Detroit QLine vs. KC Streetcar

The first year ridership numbers are in for Detroit’s QLine streetcar and they are lower than expected. According to Crain’s Detroit, the QLine averaged 3,700 daily riders during warmer months and only 2,700 during the winter. That is much lower than the 5,000 expected daily riders. The Kansas City Streetcar is about the same age, also runs curbside but, at only 2.2 miles in length, had an average daily ridership of 5,645 in its first year. What are they doing different in Kansas City?

The Kansas City Streetcar is free to ride. The QLine is privately funded and costs $1.50 for three hours & $3.00 for an all day pass. KC Streetcar is funded by a 1% sales tax of businesses within their transportation development district (TDD). Imagine if we did this in Detroit instead of tying the QLine’s operating costs to a future four county RTA millage. Think of how much would the three stadiums and downtown businesses would contribute! After a summer of free fares, QLine ridership dipped from roughly 5,000 to 3,000 a day once they started charging.

Kansas City, looking north from the terminus of the KC Streetcar at Union Station.

The 2.2 mile KC Streetcar has destinations on each ends as well as in the middle. The route starts on the south end of Kansas City at their beautifully restored Union Station, which is part Amtrak station, science center, live theater, movie theater and railroad museum. Opened in 1914, it is the same age as the Michigan Central Station in Detroit, but it has fared far better. The Kansas City Union Station was restored in 1999 using a bi-state, four county 1/8th cent sales tax while the Detroit station deteriorated under private ownership. Michigan Central Station will become a Ford autonomous vehicle campus with rumors of a movie theater and possibly some residential but it is not a stop along the QLine.

Kansas City Union Station — Detroit Michigan Central Station both opened 1914.

Other stops of note along the KC Rail include the Crossroads Arts District, Kauffman Performing Arts Center, Power & Light District, which includes the Sprint Center, and City Market. The end of the route is a district called River Market, similar to Detroit’s Eastern Market but more developed. Visit KC’s website has streamlined information on all of the districts along the route.

KC Streetcar system map
Start of the QLine in downtown Detroit (archpaper.com)

There are easily 100 destinations along Detroit’s streetcar route but most of the QLine’s destinations are in the middle of the route and there are no major anchors at each end. The QLine travels from the foot of the financial district near Spirit Plaza where there are some scattered restaurants, little retail and is 3 blocks from Cobo Center. Across busy Jefferson Ave is Hart Plaza and the Riverwalk. The other end of the line is New Center where there are a few restaurants, Hotel St. Regis and the Fisher Building but no major anchor. Most of the 3.3 mile stretch is actively under construction and recovering from decades of disinvestment. Ridership will increase as more destinations are added but as you can see from the drone footage below, many stops are still pretty desolate. Along the route is Campus Martius, Grand Circus Park, theater district, stadium district which failed to delivery on retail and housing, hospital district, Midtown, Wayne State University, museum district and ends in New Center. The Visit Detroit website doesn’t quite tie it all together like Visit KC does.

QLine system map by Martha Thierry Detroit Free Press

Looking at the KC Streetcar website, something is noticeably different. The QLine website, like most SE Michigan transit websites, has great technical information about how to ride, stations, prices and a link to a parking website but not a lot of destination info. KC has really embraced their streetcar as a promotional tool by integrating it into downtown activities like Art in the Loop, which includes art and music performances both on and off the streetcar. Other events include storytelling and holiday musicians aboard the streetcar.

Art in the Loop

QLine? With a city full of artists, musicians, designers, museums and historians, similar events have yet to materialize. Sure, the QLine social media team is good about creating relevant posts when new developments or events happen along their route but they have yet to take the lead and create programming of their own that ties them into the fabric of Detroit.

When the KC Streetcar is down for obstructions, malfunctions or weather, they send a “streetcar link” bus to keep service going. In Detroit, the QLine suffers from similar delays but never sends a bus to the rescue or suggests one of the two bus systems that also run along Woodward.

Never a suggestion to ride a city or suburb bus when the QLine is stuck.

The KC Streetcar is part of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority which includes buses and bike sharing. Being a part of a regional transit network allows all of the transit services to work together, something we don’t have in SE Michigan. Why doesn’t the QLine send a “streetcar link” bus when its delayed? It can’t because the bus systems and streetcar are separate systems and aren’t under the same transit authority. This leads me to my last point.

The Kansas City Area Transportation Authority was formed in the mid 1960’s and uses a sales tax to fund itself. Transit authorities have the power of the government in dealing with solving problems related to transit issues. This includes the powers of eminent domain to obtain space for rights-of-way (e.g. for railways or busways), the ability to impose excise, income, property, and/or sales taxes to fund subsidies of operating costs of local transportation, and the ability to operate independently of the cities and counties that the transit district operates within. A transit authority also has the ability to request federal funding and will receive more than six separate transit systems would on their own.

In SE Michigan we have SMART, DDOT, QLine, People Mover, TheRide and MoGo Detroit bicycle sharing but they all are all separate organizations with different price structures, separate websites and are funded differently. SE Michigan established a regional transit authority in SE Michigan in 2012 but the state tied its funding to a property tax millage. Residents in SE Michigan feel overtaxed already so the last two efforts to raise funding failed. A fully funded regional transit authority would oversee & coordinate all services, increase the reach of service coverage, come up with a universal fare card to use for all systems and increase their collective ability to receive federal funding.

Will the QLine ever improve? Maybe if they put the tracks down the center of the road or give it a dedicated transit lane. Some argue that it will never be real transit unless it runs all the way to Pontiac. Well, to those people I say, I have just the bus for you.

Avid transit blogger from Metro Detroit. www.transitguidedetroit.com