The QLine streetcar system in Detroit took a big hit in a national publication today which called the streetcar system a “boondoggle,” an amusement park ride for suburbanites that will only fatten the wallets of wealthy developers.

City Lab is the latest to weigh in, warning that the 3.3-mile QLine depends on unrealistic ridership and revenue projections.

“It’s a marketing vehicle that will mostly shuttle suburbanites from parking lots and bars to concerts and sporting events and a few Quicken (Loans) employees from their apartments just north of the city center to work,” concludes the digital news site.

City Lab, which is affiliated with The Atlantic magazine, points out that the Woodward streetcar’s vitality depends on “sky-high ridership estimates” to break even: 5,000-8,000 passengers per day. If it achieves that total, it’d be the second most trafficked streetcar route in the U.S.

And that’s not likely in Motown, where cars are king.

The City Lab criticisms echo warnings offered locally for the two years leading up to the streetcar’s debut, most notably in the three-part series published online recently by the Motor City Muckraker.

The QLine is viewed as a distraction from the inner city’s true needs as nearly 40 percent of Detroit’s population is impoverished and 26 percent of households don’t have access to a car.

The Muckraker, run by former Detroit Free Press reporter Steve Neavling, reported that streetcar systems across the nation are underperforming gimmicks that pose as inner city transit. In Cincinnati, Seattle, Dallas and Atlanta basic operations have failed to the point that it’s hard to keep these mini-trains running on time.

A Dome Magazine article I authored in May 2015 demonstrated that state laws revised several years ago make the QLine eligible for up to $8 million in state subsidies if its revenues fall short. That means taxpayers statewide would be funding annually a transit project that covers just three miles in a single community.

City Lab’s Bill Bradley tacitly agrees with Neavling’s assessment that the QLine was designed to help the Ilitch family, with key stops at Comerica Park and the new Detroit Red Wings arena, and Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert, who has purchased about 100 properties near the QLine footprint.

After all, the CEO of the QLine is Matt Cullen, former CEO of Gilbert’s Rock Ventures, who has no long-term experience in the mass transit business.

A 2015 study of five streetcar system’s nationwide found that the pattern is clear: The revival of this archaic form of transit is sparked by business interests and eternally optimistic city officials.

“In most cities,” the study said, “private sector actors from the local development and downtown business communities as well as streetcar advocacy groups were the key forces behind streetcar implementation and that these actors did so in order to use the streetcar primarily to achieve development goals.”

The 6.6-mile QLine loop from Campus Martius to the New Center area and back was packed with people over the weekend as free ridership was offered for the transit system’s debut.

The free rides continue this week but Crain’s reported the crowds were mostly gone at the 12 QLine stops on Monday, an early indication that weekday usage may be minimal.

One key criticism of the QLine – that it’s so slow it takes about 25 minutes to make the full 3.3-mile trip – was demonstrated on Sunday by a rogue group. City Lab reported that a snarky 5K run held on Woodward, called “Race the QLine,” demonstrated that every competitor outran the streetcar.

Supporters of the line are counting on a “cool factor” to make the streetcar a trendy destination. Even some skeptics wonder if a popular QLine will spark interest in more mass transit among Metro Detroiters who voted down a public transportation plan for the region last year.

Bradley’s piece offers this take:

The argument for streetcars as economic development has been made in every American city that talked itself into one — it’s the first thing that is in all of the QLine’s literature. But in Detroit, where cars rule, it could actually serve a higher purpose: to convince people that transit is a good thing, even though the QLine in its current iteration is more of an amusement park ride than actual equitable transit.

“We haven’t seen this kind of thing in a long time,” says (Francis Grunow, a member of a public transportation advocacy group, the Corridors Alliance). “It’s sad in a way that we’re building a redundant system. DDOT (the city’s bus system) does more or less the same thing. But fundamentally, the M-1 looks different. This will hopefully accelerate our want and our desire for more.

There’s lot of good reasons to critique it and ask hard questions about it. We love to make these things into silver bullets — and it’s just not. The M-1 is not going to solve our transit problems by any stretch. But we need things to give people options so that people can start thinking about this place in more than just cars and no cars.”

 

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