Detroit Free Press-Is QLINE the Beginning of Regional Transit
Gallagher: Is QLINE the start of something much bigger?
Over the years, I’ve ridden streetcars, subways and light rail in many cities: New York, Chicago, Boston, Portland, New Orleans, Houston, and Washington, D.C.; Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver in Canada, and, in Europe, Paris, Prague, Budapest and Berlin. I’m sure I’ve logged more than a thousand trips via these transit systems.
So when I stepped aboard Detroit’s new QLINE on Tuesday for a media-only ride before next week’s start of service, I brought high hopes tempered by a sense of reality.
I found the new QLINE cars clean and comfortable, and the ride itself pleasant and reasonably quick end-to-end. But a lot of uncertainty remains before we answer the key question: Will the QLINE become an essential part of our lives.
A lot rides on the answer. If the QLINE grows in popularity and sees robust ridership, that will produce greater demand for public transit in metro Detroit. The moribund Regional Transit Authority effort, defeated at the polls last year, may enjoy a better fate next time it asks voters to pay for a broader public transit system.
“When we started, we wanted to be a catalyst for regional transit,” Matt Cullen, CEO of the M-1 Rail that operates the QLINE, said on the trial run. “I’d say we have an incomplete, in that regard. We would have loved to see the RTA bill get passed last year, but we’re confident it will” in the future.
Rip Rapson, CEO of the Kresge Foundation, which contributed about $50 million to the $140 million or so it took to build the line, echoed that optimism.
Kresge’s money, he said, “is a down payment on a larger regional system. We’ve hit a couple of roadblocks, but that’s not going to stop us. We’re going to push forward and make sure this line becomes integral to a larger system.”
That expanded system may happen if the QLINE hits its ridership goals of up to 5,000 riders a day in the early months, rising to about 8,000 riders a day over time.
Transit systems are like the telephone network: They become more valuable as more and more people join the network. If only 5% of people have a telephone, it’s not very useful. But if 95% of people are connected, it becomes much more valuable.
And so with transit. If QLINE ridership lags and the cars trundle along half-empty most of the time, that would send the opposite message about how much we need or care about public transit. In that case, the new service may come to resemble the People Mover — an occasional convenience ignored by most people.
Expectations matter a lot. For now, the QLINE doesn’t pretend to be anything more than it is — a downtown streetcar service. Light rail and subways zip along, rushing riders to their destinations over longer distances. Streetcars like the QLINE amble along at a modest pace, carrying shoppers and other users relatively short distances in a downtown setting.
So, for now, the QLINE is about economic development — bringing potential customers to the many shops, restaurants and other destinations on its 3.3-mile route along Woodward from Congress to Grand Boulevard. A few people who live in Midtown may catch it to commute a mile or so downtown, and vice versa. But at this point, it doesn’t pretend to be an essential part of metro Detroit’s daily commute.
But when and if new lines are added throughout the region, either as bus rapid transit or some other mode of operation, then the fully connected network could grow into an essential part of our lives.
Another question: Will Detroit motorists, with whom the QLINE shares the road, learn to co-exist with the streetcars? When Houston launched its METRORail service back in 2004, there were near-daily accidents between the streetcars and autos, mostly from drivers attempting to turn in front of the streetcars. It took a while for everyone to adapt.
But Houston also serves up what may be the best reason to hope for the QLINE’s success. Houston launched its METRORail as a single 7.5-mile line with 16 stops. It proved so popular that demand quickly grew for more.
Today, Houston’s METRORail operates three lines with two more planned. The initial 16 stops have grown to 37, with more on the way. The current routes run nearly 24 miles. The system reports weekly ridership of 60,600 and total annual ridership of 16,500,400.
If the QLINE enjoys that sort of rapid acceptance, the case for more public transit — and the cleaner, greener city that comes with it — will be made.
Next week, when the QLINE opens service on Friday, we’ll start to get some answers.
Printed in the Detroit Free Press, May 3, 2017