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

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

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.

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.

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Kevin Grand
Tue, 04/02/2019 - 4:50am

"... but usage is still well short of expectations, records obtained by Bridge Magazine show."

Yep, that pretty much sums up why they want to shift the tab to the people who don't ride it.

Tue, 04/02/2019 - 8:16am

What??? Not making projections? Mass trans vomiting red ink? This must be a shock for Ned Staebler in next commentary that so many public enterprises fail. It's great that he is placed right after this report.

Luke Lee
Tue, 04/02/2019 - 8:43am

It gets a bad rap most of the time, but I actually use the QLine quite frequently on weekends and during events. Rather than pay for parking downtown, I park for free in New Center or North End, walk to a QLine stop, buy a pass and head into downtown or midtown. It's also fairly packed whenever I've been riding. I'm not saying it doesn't have its issues (e.g. it should've been built center-running only), but I do ride it a lot more than I thought I would.

I think as residential and business population grows along the Woodward corridor, as well as more events/conferences/conventions land in Detroit, ridership will eventually reach operators' expectations.

Lukas Lee
Tue, 04/02/2019 - 11:00am

Also, despite its problems, average daily ridership increased by 10% in a single year (2017-2018). That is pretty impressive for any type of transit service in Metro Detroit.

Le Roy G. Barnett
Tue, 04/02/2019 - 8:45am

This enterprise was oversold from the start. Figures were inflated to win approval for the project, and the numbers will never be realized in the real world.

Tue, 04/02/2019 - 11:36am

Have you ever seen a project that didn't overstate its goals? Like 'tax cuts always pay for themselves', for example? Cite a project where they met the goals stated BEFORE the project was approved.

Bernard H.
Tue, 04/02/2019 - 12:08pm

Ridership should include the hundreds (perhaps thousands?) of Quicken and associated companies employees who park in lots and garages in New Center, a block away from the Q Line stop at Grand Blvd. Instead, there is a fleet of polluting buses that drive them downtown and back. If Gilbert would stop paying for these buses and instead focus on making the Q Line a viable option of his own employees, it might benefit more Detroiters and the Q Line's operation generally.

My most recent Q Line trip involved waiting 15 minutes for a car in the lane a block from the station, the PA announcing the incorrect stations, but an officer asking for our tickets as soon as we boarded the car.

Tue, 04/02/2019 - 3:35pm

Perhaps you should compare the ridership on those buses with the streetcar before you try to vilify their existence.

Tue, 04/02/2019 - 4:24pm

I believe the buses being referred to are the private shuttles which are contracted by Quicken and not the SMART or DDOT buses.

Bernard H.
Tue, 04/02/2019 - 4:27pm

@WK, I don't have reams of data to support my comment, but I drive behind and past full buses five mornings a week getting on to the Lodge. I have also, on occasion, taken the Q downtown on a weekday morning. In all my observations, there are many more people on the many more buses than there are on the few Q trains.

And I'm not trying to vilify the buses, I'm simply saying that it's unnecessarily redundant to pay for buses, when there is a solution right there that is both greener, doesn't add traffic to the roads, and doesn't have an incremental cost. And while we're on the subject of buses, a system of Bus Rapid Transit, rather than the Q Line, would have yielded more effective public transit for more people at a lower cost.

All of that said, I am hopeful for the Q Line's future. We need more interconnected public transit options to reduce the need for acres of parking and a disconnected system of private transportation. I'd love to the see the region make a huge commitment to this by supporting the creation and ample of funding of the RTA. People will use transit options that are effective. Let's call these three miles of the Q Line a pilot project and learn some lessons to inform future transit planning. The follow on investments in transit will be better for it.

Thu, 04/04/2019 - 8:09am

I agree with Bernard H., Gilbert should put his employees on the QLine. The privately owned transportation vehicles, not city buses, that sit on W Grand Blvd and Cass waiting to take employees downtown create more congestion and confusion then necessary. Gilbert's employees should walk a block in a different direction and catch one of Quicken Loans QLine street cars down to their offices. Maybe the timing and efficiency of the QLine would improve if employees were constantly late. Dan Gilbert and Rock Ventures CEO, Matt Cullen both sit on the board for QLine. Hard to understand why they don't encourage their employees to ride the streetcar they so heavily invested in. sorry for the rant.

Thu, 04/04/2019 - 8:15am

I agree with Bernhard H. Why aren't Gilbert's employees that park in the Cass garage (Cass\Milwaukee) taking the QLine? Both Gilbert and Rock Ventures CEO Matt Cullen both sit on the QLine board of directors. The privately owned, contracted employee buses that park on around the garage waiting for passengers to take downtown cause congestion and confusion, not to mention the pollution. The employees should walk to a QLine station a block away and ride the QLine their bosses oversee. Makes me wonder why they aren't encouraged by their employer to ride the QLine.

Fri, 04/05/2019 - 10:57am

I guess the new Detroit sport is to damn the Quicken employees, they were force to move downtown to work for the betterment of Detroit, they should be forced to take the Q for the betterment of Detroit. Anyone so selfish as to live outside of Detroit should be double damned until they are moving to Detroit so they can be blamed for the 'gentrification'.
You will get your way because Dan Gilbert cares more about his Detroit image than he does about Quicken employees, so whine a bit more, belittle Gilbert or Quicken a bit more, make it just about the selfish employees and how it is only pennies more [and even through in it would save Quicken a few bucks] and in a matter of months Q will boost their ridership and the employees will be buying heavy coasts and rain gear for that short walk to the Q.

Wed, 04/10/2019 - 9:46am

I doubt Quicken employees were "forced" to move downtown to work for the betterment of Detroit. Don't fool yourself. Its a business. Gilbert saw an opportunity to make money and did it. Good for him. This isn't about the selfish employees. It"s about their boss who sponsored a private transportation system, that will go on the public dime in a few years, whose employees don't ride his street car. Would Quicken employees melt in the rain? Gilbert has done a lot for Detroit. But don't forget the big picture. He wouldn't be doing any of this if it wasn't profitable.

Wed, 04/03/2019 - 8:00am

Perhaps to integrate both the People Mover and Qline with Smart and DDOT, offering a $1 two-hour ticket good only on the QLine and People Mover, or a $2 four-hour ticket good on all four. That may require new fare boxes for the QLine and People Mover, but would be worth it to facilitate easier movement among the different systems.

Wed, 04/03/2019 - 2:50pm

The "Gentrification Express" is the joke of all jokes!! A total waste of federal tax funds!!

Thu, 04/04/2019 - 8:36am

I love the QLine but wait times are really long. Two weeks ago I had to wait 15 minutes, this seems excessively long.

Ida Byrd-Hill
Thu, 04/04/2019 - 9:17am

Qline has never discussed being a part of the transfer system. In fact I mentioned it early in the discussions and got disinvited from the following meetings. The 8000 rider goal a day was low so not to even get to 50% is a waste of public money that went into that deal. That line was built to propagate racism in transit not to bolster an economy. Please note: bus riders, like me, know this and have refused to ride it. When a public good is built to exclude the bulk of the people it should serve, it has no choice but to fail.

M. Whelan
Fri, 04/05/2019 - 12:18am

So the total yearly ridership in 2018 was up from the partial year in 2017... How exciting!
Ridership is only 50% of projected numbers...I wonder if the same planners and number crunchers were the people saying the bus line that failed to get approved, you know the one they wanted the people where it didn't serve to pay for it, I wonder what those numbers would have been...Would a full 12 month tally have more than an 8 month tally?

Thu, 11/21/2019 - 3:34pm

One of Detroit's worst habits is always thinking that doing something half-assed is better than not at all. This was a bad design from the start: slow, slower, unreliable, short, and stops at lights (what modern mass transit system does that?!). Instead, start over, build elevated or below ground (talk to the Boring Company maybe?) to do the real deal, and only build what's affordable each year. It doesn't matter if it takes a long time to have things up and running, but do it right: plan 10, 30, 50 years out, take advice from the brightest minds on earth in planning, and take from a combination of the best transit systems on earth (NOT just the US, as ours are all outdated), and improve upon them.