Partnering with Transportation Riders United (TRU), the Detroit Department of Transit (DDOT) and the Suburban Mobility Authority of Regional Transportation (SMART) hosted a virtual town hall meeting for the community to learn how transit is functioning under COVID-19 and voice questions and concerns on Wednesday, July 9.
TRU Executive Director Megan Owens saw the need to connect the public with transit leaders as COVID-19 dramatically changed transportation operations.
“We really want to expand it from [information] and invite bus riders and other stakeholders to talk about ways they feel it could become safer, what can we learn about from what’s happened in other cities, what concerns people have, what ideas do they have,” Owens said. “[This is] both informational and really a community discussion.”
People from across Detroit and the Metro area tuned in to learn more about how transit leaders plan to keep their buses, drivers and riders safe during the pandemic.
The town hall opened with a presentation on the safety measures TRU has backed through funding from Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, such as rear-loading to protect the driver, providing masks, suspending fares and advocating for Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliances.
According to Owens, Detroit ridership dropped nearly 70% when COVID-19 hit, and of the remaining 30% of riders, the majority are essential workers. Under the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommendations, it is advised that public transportation be used for essential business.
With this, TRU, DDOT, SMART and other Detroit-based transit operations were tasked with the challenge to find the balance of cutting down service to meet the demand while avoiding overcrowding, in addition to maintaining the health and safety of all those on the bus.
“From a cleanliness standpoint, I’m gonna have to say, we’ve been told our buses are the cleanest they’ve ever been,” DDOT Executive Director Mikel Oglesby said. “And I hope so with the amount of money we’re putting into them … I’m telling you, we’re cleaning these things so much, I think we’re rubbing the paint off of them.”
A big concern of both the town hall leaders and the public has been driver safety, and in turn, driver availability. While DDOT is looking for more drivers to employ, they and SMART have already begun to implement plexiglass barriers and rear-loading into their systems to ensure driver safety, especially after the death of Detroit driver Jason Hargrove.
Currently, DDOT and SMART have adjusted operations to allow for social distancing on their buses while meeting the demand of the public. SMART has eliminated certain routes all together, such as their commuter routes. They plan to reinstate those when there is a higher demand for transportation to Downtown Detroit.
Oglesby addressed the current closures of the QLine and the People Mover, saying there is currently no demand for them, but as soon as there is, they will resume their schedules immediately.
SMART and DDOT also discussed the suspension of fares, and have been using their CARES Act funding to supplement the revenue loss. According to Oglesby and SMART General Manager Robert Cramer, they will not be collecting fares until they have found a safe but accessible way to do so, and they will give the public ample notice before collection starts.
There was some confusion regarding how the CARES Act funding was used.
“$64 million of CARES Act funding went to DDOT,” Oglesby said. “For some reason, there was another set of CARES Act funding that went to the city, a separate $64 million went to DDOT … the funding [we got from the CARES Act] was used for DDOT only.”
Viewers were allowed to call in during the question portion of the town hall, and transit rider Jamie Wow from the Detroit People’s Platform addressed ADA concerns with boarding from the rear, and how those with unseen disabilities were denied the ability to front load.
Oglesby assured her he would look into the issue and meet the needs of any ADA passengers.
The town hall closed with Cramer and Oglesby discussing the potential long term effects COVID-19 will have on public transit in Detroit and the surrounding area, especially with the possibility of an economic recession.
“The pandemic really offers the opportunity to shake things up because everything is shaken up,” Cramer said. “And I don’t mean switching to driving on the left side of the road just for kicks, but when you have something that disrupts all of society so significantly, and you have all these challenges that you’re dealing with, I think it really does provide an opportunity to think about what is it we’re trying to do here — things we can adjust to make what we are able to do even better.”
TRU plans to hold another town hall on Aug. 12 to discuss the role of public transportation in climate change. For more information on that or what was discussed at this town hall, visit their website or social media.