How Detroit’s Streetcar Overlooked Real Transit Needs to Satisfy a Well-Connected Few

Photo:  A Healthier Michigan
Photo: A Healthier Michigan

When Detroit’s QLine streetcar opened last year, the timing was awkward to say the least.

Just a few months prior, voters in the Detroit region had narrowly sided against a ballot measure to fund a cohesive regional transit system. That left Detroiters with the same threadbare bus network that struggles to provide the basics of transit service, and no immediate prospects for improvement.

Enter the shiny $140 million QLine, serving a few thousand riders each day on a short, 3.3-mile downtown route.

Boosters had touted its economic development benefits (they claim it has spurred $7 billion in nearby development), but the Detroit streetcar, like most new streetcars, does little to address the region’s major transit shortcomings. It simply doesn’t serve that many people. Ridership dropped about 40 percent, to 3,000 trips per day, after the streetcar started charging a $1.50 fare in August.

So how and why did this short streetcar segment rise to the top of regional transit priorities? In a new paper published in the Journal of Planning Education and Research, Kate Lowe and Joe Grengs examine how local government ceded decisions about the project to private benefactors, subordinating public goals to their interests and preferences.

The notion of a Detroit streetcar emerged back in 2006 as the brainchild of regional boosters like Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert, the Illitch family (which owns Little Caesar’s Pizza), and the Kresge Foundation. Known as the M-1 RAIL committee, they wanted a short downtown circulator to promote economic development. Many of the key backers — like Gilbert — were also major land owners along the route.

They offered to pay for the streetcar not only because Detroit was broke, but to circumvent federal regulations they feared would drag out the process.

But they soon decided not to cover all the costs, and enlisted government support. The QLine eventually received $37 million in capital funds from U.S. DOT and another $10 million from the state of Michigan. (A fund established by the private donors supports operations.)

Lowe and Grengs interviewed 15 people involved with the planning and development of the project to assess how critical decisions were made, what led Detroit to opt for a low-ridership streetcar, and how the city’s predominantly black transit riders were overlooked.

Other transit options surfaced at various points in the planning process but were rejected. A longer rail route to the city line, for instance, would have connected a more diverse array of neighborhoods to downtown, but the costs were deemed excessive.

A regional bus rapid transit network would have connected even more people to good transit service, and it had the backing of Governor Rick Snyder. The M-1 RAIL committee had different ideas, though, according to sources Lowe and Grengs spoke to.

Committee members didn’t think buses would serve their goal of “economic development” very well. One interview subject, cited anonymously, told the researchers that while bus service might have greater utility, “Rich, white people don’t ride buses.”

Once the streetcar option was finalized, the M-1 committee continued to botch key planning decisions. A major debate ensued over whether the streetcar would run in dedicated, center-aligned lanes, maximizing speed and reliability, or in mixed traffic near the curb.

Despite “extensive outreach,” the authors write, the ultimate decision came down to the whims of the M-1 RAIL committee. Public comments overwhelmingly favored the center-running approach, but “Gilbert in particular pushed for side alignment,” according to the report, which he again believed would be better for economic development. So a slow, curb-running streetcar is what Detroit got.

The M-1 committee’s view of the project primarily as “economic development,” not an improvement to transit service, is apparent in other ways. The streetcar terminates just a few blocks from the Rosa Parks Transit Center, the city’s central bus hub. Better integration could have made the streetcar more useful to bus riders.

Most of the benefits the authors attribute to the M-1 RAIL committee are indirect. The group’s enthusiasm for its pet project was used as leverage to obtain other transit priorities. Former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood insisted that the Detroit region form an integrated urban-suburban regional transit authority before he would award millions for the streetcar.

The Michigan legislature signed off on the RTA in 2012, a milestone in a 40-year struggle. However, the status of the RTA remains unclear after the defeat of the 2016 regional transit ballot measure.

Streetcar supporters argue that by encouraging people to move into the city, the project will help low-income Detroiters indirectly, but the authors don’t see that as a substitute for direct investments in transit service the region has failed to make.

“The streetcar does not improve accessibility for transit-dependent populations, who are largely black Detroit residents with needs for connections to regional jobs and opportunities,” they write. “Not only will it fail to enhance accessibility, it could harm accessibility through displacing some bus service.”

Beware of unaccountable private benefactors promising to relieve government of the obligation to improve transit. As this case illustrates, it’s all too easy for them to subvert shared goals to benefit a well-connected few.

36 thoughts on How Detroit’s Streetcar Overlooked Real Transit Needs to Satisfy a Well-Connected Few

  1. Ridership numbers are over-rated. No one looks at the Katy freeway in Houston as the most successful highway in the country because it carries the most cars. In fact, many see it as an absurdity and evidence of our land use planning failures. But in the context of transit, we obsess over ridership. Our analysis is inconsistent.

    We should be more concerned if an infrastructure investment are things like: safe, improve quality of life and quality of place, generates wealth for the city and community. A lot of those figures reflect themselves in the property tax base, and therefore makes it one of the better indicators of success. For example, if the bus i take each day doubled in frequency from every 20 minutes to every 10 minutes, while total passengers boardings did not double – it could still be a very valuable project if our community’s wealth & quality of life increased. That could be quantified – at least in part – by looking at the property assessments & new development.

  2. Streetcars and light rail are typically pushed by affluent liberals who like to claim the benefits by pointing to economic development that results (often with tenuous direct links) and increased choice ridership. Meanwhile regular transit continues to languish and those who are transit-dependent are left with still crappy service. The amount spent on such projects could provide a major infusion to improved bus transit, but it isn’t sexy and can’t compete for that funding.

  3. The affordability of buses is over-stated. In Milwaukee (certainly similar for Detroit), our 3 per hour trunk bus service have $5M per year operating costs – contrast that with a 5/hr streetcar service with a planned $3.5M operating budget. The bus service requires kneeler buses replaced every 10-15 years. Plus the repair barn & bus shelters & concrete pads at the stops. Buses cause a lot wear & tear especially on street curbs and are less reliable per mile. End of the day, buses aren’t that cheap, especially through downtown areas.

    At the same time, in a fairly dense corridor, a streetcar will perform better than a bus: better acceleration, better passenger loading, no weaving to/from the curb. The electric engines require less maintenance than diesel engines, particularly in stop & start downtown environments. There is a bigger initial capital investment with streetcar – certainly for the starter legs which will typically be in the most challenging/dense sections of town & include the car barn and initial electrical – but the operating costs are better in the long term. Far from glamour projects, at our current low cost of borrowing, building streetcars in our medium sized cities is probably the most affordable way to provide a reasonable level of service in the downtown areas.

  4. Real estate prices have skyrocketed along the street car route. The is much development too.Buildings that were vacant, abandoned, burnt through the roof are being rehabbed. It’s not likely the metro Detroiters will ever vote themselves a tax to fund an RTA. As long as new roads are constructed and existing ones are widened the suburbanites will continue to drive their autos. I often wonder how many buses and drivers could you get for 140 million?

  5. Was the QLine the best transit project for Detroit? In all probability no. Will it help most of Detroit’s population get around the city? No. Was it poorly designed? Yes. However, what is barely mentioned in your article is that nearly $100 million of the capital costs and 10 years of operating expenses are being covered by private, non-government funds. I don’t know of any other transit project in the US that can say this. These are funds which I very much doubt would have been given to any sort of bus service. So it was the QLine or nothing. But if I was part of a group that was giving over $140 million to a project (capital + operating expenses), no matter what that project was, I would want a say into the details too.

  6. The way I would approach it: At a 3% interest rate on the $140M of bonds ($4.2M per year), it pay for about 80% of 1 trunk bus route with 3 bus per hour frequency.

  7. Detroit’s biggest problems over that last decades have been loss of jobs, residents, and a diminishing tax base. I wouldn’t completely discount the indirect benefits of economic development projects. In metro Detroit any fixed route transit is a very difficult sell. Getting an 8 mile route built in a single phase would be nearly impossible. so toady the M-1 rail is limited but if it shows an economic development benefit and has decent ridership it could demonstrate the effectiveness of transit. The next project will be better. A few thousand riders a day isn’t bad (especially for the city of Detroit) and then number will rise as more development occurs along the route.

  8. Streetcars can and do work in places like Boston, San Francisco, and Paris, and would work well on many busy bus routes in the outer boroughs in NYC where there isn’t one dominant bus route (e.g., Grand Concourse, Webster, 3rd Ave, and Southern in the Bronx). Trams have greater capacity and lower operating costs than BRT (for a very busy bus route), far longer mean distance to failure than buses, a more comfortable ride than buses, and more. Like a bus, trams take riders to the nearest subway stops for a transfer.

    That said, in many places — e.g., H St in DC, M-1 in Detroit, BQX in Brooklyn, etc. — streetcars don’t or won’t work. Angie gives such an example.

    The best streetcars are the ones where people never give up on them, e.g. Helsinki.

  9. 10 years of operating expenses still isn’t thaaat much. That’s essentially what Boston is getting with the gondola.

    And capital and operating expenses aren’t the only costs: space is a core cost. There is a limited amount of space in the city, and we do have to use the land very, very carefully.

  10. > Like a bus, trams take riders to the nearest subway stops for a transfer.

    Streetcars can also run into light rail lines or subways, as Boston and San Francisco’s lines do, for a one-seat ride to downtown.

    Of course buses can do this too (local lines can run into BRT busways or bus tunnels)… and kinda do in Boston, though not for long enough runs to really feel like a subway.

  11. @newtonmarunner

    “10 years of operating expenses still isn’t thaaat much”

    Tell that to the the people all over the US who’s transit services have been cut back or cancelled because of a lack of money to cover operating expenses.

    And as far as space you obviously don’t know Detroit very well. Space along Woodward Avenue is not a major problem. Detroit has many major arterials that were designed for a traffic load that no longer exists.

  12. There’s also the long game. If adding the Q-Line makes it politically feasible to fill-in the Lodge freeway, the transportation value of the streetcar doesn’t even matter because getting rid of a junky downtown freeway is that important to a city. Any value from the streetcar would be gravy at that point.

  13. For only $47 million of government money, 3,000 people per day is better than a lot of transit projects! What else can you get for $47 million?

    For comparison, the Los Angeles Expo Line, which fully opened two years ago, serves 60,000 people every week day but cost $1500 million. Yes, it has 20 times the ridership of the new Detroit service, but at 31 times the cost. The Detroit service compares favorably.

    Considering that there are supposedly other benefits here (“economic development”), maybe this is a pretty good deal.

  14. One big difference is that the Expo is part of a plan where it’s going to pick up new connections as more lines are built. What plan is there here for this streetcar to start connecting to other lines?

  15. Here in Boston, we’ve definitely had our service cut back. As has DC, where I grew up. Same w/ NYC.

    The capital costs and 10 years of operating costs still don’t justify being saddled with the operating costs and for the next 60, particularly for something that benefits one single company or one single area. That’s just not how urban transportation policy works or should work.

  16. Not really. Capacity, operating costs, and permanence matter when considering capital expenditures. I can see long term the residents of the City of Angels as more willing to pay for the operating and maintenance costs (in terms of fares and taxes) of a 60K rider/weekday rapid transit line than I can see Motown willing to pay for the operating and maintenance costs of 3K rider/weekday tram in mixed traffic.

  17. Counterpoint: Taxpayers long-term will be more reluctant to support additional transit projects if the operating and maintenance costs become so prohibitively high that the Tramway has to be taken out of service (and the space used for something else).

  18. Counter counter point. In these cities -detroit, cleveland, milwaukee, dense industrial cities that developed along transit – the local munis contribute zero or next to zero already. The only funding that they get is the bare minimum that the feds & state statutorially provide, fares, plus what ever grants they can scrape together from local do-gooders. They already have no support.

  19. Counter counter counter point: Public transit isn’t the solution to all problems. Access matters. Residents need to be on safe, walkable streets (not cracked sidewalks) within walking distance of a grocery store, convenience store, etc. for public transit to thrive. That, more affordable housing, and dedicated bus lanes on the busiest bus routes (assuming the bus network is designed to maximize ridership, save the edges of the urban core) is, I believe, much more useful long term than some streetcar carrying 3K people/weekday.

  20. Schools, police, courts, street lights, sidewalks are paid by property taxes. Development matters, especially in cities like detroit. The Woodward cooridor now has condos worth over 100k, absolutely remarkable given much of that cooridor and the city was worth effectively zero less than a decade ago. Detroit and all of the rust belt systematically disinvested in their cores from 1929 to circa 2000.

    It’s not a strategy for long term success.

  21. The central purpose of transit is to move people — not economic development, which is an ancillary benefit. Transit also is a long-term investment — not a short-term stimulus. The streetcar is at best a temporary solution.

    As Angie points out, it would be of more use to the residents of Detroit long-term to build a better bus network that connects people to their jobs; to build more housing, grocery stores, convenience stores, etc. along the major bus routes; and to make the streets more walkable. That would have permanence.

  22. A streetcar that moves very few people (which is the central purpose of public transit — not economic development) and has high operating and maintenance costs is not a strategy for long-term success. It’s a temporary solution.

    You don’t build a streetcar route; you build an integrated network of buses, streetcars, subways, etc.

  23. Idk. Pretty sure nearly all legacy streetcar lines were built for development. They’d buy the land outside town, Plat it, run a line out and sell the properties. The capital cost of the line was baked into the development, while operating costs ran on fares. The financial design of most of these modern streetcars tries to be substantially the same in that the capital cost as paid for by the properties that benefit. Ditto rail in europe.

    In the us, we have normalized providing windfalls of wealth to lucky landowners near infrastructure investments, but most of the great transit systems including our own were built on various value capture finance models.

  24. So is it better that half the funding comes from the corporate community in Detroit or from local gov’t funds like every other city that has built a modern streetcar?? The failure of the RTA is a failure on it’s own, if billionaires want to building something, they will.

  25. This relentless zero sum game either-or-ism should embarrass Streetsblog. Absolutely nothing about the QLine prevents Detroit from improving its bus service. 3000 riders on ~3 miles of route isn’t even especially bad service. The alternative to the QLine wasn’t better bus service; the alternative was nothing. Of course there should be better bus service, but the QLine is basically irrelevant to that.

  26. Seems somewhat unlikely an already-built tram is going to have problems with those three things going forward. Tearing it up to replace it with (probably more expensive-to-operate) buses doesn’t sound economical when the cost of laying the track has already been sunk.

  27. I prefer moving people to the goal of economic development personally, but I don’t see why being motivated to build transit for economic development is supposed to be a bad thing. It’s going to convince some people who otherwise aren’t going to support transit.

    The best use for streetcars would probably be more unsexy: replace the busiest bus routes in urban cores with something more capacious.

  28. Is any one transit project ever the best? The most successful transit advocacy results in a lot of transit proliferation and moves a lot of people.

    That’s another reason these fights over narrow projects are so obtuse. The problem with QLine isn’t that it’s there, and that it stopped growing.

  29. >A regional bus rapid transit network would have connected even more people to good transit service…
    “Bus Rapid Transit” was a bait and switch proposal, that replaced a real rail backbone transit system. The public didn’t go for the slight of hand trick. Furthermore, “Bus Rapid Transit” is a marketing term that attempts to positively bias our experience with reality. The term is practically an oxymoron. “Bus Rapid Transit” in reality is “More slow dirty worn out buses stuck in traffic jams.” Where is the real rail backbone system that’s worth spending the money on?

  30. History shows that economic development generated by rail backbones to be so profound as to change the country. The Transcontinental Railroad, The Vanderbilts, Gould, etc., would they have thought that the economic development from their rail systems was subordinate to moving people? Buying waste land and bribing a politician to build a rail backbone over it was a way to become a billionaire (measure as % of GDP.) Hoover Dam, TVA… infrastructure building is a more general example of this principle.

  31. The Expo Line provides rides for a lot of trips which would otherwise would have been made by car. I doubt that’s as much the case for a 3 mile long streetcar–I’m guessing it’s replacing a lot of walk and bike trips. The Expo line is largely (unfortunately not fully) grade separated so for a lot of its route it’s pretty fast. The existing and planned densities along the Expo Line are also a lot greater than in Detroit, so the Expo Line should be able to continue growing ridership. Los Angeles’ unfortunate planned loop streetcar is probably more like the M-1, as perhaps is the Atlanta streetcar
    There’s nothing wrong with economic development as a public objective, especially in a city that’s struggling economically. The problem is that if a project is really about economic development, it shouldn’t be presented as a transit project. And an economic development project certainly shouldn’t use funds that are intended for transit.

  32. BRT if done right is better than non-dedicated lanes streetcars. Like I say if it is done correctly.

  33. It is center running on the northern end of the line with possible future expansion. Also it runs down Woodward which is the center road/backbone of Metro Detroit and any future transit will cross Woodward.

  34. As a former Michigander, I keep on rooting for some transit and people based development success. Unfortunately, this is not, at least in the short term, my idea of progress. What’s a particularly dismal add on to this is the state govt.’s $2.7 billion gas tax increase — to fix roads and bridges?! No transit planning or construction that I can see. It’s like pumping money into a black (pot)hole. When will Michigan and Detroit see the light???

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