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QLine well short of ridership goals and plagued by delays in Detroit

Last Friday, Detroit’s QLine streetcar snarled traffic on Woodward Avenue after a fender bender blocked its tracks.

That’s typical, said Timothy Robinson, 69, who lives downtown and rides the QLine often. He’s had to get off the QLine several times and catch a bus when the QLine stopped for cars parked in the streetcar lane.

Robinson said he blames the problems with stoppages on drivers who still aren’t used to sharing the road with the streetcar.

“I see cars cut off the QLine trying to get into the McDonalds,” he said Monday morning while riding the streetcar.  “It’s people’s fault, not the QLine.”

Two years into operations, the 3.3 mile-spur up Woodward Avenue from downtown to the North End is still earning mixed reviews. Ridership is up and crashes are down, but usage is still well short of expectations, records obtained by Bridge Magazine show.

Last year was the first full year riders were required to pay for tickets, and the QLine had 1.2 million riders, an average of about 3,280 riders per day.

That’s up from 2,700 average daily riders in 2017, but still not even half of the 8,000 officials expected when it debuted, according to data from the M-1 RAIL, which operates the QLine streetcar.

In 2018, Detroit’s QLine streetcar had 1.2 million rides, or about 3,200 riders per day. That’s up from about 2,700 in 2017 but on its best days, the QLine only has half of the expected riders

And just when the QLine could use a boost in ridership, the streetcar was not included in a new transit pass that starts May 1 to make it easier for bus riders to transfer between city and suburban bus lines.

Created as much as a business development tool as a means of public transit, QLine operations are privately funded by Detroit businesses. But the streetcar still received $37 million in federal funds and $10 million from state money for construction.

Boosters say ridership will still grow as the city’s comeback continues.

“QLine is a catalyst for new investment and the increases in ridership are in part attributable to greater residential density throughout the Woodward Corridor and the increased activity happening on a daily basis, Dan Lijana, spokesman for M-1 RAIL wrote in an email to Bridge.

“As more residents and businesses choose to locate on or near the QLine, we expect ridership to continue to grow.”

Encouraging trends

Records from the M-1 RAIL group show:

  • Since September 2017, when four months of introductory free rides ended, average daily ridership increased nearly 10 percent in 2018 compared to 2017.
  • Daily ridership averaged nearly 4,000 from June through August.
  • Almost all riders buy the three-hour pass; annual and monthly passes accounted for less than 2 percent of pass sales.
  • Traffic accidents involving the QLINE dropped to an average of three per month in 2018 from four per month in 2017.
  • Stoppages also fell to four per week in 2018 from five in 2017, delaying service by an average of 20 minutes.

Friday’s stoppage popped up on the QLine Twitter feed to alert riders about the car accident on the tracks. Car accidents and parked cars on the tracks are a problem M-1 RAIL can’t solve by itself, Lijana said.

“While we’ve reduced the number of vehicle blockages and cars parking over the white line, it’s still too time consuming to remove cars blocking the QLine,” Lijana said.

“Streamlining the city’s towing procedure would greatly reduce rider delays and we continue working with the City to bring a better process to fruition.”

Private donations that subsidize operations will continue until 2027. After that, officials hope to transfer oversight of the QLine to the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan, a government group formed to improve mass transit.

Perception on the streetcar is split, said Megan Owens, executive director for Transportation Riders United advocacy group.

“There are people who think it was a waste and there are a lot of people who were really excited about it and do really enjoy it,” she said. “I’ve heard from a variety of people who were in town visiting and found it a great way to get around.”

Shut out of pass

Growing ridership may be more difficult for the QLine, though, as it was shut out of a new perk for transit riders in Detroit

Next month, the suburban SMART bus line and Detroit Department of Transportation will offer a new $2, four-hour pass that will allow bus riders to transfer seamlessly between the two bus lines.

When the QLine was introduced, officials promised a universal pass would be available for riders to move from the streetcar to buses. But the QLine is not part of the new transit pass and officials aren’t really saying why.

Mark De La Vergne, chief mobility officer for the city of Detroit,  said the city is in talks to work with the QLine.

“Making changes to fare policy and operations is a very complex process. In order to ensure as smooth a rollout as possible, we made the decision to focus solely on the two agencies with the most amount of transfers and interactions,” he said in a text to Bridge.

“We are continuing to discuss with QLine how to further integrate their policies and operations with DDOT and SMART.”

Shelley Washington said the change can’t come fast enough.

Washington typically rides the city bus every morning to take her two daughters, ages six and 10, to school.

She and her daughters got on the QLine on Monday for the first time.

At every stop, the familiar voice of Carmen Harlan, a longtime TV anchorwoman, was heard over the speaker announcing the name of the station.

The ride was clean, peaceful and not as stressful as the bus where riders and drivers can get testy from overcrowding, she said.

Washington said she would ride the QLine more often if she could transfer for free from the bus.

“We got on today because we just wanted to do something different,” she said.


By Chastity Pratt Dawsey | Detroit Journalism Cooperative | Bridge Magazine

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