Opinion: Detroit can still make transit succeed
Last week, Detroit’s QLine streetcar was heralded a failure — ridership is only at 2,490 each day, far below its promise of 5,000 to 8,000 daily users. But the QLine is only failing because the city set it up to fail. The QLine can still succeed if Mayor Mike Duggan indicates that he wants it to do well. Duggan must give the line’s existing riders — plus future riders — the support they need to have confidence in public transportation rather than in their private cars.
Before considering the problems, let’s consider the success: 2,490 people each day. That’s 2,490 people every day who otherwise would have added their private cars or their for-hire Ubers and Lyfts to clogged streets during the rush hour — or poorer people who wouldn’t have attempted to come to work at all, because the hassle and cost of trying to get to a low-wage job wouldn’t have been worth it. Even at just 2,490 riders each day, the streetcar up and down Woodward Avenue — through the heart of the densest area of Detroit — is moving customers who would have no other practical way to get around.
But why aren’t more Detroit residents and visitors taking the QLine? After all, Detroit’s bus system provides 100,000 rides a day — serving more than 1 out of 7 Detroit residents, many of whom don’t have a private car on which to rely. Observers can watch any standing-room-only bus go by and see that there’s plenty of demand for public transit. And the QLine serves the densest parts of the city, from the river to downtown to the museum district to nearby semi-suburban housing.
The answer is simple: although the Obama, Duggan, and Snyder administrations focused on the construction costs of getting the streetcar up and running ahead of its 2017 launch, they did not focus on the operating challenges and costs.
First: how to get people on board? The QLine, at $1.50 a ride or $3 a day, offers a reasonable fare. Yet, good luck trying to pay the fare — most of the on-street fare-payment kiosks are already broken. A would-be rider who wishes to board must fumble — during many months, given the Detroit weather, in the rain, snow, and cold – with a screen underneath a station shelter that, after many minutes of trying, informs the would-be user that the system is not working.
Yes, there is an app — but asking first-time and casual riders, after they have once tried and failed to pay their fare, to try twice — downloading an app and then painstakingly entering their credit-card information on their phones — is going to send many would-be riders to Uber and Lyft. It is inexcusable — for a system built in 2017 — that the QLine does not offer instant credit-card payment onboard.
OK — but what if you’ve either gotten lucky with the streetside kiosks, or figured out the app? Then, it’s time to wait for the QLine to arrive — again, oftentimes in the cold and wet. The sign on the streetcar-stop board may say that the train is arriving imminently — but it doesn’t. Despite the promise of streetcars spaced 8 minutes apart, the streetcar often arrives only once every 20 minutes or so. That means if you’ve just missed one, it makes far more sense — for anyone with the financial option — to simply give up, and summon an Uber or Lyft. For reliable transit to succeed, it must arrive every three minutes — which means greater investment both in equipment and operating costs.
Well, but — you’ve managed both to pay and to withstand the wait — and boarded the QLine. Then, what happens? The streetcar must wait in traffic with other cars, most of which only have one occupant. Even with low ridership, the QLine streetcar generally carries at least 15 or 20 people — who then must wait behind a single driver in an SUV who is taking up the streetcar lane. Though Woodward has four clear lanes, the city did not allow the QLine its own right of way — meaning that people who choose this transit option must wait behind people who choose to contribute to traffic to get to where they are going.
The bottom line is that the QLine can succeed — but it needs a reset.
First, its private-sector benefactors should declare a four-month holiday from the fares, just as when the streetcar first launched operations — and just in time for baseball season, and for the streetcar to take travelers from downtown hotels to the ballpark.
Second, the QLine should install credit-card payment infrastructure onboard, with options for people who don’t have credit cards to pre-pay their fares at shops alongside the route.
Third, the streetcar should benefit from its own right-of-way, with riders not stuck between car and SUV drivers along the avenue.
Why should Detroit care whether the QLine succeeds or not? It’s simple: Detroit has many advantages as it rebuilds from its 2013 bankruptcy, including hospitable weather, abundant fresh water, insuperable arts and culture, and an educated suburban populace.
But the fact remains: no global city succeeds without mass transit. From San Francisco to London, with New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Washington in between, city residents and visitors want to get around without having to spend upwards of $500 a month on their own private cars or on for-hire rides.
The QLine, to be sure, is a modest start in building a 21st-century transit system. But it is, at least, a good start. Detroit can still build on this start to rebuild its tax base and population, rather than giving up on it.
Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.