Something crazy is happening in Detroit, something not seen since 1956: Streetcars are running downtown. The QLine takes riders on a 25-minute jaunt down Woodward Avenue, from a central business district, through gentrified Midtown, to the river, a pleasant 3.3-mile ride past football, baseball, and, soon, hockey and basketball stadiums. The city spent $180 million—more than 85 percent of it private funding—and 10 years building the line. The modern trolleys and 12 shiny stations feel a bit like a metaphor for rebirth. And if any city needs a fresh start, it’s the Motor City.
Few cities are so synonymous with tough times, and the fact that Detroit pulled this off is worthy of celebration. “This project survived the bankruptcy of the city, the bankruptcy of two of its largest employers in General Motors and Chrysler, we had a mayor go to jail,” says Dan Lijana, the media rep for M-1 Rail, the non-profit that owns the QLine. “Everyone is pretty hyped right now.”
Streetcar lines often generate that kind of excitement, because they carry more than people. They carry the promise of economic revitalization. During the past three decades, streetcar lines have sprung up in cities as far flung as Little Rock, Arkansas; Tempe, Arizona; and Kansas City, Missouri, and in every case city officials hoped they might bootstrap downtown development. “You hear this in a lot of places: ‘It’s a symbol of the city, it’s an icon, it’s part of the city identity,’” says Jeffrey Brown, an urban planner who studies streetcar projects at Florida State University. “There’s this nostalgic view of urban streetcars, [that] streetcars are part of a package of urban development.”
Once upon a time, American cities grew up around trolley lines, and today the streetcar has become shorthand for walkable, pre-car urban America. Remember the Brooklyn Dodgers, named after the street scamps who deftly avoided the trolleys’ wheels? The Dodgers are in LA now, and even that car-centric city is planning a downtown streetcar line.
Yet there is no empirical evidence that streetcar lines do anything to trigger an urban turnaround. “It’s just completely unrealistic to expect that if we’re in a depressed urban environment, just adding an expensive piece of transit infrastructure is the solution,” says Brown.
Blame Portland, Oregon, for streetcar fever. Officials in Detroit and elsewhere point to PDX as proof that a robust trolley system draws riders and encourages economic development. Yet they often overlook everything already working in Stumptown’s favor when the Portland Streetcar launched in 2001. Employment was up, the real estate market was robust. The line runs north-south, a route already seeded for redevelopment by smart policy and financial decisions. Crucially, its planners coordinated the streetcar’s schedule and fare policies with other public transit options. The connection between Portland’s streetcar and its economic revitalization presents a chicken-and-egg problem, one that researchers have not been able to resolve thus far.
People love pointing to Portland’s success, but rarely mention what’s happened in other cities. Operating expenses for Little Rock’s system ballooned to more than $9 per passenger trip. Tampa sees less than 900 boardings daily. Neither city has launched significant development in their service areas. Brown actually studies this stuff, and says the jury remains out on on the question of whether streetcars are an effective economic tool, even as cities (or in Motown’s case, private donors) write checks for millions.
A report commissioned by M-1 Rail finds that developers already have committed $7 billion into projects along this stretch of Woodward Avenue, though it’s hard to pin that on the development of the QLine and not the area’s turnaround. Regardless of what, if any, portion of that investment can be attributed to the QLine, transit is a limited tool for economic revitalization. “What Detroit, Atlanta, Tampa, and everybody else is doing is putting down a line in the middle of an existing, built-up city,” says Gary Sands, an urban planner and emeritus professor with Wayne State University (which is on the streetcar line). “The opportunities for new development and growth is constrained by what’s already there.”
Research shows streetcars aren’t great transit options, either. They’re slow, subject to the whims of traffic in the way that a train or bus with a dedicated lane wouldn’t be. Worse, many cities aren’t running them frequently. Transportation researcher Yonah Freemark studied 15 modern streetcar systems in 2014 and found that two-thirds of them ran no more than three trains every hour. Miss your streetcar in New Orleans, and you might wait 25 minutes for the next one. Anyone riding the QLine in Detroit can expect a train every 20 to 25 minutes to start. That makes the projections by M-1 officials that the line will attract 5,000 to 8,000 riders daily seem optimistic. It’s hard to convince riders to hop on board when it comes so infrequently.
Motor City on Rails
The fact Detroit is not known for mass transit doesn’t help the situation. “We haven’t had decent public transit in Detroit for decades,” says Sands. “So there are a not of a lot of people who think of it as an automatic, go-to kind of thing.”
M-1 Rail envisioned the QLine providing the spine of a vast public transit network that would include bus rapid transit and commuter rail linking Detroit to its suburbs. Today, that seems unlikely. Voters rejected a ballot proposal to provide $3 billion for the system in November, and the regional transit authority can’t go back to voters until next year.
It’s not like this city of 677,000 people is flush. Despite headlines touting the city’s resurgence, Sands and Michigan State University political scientist Laura A. Reese say such reports are greatly exaggerated. Motown remains among the poorest, most segregated, least educated cities in the country. People continue to leave, some 100,000 between 2010 and 2016. And though the real estate market in the trendy Midtown and Downtown neighborhoods has improved a bit, vast swaths of the city are marked by vacant, dilapidated buildings.
No one suggested the QLine would save Detroit. And those involved in the project urge people to judge it by their standard—not ridership, but whether the QLine gets people excited about moving around in a different way. “There’s been a lot of skepticism over many many decades about the role of public transit, and whether it was needed,” says Rip Rapson, president and CEO of the Kresge Foundation, which poured $50 million in the QLine. “In many ways, the M-1 rail reflects an inflection point.” If nothing else, he considers the cooperation between the city and private organizations a big win, proof that they can work together to make things better. Now the city waits, to see if anyone wants a ride.
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