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Rapson: Return of Detroit’s QLINE one step in addressing inequities in regional transportation

Detroit, From the President

It was so very good to see an old friend back on the streets of Detroit this weekend: Detroit’s QLINE streetcar.

For the last eighteen months, regional transit was yet another casualty of COVID. Most of Detroit and its suburban transit systems – like their counterpart providers across America – including the QLINE, suspended service in March of 2020. Getting around the region became infinitely more difficult for people who don’t own cars (some 30% of Detroiters).

Detroit’s Department of Transportation struggled to keep its buses on the streets, riders in its seats, and its schedules on the beat. Most recently, worker shortages (caused in substantial part by a $15/hour wage being completely inadequate to support a family of four) have led the city to announce elimination, re-structuring or reduced frequency of routes through the beginning of 2022.

The curtailment of public transit options has made it excruciatingly difficult for thousands of Detroiters to get to work at the city’s restaurants, casinos, office buildings, schools, sports stadiums and auto plants – all compounding the sluggish and intermittent pace of economic recovery.

How residents in this region get to work is vastly different if you have the means to pay for a vehicle — and afford some of the nation’s highest auto insurance rates. Black people spend nearly twice as much of their income commuting to and from work as white people do. For every dollar they earn, Black Detroiters spend 21 cents on public transit and 24 cents via private automobile commutes, while white Detroiters spend 16 cents for both (courtesy Detroit Future City).

Southeast Michigan is the largest metropolis in the nation without a comprehensive, coordinated regional public transit system. In big, medium, and even small cities across the country, coordinated transportation networks provide their residents and visitors an opportunity to learn, the ability to work, and the capability of gaining access to healthcare.

For more than 40 years – and not for lack of trying – metro Detroit has been unable to figure out how to offer a truly regional transit system to its residents. In 2007, in a direct run at this critical void in essential public infrastructure, Kresge and a consortium of philanthropic and private donors initiated a modern streetcar proposal to serve as a catalyst to a larger regional transit system.  It was initially termed “M-1,” for the name of the nation’s first paved street, along which it runs. It remains the first transportation project in the nation led by a public-private partnership working in conjunction with local, state, and federal governments.

The QLINE, which opened in May 2017, runs curbside along most of its 6.6-mile Woodward route, connecting the city’s riverfront and central business district to its Midtown, New Center and North End neighborhoods.

New improvements to the QLine

One silver lining of the pause was that it provided the QLINE with the opportunity to evaluate its operations from top-to-bottom and side-to-side. With its resumption of service this week, we will all benefit from a suite of improvements.

First, going it alone.

The M-1 team opted to part ways with its operations partner of some six years and self-deliver everything from car maintenance and driver training to compliance and day-to-day operations. This was a momentous but necessary decision to meet the standards of excellence that M-1 required. The new operation is a combination of external consultants, hired professionals, and internalized protocols.

Second, removing physical barriers.

The team developed a detailed checklist of everything and anything that stood in the way of optimum service. That list was long and entailed fixes of the highest complexity and political sensitivities. The M-1 team had to find common ground with the city, the state legislature, M-1 sponsors, and vendors of various kinds.

A diverse group of riders inside one of Detroit’s QLine streetcars. All of them are masked and standing, holding on to straps and rails.
Photo by Ryan Southen Photography for The Kresge Foundation.

For example, the scheduling and real-time arrival system had proven unpredictable and frequently exasperating to riders and operators alike. Through a combination of replacement and fine-tuning of software and hardware, the team was able to create a new system that will ensure that a QLINE streetcar will arrive every 15 minutes or less.

Another example is the alleviation of the headache-inducing delays that occurred whenever the QLINE had to compete with traffic from a Little Caesars Arena special event. The team was able to negotiate the dedication of a transit-only section of the route in front of the entertainment venue.

Third, introducing a new team.

The M-1 Board brought on a new executive director (Lisa Nuszkowski, the former head of MoGo, the bike-sharing system), hired additional train operators, and negotiated the authority to remove obstructions expeditiously from the tracks (which had previously required jumping through all sorts of hoops).

The skill and commitment of the M-1 team in taking full advantage of the last 18 months is almost impossible to overstate. To be sure, many Kresge staff have supported the transition alongside the foundation’s more than $55 million grantmaking support to the line since inception.

With activities along the Woodward Corridor warming up this fall, we’ll be eagerly watching – and riding – the QLINE. It’s a new chapter in a new post-COVID book. Maybe the next chapter will finally tell the story of a regional transit system’s creation to serve all residents of Southeast Michigan.

Kresge staff is working remotely, and our offices are closed until further notice.  See our promise to partners during COVID-19.
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