Most of the new, short, slow, and infrequently-running streetcar lines built in the United States in the last few years appear to have been constructed at least to some extent for reasons having little to do with any possible role as transportation facilities. Many seem to have been designed in part to signal that the urban area in which they’re located is important enough to have rail transit of a sort. Some—those in Memphis and Little Rock, for example, and the not-yet-open line in Saint Louis—were set up to be “cute” components of a district with some tourist attractions. Atlanta’s short streetcar line was built in part to encourage visits to the Martin Luther King sites east of downtown. Hardly any of these lines is sufficiently lengthy, speedy, or frequent enough to be able to beat a fast pedestrian.
I went and rode Detroit’s brand-new QLine streetcar last week.
This 5.3 km (3.3 mile) line runs between the New Center and Downtown along Woodward Avenue, Detroit’s major pre-freeway street.
It really is a streetcar line, occupying the same space as a lane of traffic for nearly its entire length. Mostly this is the outer lane, close to the sidewalk, but the QLine shifts to the center lane at its two ends to facilitate changing direction. This is an awkward operation, requiring a special signal. Elsewhere, the QLine stops for red lights, although it’s supposed to have some preemption capability at certain intersections. The QLine trains were taking about 25 minutes to travel their entire route when I rode on them. That means that their average speed was about 12.7 km per hour (7.9 mph). That’s not speedy, but it’s faster than anyone is likely to be able to walk. Service was about every fifteen or twenty minutes when I was there (no timetable seems to be available). Trains were running fairly full, with a few voluntary standees, which suggests that service levels were about right. Of course, it’s possible that more frequent service would attract more customers, but it’s also possible that there will be many fewer customers when free service ends on July 1. The fare is $1.50 for a three-hour pass. It appears that transfers to Detroit’s buses and people mover are not going to be offered. The 53-Woodward bus parallels the QLine and offers more frequent service during the day than the QLine; it may be faster too.
The QLine basically serves the Woodward Corridor. It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that this is practically the only part of the city of Detroit that is economically healthy. It includes government and commercial offices in New Center, Henry Ford Hospital, Wayne State University, the Detroit Historical Museum, the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum, three recently-built or still-under construction major-league sports stadia, and downtown Detroit.
I’ve been in Detroit every few years for, well, the last fifty years or so, and my impression is that central Detroit hasn’t looked as healthy in many decades. Many—possibly most—of the downtown area’s skyscrapers are now filled with office workers by day. The arrival of Quicken Loans in 2010 was apparently a key factor here. There isn’t much new construction, but there’s a fair amount of renovation of the existing, often elegant buildings.
There are now quite a few people on the streets downtown, as well as new shops to serve them. It’s important (although awkward) to point out that many—maybe most–of these people are white. Downtown Detroit, after some decades of being avoided by suburbanites, has once again been defined as a safe destination. I’m told that it even gets crowded when there’s a sports event on.
North of downtown there are numerous new residential buildings along Woodward Avenue, and there’s even a new Whole Foods just off Woodward at Mack Avenue. The residential buildings constitute something of a façade; there are still empty spaces a block away (but it does look as though these are filling in in places). I should add that, despite all the new housing, I felt rather lonely walking on Woodward along the QLine north of downtown. The wide sidewalk has hardly any pedestrians, and Woodward carries a lot of traffic. The middle-class neighborhoods being recreated in “midtown” Detroit consist mostly of apartment buildings and row houses, but they seem to be functioning very much like medium-density suburban neighborhoods when it comes to transportation; it appears that most people drive everywhere. It’s hard to imagine that these neighborhoods will generate a lot of business for the QLine.
The last time I was in Detroit, maybe five years ago, I was just passing through, transferring between Amtrak and Via Rail Canada trains. I took the 53-Woodward bus between the Amtrak station and downtown and found myself surrounded by a group of people discussing their appointments with a parole officer. I was the only white person on the bus. It’s admittedly borderline racist to be aware of these things, but I couldn’t help but notice that the QLine is thoroughly integrated. The passengers appear to be both economically and racially diverse. It’s a bit odd that it took a shift from bus to rail to bring about integration, but, well, that may be the price one has to pay.
Funds for building the QLine came partly from the federal government, but most of the cost was—amazingly—shouldered by local businesses (the “Q” in QLine is for Quicken Loans). I am sure that these businesses felt that they were contributing to the revitalization of central Detroit. It would be very difficult to set up a formal study to test the hypothesis that they’ve succeeded. But there’s no doubt that central Detroit is doing all right these days and that the brightly colored QLine cars (as infrequent as they are) add a bit of charm to the place. It would be harder to demonstrate that they constitute a vital transportation link.