When David Gifford first moved to southwest Warren from Rochester in 2014, he was excited to be living somewhere with a bus stop nearby.
“Most people in metro Detroit who drive don't think this is a good thing,” says Gifford. “But I can get to Ferndale and step off right in front of businesses rather than fight for parking behind them and walk around.”
His one wish: That the 9 Mile bus near his house ran later and more frequently.
David GiffordGifford says he and his wife Kayce Gifford chose Warren for a combination of factors; price, centrality (Kayce was commuting to Wayne State while David’s job is in Romeo), architectural style (they love mid-century modern ranches), and even the local food scene. Access to public transit wasn’t on their radar.
“I was born and raised in Macomb County, where we were taught that you had to have a car to get around anywhere,” says Gifford. “So I was always a car guy. I loved hot-rods and the Dream Cruise growing up.”
But Gifford says witnessing how suburban sprawl was “chewing up the land” in his home county, combined with experiencing quality transit systems in other cities like Chicago, Seattle, and Miami, made him wonder what Detroit's transit system had to offer.
“I didn't even know where transit went in Detroit,” he recalls. “So in 2016, I decided to take the bus for the first time. I downloaded the phone app, and had to go to the bank to get change because it only takes cash. So I had to walk across a couple busy streets, get change, and then walk across another street to go to my bus stop. And I looked at the app and realized it was going to take me three buses to get home from Troy, which would be a pretty quick car ride.”
The experience raised Gifford’s awareness about the challenges facing Detroit’s disjointed transit system. At the time, the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) was launching a campaign to pass a first-ever regional millage for transit that November. Many advocates believed things were about to change. In the end, the measure failed; the widest margins were found in Gifford’s home county of Macomb.
“I thought they were trying to sell it to the wrong people in the wrong way,” he says. “They were trying to sell this regional transit system, and they were telling everybody, ‘We'll help out the underprivileged, the disabled, the older crowd.’ But they were asking all these homeowners that had cars to pay for it. And I thought that was the wrong message, and that's when I decided to get involved and try to see if I could help them solve it another way.”
Gifford has always been interested in making the best information available to people. He believed a better starting point would be to try to educate more people about where transit routes actually go, and to grow ridership by promoting transit for fun.
“And then from there, once you go for fun, if it can get more people moving to transit centers, like along Gratiot, Woodward, Michigan Avenue, you can concentrate on them first, before you try to expand it to the rest of the area.”
So Gifford sought out the transit advocacy organization Transit Riders United and began working with them to understand better how transit agencies were promoting their existing services. He started spending his free time meeting with transit professionals and cultivated an active social media presence to share information about transit assets in the community.
He’s most proud of being part of the impetus for DDOT’s Christmas marketing campaign for Winter in Detroit. The agency partnered with DTE Energy and Quicken Loans to decorate the buses for the holiday and offered free rides on Saturdays.
“I think I had a small part in kicking that off,” he admits. “Whenever I see events downtown or missed opportunities for marketing, I make sure and, through my Facebook page, comment and try to make them include transit information. Anywhere from the Thanksgiving Parade to opening day, the opening of the Qline last year, there are just a bunch of paths to put transit into the equation.”
Gifford grew frustrated when the RefleX Bus was introduced on Gratiot and Woodward last year with little fanfare.
“Nobody was really promoting it, because the RTA was in charge of it, but SMART ran the Gratiot line, DDOT ran the Woodward line, and everybody thought it was everyone else's job to promote it,” he says.
So Gifford began a website and Facebook page to promote the RefleX. Since then he has developed more social media channels, all with the goal of educating people about the existing transit assets in their communities. In addition to Ride the RefleX, Gifford blogs about transit routes on Medium and created and manages a second Facebook Page, Metro Detroit Public Transit Promotions.
On Wednesday, January 31, Gifford received the 2018 Transit Activist of the Year Award from transit Riders United for his efforts.
For the future, Gifford would like to see more coordination and imagination in promoting the existing transit assets to people in the region, which he hopes will translate into increased ridership and more support for a second attempt at a regional transit millage.
“In other cities, transit systems have a character or kind of a presence to them, like Ride the Rapid in Grand Rapids, and the TheRide in Ann Arbor. Our agencies are just acronyms that are kind of stale. They don't really have an identity,” he says.“The good news is, promotions are picking up; everybody has upped their game in the past few months as far as promoting transit, so that's been great to see.”
One thing Gifford would like to be able to do in the future is to take the bus to work from Warren to Romeo. Right now the Van Dyke bus stops at 23 Mile Rd.