On May 12, 2018, the QLine celebrated its first anniversary. Though the QLine was championed as a step in public transportation, the streetcar only operates a 6.6-mile loop on Detroit’s Woodward Avenue. With its twelve locations limited to major entertainment and sport complexes including the Detroit Institute of Arts, a series of parking lots, the Fox and Fillmore Theatres, Midtown, and Campus Marius Park, such investments raise the question: who is this infrastructure for, residents or visitors? Detroit, and the subsequent expansion of its suburbs, is and continues to be reliant on the personal vehicle. For those without access to this resource, public transportation needs to be reflective of these mobility needs.
With estimated building costs at $144 million, the QLine also obtains additional annual operating costs of almost $6 million. Described as a public-private partnership, major corporations including Compuware, Chevrolet, Ford, JPMorgan, and QuickenLoans (who ultimately named the streetcar) contributed the funds necessary for its creation, under the oversight of the City of Detroit and its subordinate departments and administrations. However, the ultimate financial oversight does not come from the city of Detroit, but rather M-1 Rail, a private nonprofit. This overlap of local governance, philanthropy, and major corporate interests creates a hodge-podge of organizations with influence over the project, despite the Qline’s branding and popular conception as a component of public transportation. Additionally, the introduction of business interest as a major source funding, unlike previous transportation projects that have been fully organized by local governments, introduces a secondary force of authority with no true accountability to voting residents.
The QLine is a component of a larger legacy of only moderately effective transportation. Detroit’s People Mover, an automated light rail system, is concentrated near the city’s core entertainment sites, sporting venues, and centralized city landmarks. Roughly three miles in length, this elevated loop was built in 1987 and cost almost $400 million. Though these alternative forms of public transportation have been marketed as a city-wide investment, their location and proximity indicate that transportation planning priorities tourist and suburbanites over city residents.
These priorities are reflective of larger regional planning interests, as movements to expand regional transportation are continually met with resistance. The existing Southeast Michigan regional infrastructure is fragmented, with the city of Detroit maintaining its bus system within city limits, an external system operating in the suburbs, and spatial mismatch making connection from one system to another difficult. Regional planning bodies like the Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority, in addition, have only recently created preliminary additions, with an emphasis on “premium and high-frequency corridors” for buses. SEMCOG, the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, a larger regional organization of local governments, emphasizes similar transit, and underscores “rapid-transit corridors” and “improved and expanded community transit.” Even SEMCOG’s 2040 Regional Transportation Plan, which outlines organization porosities and recommends “approximately $ 35 billion” allocated, places a majority of its focus on road infrastructure like bridges and wider roadways.
Southeast Michigan’s regional planning emphasizes the individual, especially those with access to single or family cars, and leaves those without access to these resources by the wayside. Even the newest infrastructure investments in the Detroit Metropolitan Region, like the QLINE, are made for suburbanites who drive in to the city and use the public transportation for a limited or one-time period, before leaving and driving out. For those who live, work, and learn in the city, ineffective transportation seriously impacts their daily experiences. In 2016, 24.7% of Detroit residents lived in households without vehicles and the average vehicle per household was 1.15. Southeast Michigan can serve as an example for the rest of the State of Michigan by recognizing the wide population it encompasses and creating long-term mobility planning that realistically addresses these needs. Furthermore these actions have the potential to ensure all residents, regardless of resources, have the right to mobility.