A Streetcar Named Detroit

Streetcars—electric this time—roll into the Motor City for the first time in 60 years.

Detroit Streetcars
Charles Phelps Cushing/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Horse-drawn streetcars crisscrossed Detroit’s major thoroughfares by the early 1860’s, charging a nickel a ride. By the time I lived off desolate, drug-soaked Woodward Ave. in the Eighties – back when many suburbanites wouldn’t cross Eight Mile on a bet – the last streetcar had been gone for 30 years. After a final procession in 1956 for two dozen sturdy PCC streetcars -- the postwar standard from Brooklyn and Boston to San Francisco and Washington, D.C. – Motown’s cars were sold to Mexico City and replaced by smoke-belching GM diesel buses. White flight was just getting underway. And a fateful 1967 riot paved Detroit’s road to ruin as one of the nation’s most racially divided and downtrodden cities.

A more-hopeful glow is shining on Detroit again, literally in the case of 65,000 LED streetlights that were flipped back on in December. That lifted entire neighborhoods from a surreal gloom that had kept wary residents indoors after dark.

Now the streetcars are returning to Woodward this spring. The new QLine aims to lure visitors downtown; convince others to live or open businesses there; and link bustling-but-disconnected pockets of development that people remain leery of traversing on foot. The 20 curbside stations will include WiFi, heating, security cameras and screens to keep riders informed on approaching cars.

“Streetcars activate the sidewalks,” says Dan Lijana, communications chief for the $140 million project. “We will be the case example that investing in transit makes sense.”

Some Detroiters are taking a wait-and-see attitude on that, considering the notorious dysfunction of its public transportation system: Hours-long waits for buses, serially aborted light rail plans, and of course the People Mover, downtown’s underused, 2.2-mile monorail-to-nowhere. The situation found a human face in James Robertson, Detroit’s “Walking Man,” who commuted 21 miles to work on foot for a decade after his ’88 Honda Accord died, until his plight brought $360,000 in crowd-sourced donations, and a new Honda.

In the Seventies, Detroit left $600 million in promised federal transit funding on the table, because the city and suburbs—barely on speaking terms, politically—couldn’t come together on a regional transit plan. Just this November, a four-county millage election to raise $3 billion for a Regional Transit Authority fell short in a close vote.

Yet at this point, any development in Detroit can seem preferable to the infighting, apathy and ultimately stasis that has gripped the city for so long. And the timing of the QLine, under the umbrella organization called M1 Rail, does seems right. Economic projections show 10,000 new housing units bound for the Woodward corridor, and $1.8 billion of $3 billion in expected investment already in play. With the NBA’s Detroit Pistons moving from the suburbs to share a new stadium this fall with the hockey Red Wings – just blocks from existing stadiums for the Lions and Tigers -- Detroit will become the only American city to house teams of all four major sports within its borders.

The $140 million QLine streetcars are largely a philanthropic effort for now, including $50 million raised by the Kresge Foundation, along with $37.2 million in federal transportation grants. And the 3.3-mile line from Detroit’s North End neighborhood to Campus Martius in the heart of downtown is backed by a Who’s Who of local players. Racing legend Roger Penske is Chairman of the Board, his name adorning the Penske Tech Center on Woodward where we’ve come to check out the bright-red, all-electric streetcars. Dan Gilbert, owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Quicken Loans (and Detroit’s de facto landlord, having snapped up at least $500 million in city properties), anted up $15 million. That includes $5 million for 10 years of naming rights, as in “Q” for “Quicken.”

General Motors, Fiat Chrysler and Ford are onboard for station sponsorships, continuing an about-face on alternative transportation that’s seen Ford put thousands of bicycles on San Francisco streets. (One hardy urban legend, that GM itself conspired to kill streetcars nationwide in favor of buses, has been widely debunked by transportation historians.)

Here at the Penske Tech Center, we climb aboard one of six streetcars that will ply Woodward, complete with bike racks, onboard WiFi and HVAC systems to keep Motown’s bitter winters at bay. They’re designed and built in America by Brookville Equipment Corporation of Pennsylvania. In 2002, the nearly century-old maker of locomotives and mining cars began building the first American-made streetcars since the 1950’s. It’s supplying modern and rebuilt heritage models to cities including Dallas, San Francisco, New Orleans and Milwaukee.

President Donald Trump would be pleased to know that 95 percent of streetcar components are American-sourced; and that Detroit’s talks with a Czech Republic streetcar company fell through. M1 Rail paid about $5 million for each of six cars, plus $2 million for spare parts, in a $32 million deal.

Roy Bryans, project manager, walks us through Detroit’s first new streetcar in 60 years.

“The last car that retired here in 1956 was No. 286, so No. 287 is our first new car here,” Bryans says.

The sleek 66-foot-long streetcars can fit up to 125 passengers. Ably powered by four 99 kW AC traction motors, the streetcars can reach 48 mph, though they’ll be limited to Woodward’s 35-mph speed limit in Detroit. The cars draw energy from overhead electrical connections for propulsion and to charge their 750-volt lithium-ion batteries.

Those batteries are a streetcar breakthrough, allowing them to travel more than 1 mile on battery power alone. That could allow cities to steadily wean streetcars off of unsightly and cumbersome overhead electrical wires. In Detroit, the cars will rely on batteries for about 60 percent of each 6.6-mile loop, with 12 stops in each direction. That 60-percent “off-line,” purely battery-driven operation will be the most of any U.S. streetcar line, Brookville says.

I peer below the streetcars at their massive trucks (or what British trainspotters call “bogies”), the bearing-supported axle-and-wheel assemblies. Considering the electric cars weigh about 86,000 pounds, their rolling resistance is surprisingly low.

““You and me could roll this car by ourselves, if we just leaned on it,” Bryans says.

Moving to the operator’s chair, I hit panel switches to make the sliding doors open and shut, and trigger various warning sounds designed to alert cars and pedestrians to the streetcar’s stealthy electric approach. Detroiters had better get used to being startled, since the streetcars will be sharing a lane with automobiles.

“You have to use the horn and bells while you move, because people just don’t hear it,” Bryans says.

In a city where many drivers blithely leave their cars wherever, officials are concerned with people parking or double parking in the path of the streetcars –and hope to dissuade it with stiff $650 fines for scofflaws.

“There’s a huge education initiative in front of us to get people used to coexisting with streetcars,” Lijana says.

Lijana says there have been a few well-meaning snafus when a Ford F-250 pickup tows cars from Penske Tech Center out onto the tracks for batteries of safety and validation tests.

“People jump out of their cars and block traffic to take selfies when the streetcar goes out,” he says.

The streetcars will connect and serve several urban oases, from my own alma mater at Wayne State University to theaters, Orchestra Hall, Henry Ford Medical Center, stadiums, bars and restaurants. Some local media and critics have groused about the line’s early-bird 10 p.m closing time, potentially at odds with plans to serve expanding weekend nightlife and stadium goers. Streetcar stations will include WiFi, heating, security cameras and screens to keep riders informed on approaching cars.

Considering the underutilized People Mover, all eyes are focused on whether the streetcars can fill an actual transportation need and become a cog in a wider network of public transport. That includes 47 badly needed city buses, procured with federal funding and the help of from former Vice-President Joe Biden; and a new Amtrak station in the New Center area.

Backers expect 5,000 to 7,000 riders per day, paying $1.50 a ride. That’s decidedly inflated from nickel fare for Detroit’s post-Civil War streetcars, but not enough to cover an expected $5 million a year in operating costs.

“We’re not delusional,” Lijana says of the need for secure long-term funding. For now, riding the wave of public and corporate goodwill for Detroit, the streetcars have funding commitments for its first 10 years.

As ever in Detroit, where suspicions and hostilities between an 80-percent black city and largely white suburbs finally seem to be thawing, racial undercurrents will still bubble up. The project faced pushback from some locals who saw streetcars as an avatar of elitism and white entitlement, a sort of rolling version of the Whole Foods that became Detroit’s first new supermarket in decades. It might take another 20 years of such development before the still-pockmarked downtown earns the word “gentrification,” but it’s definitely coming.

Lijana characterizes the mood of some black residents: “The buses are for us, these streetcars are for other people,” he says. “You’re going to mess up the street, you’re going to mess up our neighborhood.”

For all the feel-good and momentum in Detroit, this is a city that lost another 25 percent of its population between 2000 and 2010. The Economist magazine called it, New Orleans aside, a demographic catastrophe “without parallel in the developed world.”

But backers say streetcars can be part of a rising tide that benefits everyone, from residents to business to infrastructure. The project has repaved the Woodward moonscape for the first time in 70 years, including new curbs, drainage and traffic lights. That major dig uncovered ancient streetcar rails and other remnants of Motown’s olden days, though one remains at large.

“They did not find Jimmy Hoffa, but they found pretty much everything else,” Lijana says.