I am a board member with Transportation Riders United (TRU), a nonprofit that has been advocating for better public transit in Metro Detroit for the past 20 years. I am also on the ridership promotion committee which includes helping people figure out the bus system. Riding the bus can be intimidating if you’ve never done it so I teach people how to figure out routes, how to pay, how to exit, and how to transfer.
On a cold, sunny day in January 2020, I met up with Mike McFall, a Hazel Park resident, and newly elected City Council member. Mike is a lifelong Michigan resident whose family is steeped in the automotive business. Although he grew up in Metro Detroit, his travels led him to places around the world and the country that have good public transit. For a year he lived in San Francisco and hardly ever used his car. In 2017 he and his husband purchased a home in Hazel Park.
He had never tried the public transit system in Metro Detroit but was eager to learn about it. When he was campaigning for the city council, he met many people from different backgrounds who relied on the bus system and he wanted to learn more about it. For that, he wanted an experienced guide to show him how to use it.
Read more about transit at David Gifford's website Transit Guide: Detroit.
Our journey started at a bus stop in Hazel Park on John R just north of 9 Mile. I advised him to bring a hat and gloves because it was cold and since the buses don’t run as frequently on Sundays, we could end up waiting a while at the bus stop. Mike downloaded the Transit App and purchased his fare. I paid with cash and received a paper ticket. The basic fare costs $2 and is good for 4 hours of unlimited rides on SMART, DDOT & the QLine. After a few minutes, the John R bus showed up and we boarded, heading south towards Detroit. I inserted my cash into the farebox and received a paper ticket. Mike just showed the driver his phone. The bus was nice and toasty and there were several people already on board.
The first thing that surprised Mike was how many stops the bus made between 9 Mile & 8 Mile to pick people up. More than he would have guessed on a Sunday afternoon. Most bus schedules are based around commuting times and some don’t run frequently on the weekends if at all. The truth is that people don’t just ride the bus to work during the week but also ride it to go shopping, go to the doctor, visit friends, go out to eat and all the same reasons we drive anywhere that's not work. A lot of that activity happens on the weekends but is difficult when buses don’t run as frequently if at all.
On our trip I explained that DDOT buses mainly stay in Detroit and SMART buses run in the suburbs however some routes go downtown during peak hours. Peak hours are also known as rush hour in the morning and evening. Outside of peak hours, most SMART buses turn around at the city border and riders transfer to DDOT buses to continue on their trip.
While the financial part of transferring has been solved with a shared fare system called DART, the physical act of transferring here can be tricky. The FAST Woodward bus we wanted to catch was early (or we were late) and was already at its stop when we reached Woodward. One rider darted off the bus and ran diagonally across all 8 lanes of Woodward to make his connection.
We crossed at the crosswalk and waited for the next bus, which happened to be a DDOT bus. The DDOT Woodward bus is a good route but it is a slow trip to downtown since it stops at every local stop where there are people waiting. The FAST bus only stops every 1–2 miles making for a faster trip. The bus was quite full as we made our way down Woodward. We hopped off at Grand Blvd and checked out a new interior store called Urbanum.
They have lots of cool Detroit merchandise and interior design accents. Next, we walked to the QLine stop where Mike bought a paper ticket since his phone was dying. That’s one of the disadvantages of the mobile app. If your phone dies you had better hope you have cash. Fortunately, the QLine kiosks accept credit cards and passes can be used on the streetcar or buses.
As we were waiting for the streetcar, which was charging just north Grand Blvd, I explained to other riders that their QLine ticket was also good on DDOT & SMART buses for up to four hours of unlimited rides. They could choose the first transit to arrive if need be. After a few minutes the QLine pulled up to the platform and we headed downtown. We talked about the history of Detroit transit and what the future might hold for the region.
It was nice to be able to converse and look out the window without having to pay attention to the road. At the end of the line we walked across Spirit Plaza to Jefferson to wait for the next bus. One thing Mike noted is that his overall transit experience was pretty good, but a little unpredictable. He didn’t feel that he could use it to get to work but it would be a great resource for reaching fun events in the city without having to pay the high cost of parking.
The lack of wayfinding is another problem, especially for the novice rider who doesn’t know which bus to take or where they go. Mike said he experienced this in other cities too though. The FAST Woodward bus pulled up so we hopped on. It was a much faster trip back up Woodward since the FAST bus only stops at designated stops every 1–2 miles. Instead of returning the way we came, we rode it to Ferndale, which dropped us off right outside Como’s.
We crossed 9 Mile and only had to wait a few minutes for the 9 Mile bus to take us back to Hazel Park. SMART crosstown routes run on 9, 10, 12, 13/14 and 15 Mile. They pass through many cities but don’t run as frequently as the FAST bus, very late at night and some don’t run on Sundays. I told Mike how additional funding could make them more frequent and more useful.
After we hopped off at 9 Mile and walked back across to our cars, I told Mike that once he’s ridden a bus, he’ll start seeing things differently. He’ll notice buses and people waiting at bus stops. He’ll think about his experience and want to improve things for other bus riders. His next plan is to learn about the community partnership SMART has with Hazel Park which helps seniors get around.