Darry Blair is waiting for a bus at Rosa Parks Transit Center in Detroit. It's a quarter past 5 p.m. on an overcast Wednesday in late October, and he's frustrated.
"[It's] terrible," he says. "I was waiting on the bus, the Woodward bus, since about 3:30. And I just walked from over there to over here [to find a bus]. I'm going home."
Blair, who's been riding Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT) buses since 1975, lives over on the western edge of Detroit's New Center area near Henry Ford Hospital. He works part-time at a dry cleaner located around Van Dyke Avenue and Harper Avenue on the city's East Side.It costs him about $20 a week to ride to work. But it's not the price of fare that bothers him, it's the unreliability of the buses right now, particularly later in the day.
"In the morning, I catch the Dexter to Van Dyke. and normally that bus is on time," he says. "But in the evening after 3 O'Clock. service is bad. It's slow and they need more bus drivers."
Mikee, another commuter who asked to be identified just by her first name, has been experiencing similar issues. The 54-year-old secretary, who commutes between her home in Southwest Detroit and her job downtown five days a week, often deals with buses that are between 20-45 minutes late to their stops. And the wait time can be as much as two hours after 6 p.m., which raises safety concerns for her.
As for the ride itself, it usually takes Mikee between an hour to an hour and a half to make the trip. While she occupies that time reading books or playing games on her phone, she often wonders how much more she could be getting done around her house each day, if the commute times were shorter. And she feels the issue has become a lot more problematic, since the beginning of the pandemic last year.
"It's gotten worse, longer bus times," she says. "I think it's because they can't hire enough people. And sometimes people are pretty mean to the drivers, so I can't say that I blame the drivers for quitting."
Blair and Mikee's stories are common in a region where transit costs low-income people of color disproportionately more in terms of costs, travel time and access to their jobs or job opportunities. COVID has made it worse, but these are longstanding problems— and the solutions are within our grasp if we can muster the political will to implement them.
Issues with transit certainly aren't a new development in Southeast Michigan, which has long had a reputation for being one of the worst transit systems in the United States. The historical reasons for the region's poor transit are long and varied and include the elimination of the city's streetcar system in the 1950s, as well as the decision of many communities to opt-out of participating in Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART), which provides bus service to riders in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne Counties.
Akil Deck, 18 at the Rosa Parks Transit Station. Photo by Nick Hagen
Megan Owens, executive director of the nonprofit Transportation Riders United
(TRU), agrees there's been a noticeable change in DDOT's service since COVID-19 arrived in Southeast Michigan.
"It's not a completely new problem, but it's gotten exacerbated by the recent crises," she says.
"They're really struggling to have enough drivers to operate the buses. [It's] across the board for the high priority and lower priority routes. Everyone is dealing with this right now."
TRU has been working to improve transit in the Metro Detroit area since 1999. Over that time, Owens has witnessed some improvements at DDOT. In 2018, the agency launched its
service, which aims to provide 24-hour service seven days a week to the city's ten most popular routes with 15-minute frequency during peak hours. And the following year, it began offering a shared fare system called DART
in collaboration with the QLINE Streetcar and the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART); it allows riders to experience seamless transitions between the three transit providers through a unified payment process.
COVID-19 has certainly made its impact felt on bus systems, however, both in Detroit and around the United States. During March of 2020 of the pandemic, transit ridership nationwide declined by more than 75%
, according to a transit app study. And the federal government approved tens of billions of dollars
in emergency funding to keep transit systems around the United States running.
Ridership in Metro Detroit is now down to only 43% of its pre-pandemic levels
, according to transit app data from Nov. 3, but finding drivers to operate buses is still a big issue for both DDOT and SMART. While staffing shortages are happening across many of industries right now, Owens attributes DDOT's current predicament to other causes, including drivers who might have left and never returned due to health concerns, those who might have to care for sick relatives, and some who may have passed away.
"The need for service has risen faster than the availability of bus drivers. and that's the challenge because people still very much need to get where they need to go," she says.
Addressing transit inequity
The current situation also raises questions about transportation equity in a city where African Americans make up 86% of DDOT's ridership
, according to a 2018 survey.
According to a recent Detroit Future City economic equity study
citing 2019 data, the average trip for Detroiters who commute by public transit is 13 minutes longer than that of those who use similar transit in the suburbs. The same report found African-American public transit users in the Metro Detroit area spent an average of 23% of their income (in wages) on transit, compared to just 12% for their white counterparts. Those numbers jumped to 25% for African Americans and 19% for whites who owned automobiles.
Photo by Nick Hagen
Owens isn't very surprised by those figures, which she attributes more to race-based income inequality than differences between city and suburban transit providers. For her, tackling the issues they raise, however, means addressing the transit options riders currently have available to them.
"Given that more than 80% of bus riders in this area are people of color, anything that would improve bus service, that would make buses run more frequently or make them quicker, more direct or more convenient, really would have an oversized benefit for people of color."
Beyond that, Diajah Ruffin, lead organizer Motor City Freedom Riders
, another Southeast Michigan organization dedicated to building a movement for better transit in the region, believes it's also important to view transit disparities as a symptom of structural racism.
"We know that transit has been an issue when it comes to equity since the beginning of transit in Detroit going back into the early 1900s," she says. "[So] we advocate for the understanding of how transit has impacted Black Lives in the city of Detroit, in regards to not being equitable, not being sufficient enough and frankly just being left on the back burner."
One cause for optimism, however, is the new express commuter bus service, D2A2
, that connects Detroit with Ann Arbor. The service, which began operation in October, was established by the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) of Southeast Michigan in partnership with the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority. Operated by the Michigan Flyer motorcoach company, D2A2 provides hourly trips between the downtowns of both cities from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. throughout the week and limited service on Saturdays and Sundays.
"Depending on how you purchase tickets, it can be as low as ten dollars a day back-and-forth," says RTA programming manager Ben Stupka. "And for Detroiters in particular, it provides them access to a fairly robust job market in Ann Arbor."
Connecting Detroiters with better job opportunities through improved transit options is a top priority for the RTA, says Stupka. And beyond the new Detroit-Ann Arbor bus line, the authority has been identifying several strategies to do just that in its new master plan, which is now being finalized.
Jei’juan Vines, 15, at the Rosa Parks Transit Station. Photo by Nick Hagen.
One of these would involve partnering with local governments to expand DDOT routes to reach just outside Detroit city limits. It's an approach the transit provider already carries out to a limited extent with direct connections to Dearborn and Southfield. And Stupka believes that working with local officials to extend DDOT service a mile or two further along busy corridors like Van Dyke Avenue in Warren would make it easier for Detroiters to access tens of thousands of service and manufacturing jobs.
Similarly, SMART found some success implementing express bus service routes prior to the pandemic, particularly along Woodward, Gratiot and Michigan Avenues. This type of service has fewer stops than traditional routes, which allows it to travel greater distances more rapidly. And Stupka believes there's a lot of potential for these kinds of express routes to make transit more convenient and reliable for commuters trying to get to work.
Lastly, there's interest in expanding service to job-rich areas of Southeast Michigan that are not currently connected to the region's transit providers. While this would certainly require the cooperation of communities that are not currently part of SMART's network, it does have the potential to connect Detroiters and other area transit users with tens of thousands of jobs.
Right now, these are just concepts that the RTA is integrating into its master plan, which helps determine the broad goals of the agency. Actually implementing them would require a combination of marshaling new resources through a ballot initiative or other means. At the moment, the RTA is focused on supporting SMART and the Ann Arbor Area Transit Authority in their local millage renewals, but Stupka says the agency is still very interested in seeking funding for efforts like these when the time is right.
"We are woefully underinvested as a region in transit," he says. "We want to be strategic about when is the best time to ask about that investment. But our belief is that by having this broader master plan addressing these strategies, we continue to move the ball [forward] on regional transit."
At the moment, the DDOT is attempting to address issues related to driver availability by making cuts. On Nov. 15, the agency instituted a temporary suspension of service on three routes, Clairmount, Junction and Tireman, while also lowering the frequency on others around the city.
"DDOT is right-sizing service schedules for current ridership, buses, and operators. Even though buses may be scheduled to come less often, the result will be service that is reliable and comes when expected," reads a statement from the agency
DDOT expects to begin restoring service early next year, as well as consulting with riders through a series of community conversations on how to restructure its bus network.
Photo by Nick Hagen
While the cuts may help increase reliability in the short term, TRU believes there's a lot more the agency can do to improve bus service in the city. In fact, the transit advocacy group shared a list of suggestions on how to do this in a September statement
At the top of its list is a recommendation to do more to hire drivers and retain them, including raising regular pay, offering hazard pay, providing hiring and longevity bonuses, and improving working conditions.
The advocacy group also asked DDOT to create a public plan to restore its service to 2019 levels within six months. Beyond that, it would also like to see a more detailed long-term plan that would involve: restoring full service to its ConnectTen routes; increasing frequency so riders can travel anywhere in the city in an hour or less, and increasing access so that all Detroiters are within a quarter-mile of a bus stop or equivalent service.
MCFR also has a plan for improving Detroit's transit system
. Among other things, it calls for tripling DDOT's funding; increasing frequencies on standard bus routes to 15 minutes or better; expanding 24-hour service; Ensuring all Detroit residents can reach a bus stop with a fifteen-minute walk; implementing special fares for low-income residents; raising DDOT driver and mechanic pay to match that of SMART employees, and supporting RTA proposals to establish regional funding mechanisms.
MCFR's lead organizer Diajah Ruffin is well aware that funding currently poses a challenge to enacting these proposals, as does the issue of driver availability during the pandemic. But she's also confident service needs to improve and feels that the city should be taking more steps to make that happen.
"I'm not against raising the millage, but I would also like to look at what we have now and what we're doing with the dollars," she says.
Both MCFR and TRU have called for greater transparency from DDOT, a move that would greatly enhance their advocacy efforts in the city of Detroit. Restoring the agency's performance dashboard
, last updated in May, is of particular concern to the two groups, and TRU also wants access to itemized listings detailing how federal funds are being spent.
Photo by Nick Hagen
Since the start of the pandemic, the city has received more than $84 million in COVID relief funds from the federal government targeted specifically for transit. And it's now set to get $51 million more for similar purposes from the American Rescue Plan
, which was enacted in March.
For her part, Owens is excited about the federal funding and feels the Biden administration "really gets equity and transit more than probably any other administration" up to now. TRU is also working with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's Council on Climate Solutions, an advisory body to the state's Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), to develop a set of recommendations for cutting carbon emissions by extending transit service in Southeast Michigan.
"We're looking at the local, state and federal governments," says Owens. "so there are opportunities at every level to help expand public transit services and improve the lives of people of color."