Mixed feelings over Detroit’s new $187 million streetcar

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Journalism at Michigan State University
A view of the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel in Downtown Detroit.

A view of the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel in Downtown Detroit.

DETROIT — The Motor City’s latest streetcar, the QLine, had its grand opening on May 12, 2017. It was the first time a streetcar rolled down the streets of Downtown in 61 years. Spectators from the city and suburbs alike made their way to the city to be the first to ride the trolley along its 6.6-mile loop.

The excitement was shared by Detroit sports teams such as the Pistons, Tigers and Red Wings, who sent representatives to the event. There were giveaways, deals, and musical acts present to entertain the 8,300 trolley-goers.

However, not all who were present approved of the $187 million investment.

Not too far from the festivities Mason Herson-Hord, a member of the Motor City Freedom Riders, was protesting some of the issues associated with the QLine and advocating for improved transit in Southeast Michigan.

When asked what he thought were the major issues with the QLine, Herson-Hord had many to name.

“[The QLine] was originally planned as a light rail that would stretch all the way from Downtown to 8 Mile, providing a faster transit option connecting some of the northern Detroit neighborhoods with jobs in Downtown and Midtown.” However, according to Herson-Hord, developers did not see dollar signs attached to the investment in a route extending beyond Downtown, Midtown and New Center.

“Paying for it to extend another five miles north wouldn’t have this same return for them, even though people in those neighborhoods are much more transit-dependent than those in the greater Downtown area.”

Herson-Hord says that the trolley is limited to gentrified areas of Detroit, underscoring racial disparities in terms of access to the QLine and its usefulness. “That is what many black Detroiters are thinking about when saying that this ‘wasn’t meant for us’.”

Recent studies support Herson-Hord’s claims. According to Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan, two-thirds of Detroiters rely on public transit as their primary means to get around. The RTA also reported that 62 percent of Detroiters work outside of the city. However, the QLine does not accommodate those residents who are most transit dependent. These little-known facts raise questions about who the QLine was really built for.

Falicia Captain, a Downtown resident and young professional who seems to be the model QLine patron, does not find the streetcar to be personally useful.

“I live so close to my job that there are no stops that would take me right to work. I would have to walk further just to get to a stop to take the QLine.”

When asked whether the QLine was worth the multi-million dollar investment, Captain had a clear opinion.

“No. I didn’t even know it cost that much, so definitely not. The QLine wasn’t made for the people of Detroit, it was made for the visitors. It’s almost a tourist attraction as opposed to a means of transportation.”

Herson-Hord also feels that the QLine was not made to be an efficient means of transportation. “The design of the streetcar is clearly not intended for rapid transit,” he explained. “Instead of giving it a dedicated lane, it weaves in and out of traffic with no signal priority.”

In comparison to other modes of transportation, the QLine may be the coolest, but it is certainly not the quickest. The trolley is ranked among the slowest ways to travel the 3.5-mile route, second to walking, based on a Google Maps search.

Not all of those interviewed were unimpressed with the QLine. Kayla Lumpkin, a Grosse Pointe resident and Quicken Loans employee was enthusiastic about the streetcar.

“I think the QLine was a great addition to Detroit. It really gives a more ‘city’ feel and gives those that work in the city an alternative to get around.”

So, although the QLine isn’t the fastest or the most far-reaching, it does create the idea of Detroit as a big, metropolitan center of the Midwest. Many urban megacities have bustling public transit systems that add to the characterizing lively ambiance. In the opinion of some, the QLine is bringing life to the city.

“The QLine is attractive to workers and tourists. Tourists can go places they would’ve probably never been able to see otherwise. The city needed another form of modern transportation aside from the People Mover,” explained Lumpkin.

This seems to be what developers had in mind. The CEO of M1 Rail Matt Cullen was reported having said that he’d like to see streetcars spreading to streets like Gratiot, as well as buses into neighborhoods and suburbs.

Despite widespread criticism of the streetcar, Cullen seemed content. “We couldn’t be more pleased with the enthusiastic reception the QLine received from riders during our first week,” he said.

Despite differing opinions, most people we spoke to felt that the QLine was made for suburban and out-of-state tourists as opposed to Detroiters. This claim was backed by statistics, facts, and figures regarding the QLine.

Professor Mark Wilson of Michigan State University’s Department of Urban Planning emphasized the statement that the city of Detroit was making by supporting the construction of the QLine.

“[The QLine] can be seen as a sign of confidence in the area and its future growth [and] it can anchor development along the corridor,” explained Dr. Wilson. “I suspect this was more about making a broader statement and serving more than just local residents.”

In addition to providing an alternative form of transportation, the QLine is also emphasizing what Wilson calls “urban revival.” The streetcar is a step in the right direction in terms of commercial development in the city.

However, according to Wilson, the QLine does also have its negative outcomes.

“Of course, it could also promote gentrification and hurt lower income residents of the area who may now face higher rents.”

In regards to the question of who the QLine was built for, Wilson responded similarly to Detroit residents whom we spoke to.

“I suspect this was more about making a broader statement and serving more than just local residents,” he said.

Despite differing opinions, most people we spoke to felt that the QLine was made for suburban and out-of-state tourists as opposed to Detroiters. This claim was backed by statistics, facts, and figures regarding the QLine.

However, regardless of whom the QLine was built for, only time will tell whether it will be a success or just another People Mover.