A Wish List for Motor City Transit

She laughed.

"Humor me," I said, "come on." She laughed again, and again, and again. I wasn't annoyed with her; it was somewhat of a silly question anyway.

I was trying to get a friend, who moved to Brooklyn from Detroit, to compare transit there to transit here.

But all she really could do was laugh. Until she sarcastically got out, "Does Detroit have transit?"

"Of course it does," I said, and we haven't talked since.

It's a problem when Neil Armstrong could have found evidence of life on the moon before you'd find information about taking Detroit transit – i.e. the bus.

OK, that's a little bit of an exaggeration, but not much. My friend lived here her whole life, until she high-tailed it to Brooklyn looking for a job (not to mention her desire to not own a car), and Detroit transit was still foreign to her. And not just her, it's foreign to a lot of people.

There are all the stereotypes and stigmas attached to the bus that deter riders, but on top of that, unfortunately, bus information is not something that is right there for the pickin'.

The information is more like a vegetable that's buried in the ground, like a potato or a carrot or a turnip. You have to get out into the field, kick around in the dirt, and pull it out of the soil before you can put it on your plate.

"I took a vacation day and got lost," says James Kjellin of how he learned to navigate Detroit's bus system. Kjellin rides five days a week from his home in Westland to his job in New Center. This 30-mile journey saves him nearly $500 a month in gas. "Most people just don't know how to ride the bus. I had to look online, I asked the bus drivers questions. You know, there is no signage."

"They don't make it easy, that's for sure," says Chris Frey, board president of Transportation Riders United (TRU), a DDOT watchdog and Detroit non-profit that aims to improve transit access and mobility in the city. "City bus information needs a lot of improvement," emphasizing  the "a lot."

Signage, as in posted routes and schedules, is practically non-existent, which, in turn, makes the buses practically non-existent. This is a major reason why the buses are like UFOs. They look like buses, they seem to be doing bus things (stopping and picking up), but where are they going? When are they coming? And when do they stop?

"People have this fear of getting on the wrong bus and being dropped off in the middle of nowhere," Frey says. And sometimes the middle of nowhere can be a little tense in Detroit. "This hurts ridership."

Still, it's not like there are only six people riding the bus like it's their own personal limousine. DDOT picks up around 150,000 riders a day, while SMART hauls around an additional 44,000 (the Woodward Corridor sees about 30,000 daily riders).

If you're proactive you can get schedules and routes on both the DDOT and the SMART web sites, which is obviously useful. But, we're talking streets here, and not everyone has an iPhone.

Riders aren't left completely in the dark out there. There is DDOT signage at stops in Capital Park downtown. They map out routes and list stops. Time schedules would be nice, too, but DDOT routes change every three months (one reason is to accommodate the school year), making it hard to etch any times into stone.

There is good news, though.

"We got some extra funding to implement a 100 percent signage program," says Rovella Phillips, a manager for DDOT. "It's a new directive. At our 8,000 stops we're going to have color-coded signs indicating where the bus is going, and this will all happen very soon."

Phillips says signs will also be placed inside the buses.

As for SMART, it's a very similar story when it comes to info. Signage is sparse and when you do find it, it's vague. Something like, "Bus runs every 45 minutes between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. on weekdays." It's like saying, "The bus will be here … at some point."

"There are progressive changes in development right now," says Beth Dryden, SMART's director of external affairs. She says that it is SMART's goal to add signs, but funding is the coal in the engine and, well, coal isn't as plentiful as it used to be.

Dryden says SMART is dealing with a $3 to $4 million deficit. Add that to the rising fuel costs, and signage might not be as close to the pole as one would hope.

Frey also mentions the possibility of a coordinated effort to bring both SMART and DDOT services together. Not as in one system, but merged information.

"Wouldn't it be great to have a transit hotline?" The self-proclaimed transit geek says. "A number you call and say, 'I'm going to the West Side of Detroit and I live in so-and-so suburban city.' They would then tell you to take the SMART-whatever to the DDOT-whatever. The more information the better, you know?"

"Buses that run every hour are, essentially, buses that don't really exist," says Patty Fedewa, a board member of TRU, a 7-year rider.

Frequency seems to be an issue all around. Riders who live near Woodward will generally see a bus every seven to 12 minutes. Still, it could be more.

"With the amount of riders in the Woodward Corridor," Frey says, "it should see a bus every five minutes."

Outside of the corridor things may run a little slower. For instance the Caniff bus, as Fedewa put it, is one of those hourly, non-existent buses. Why does the bus that travels from Woodward to, and through, the middle of Hamtramck run hourly?

"They were going to cut the Holbrook bus a while back," Fedewa says. "They said no one rides it. A bunch of people showed up to a DDOT meeting and demanded that the bus stay active. DDOT said not enough people ride it to keep it, while the riders said people don't ride it as much 'cause it's so infrequent. You see the problem?"

She adds: "We're not criticizing out of hate, but out of love. We're not trying to tear it down, we're trying to build it up."

Additionally, transferring, say to a bus that may be as infrequent as the No. 8 Caniff bus, is another deterrent.

"The bus is really cheaper than driving," says Billy Hunter. He's been riding the bus on and off for most of his 44 years. He now rides it every day to work. "It's all around better for me to ride the bus than to drive. But I probably wouldn't like it if I had to transfer. Those transfers can be unreliable."

It's a straight shot for Hunter, who lives at 8 Mile and Woodward and works in the Ren Cen.

"It'd be nice to have placards on the stops, though," he adds. Signage, guys, it's pretty integral to a functioning mass transit system.

"People say mass transit should pay for it self," Frey says, then scoffs. "Nothing pays for itself. The buses need more funding. With more funding problems could be solved."

Problems? Problems like the lack of information (and information availability) and infrequent buses.

If an alien sucked you off of your couch and dropped you in New York City or Chicago or Portland, even Berlin (or any city in Germany) despite the language barrier, you'd be able to figure out their transit faster than waiting for a transfer here in Detroit. These cities have the information and display it. They share it with the masses – hence mass transit.

If an alien sucked you off of your couch and dropped you on Jefferson and told you to take the bus home, well, you'd probably just take a cab (if you could find one) or call a friend.

That's the difference maker right there. The information. Information is power, and when it comes to mass transit, it's empowering. And fixing these things not only would greatly improve our bus system but, at the very least, it would get my friend to stop laughing.


Other wish list items:

Kjellin says he'd like to see bus stops lit up at night to prevent drivers from blowing past the lonely rider not covered in reflectors or wearing a glow-in-the-dark trench coat. He also said he'd like to see more transit centers, or little kiosks, possibility, along routes or at major stops with maps and schedule pamphlets and bathrooms. "Sometimes I just got to go," he says, about the potty.

Purchasing SMART passes at CVS or other retail shops, as you can do with DDOT passes, would also be another shot of adrenaline to SMART ridership. Currently, you can only get them online, at the Wayne State Student Center, and a few other designated places. This is something Dryden says SMART is looking into and should implement within the year.

Bike racks on DDOT buses would also improve DDOT riders, too.

"People say there is no need for bike racks on urban buses," Frey says. "But Detroit is a little different. DDOT has pretty good coverage but frequency is a problem and people see these racks as a need."

Oh, and bike lanes along major streets.

"A greater number of people would ride their bikes if the city had lanes," says Todd Scott, Detroit Greenways coordinator. (It's Detroit Greeways' goal to get 400 miles of non-motorized lanes in Detroit.) "Bike lanes make the person feel a lot safer and makes the cars more aware. This would be a great city for bike lanes."

Scott says the MDOT, which owns Fort, Michigan, and Grand River, is already looking into putting in these non-motorized lanes. Woodward, which MDOT also owns, probably won't see bike lanes, however, Scott says.

"The light rail is already going up Woodward," he says. "We don't want to put something in now just to take it away in a few years when construction starts."

And, did I mention money? Detroit transit needs money. But that's on everyone's wish list, isn't it?

Terry Parris Jr. is a frequent contributor to Model D. Send feedback here.


Smart bus seats; Smart signage; Bus Stop signage; DDot - photos courtesy Terry Parris Jr.

All other Photographs by Marvin Shaouni
Marvin Shaouni is the managing photographer for Metromode & Model D.

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