in a statement.

“When we began this quest more than a decade ago, it was far from assured that we would ever see streetcars return to the Woodward Corridor after two generations. And here we are, providing more than a million rides a year and driving the core city’s resurgence.”


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Twitter: @NicquelTerry