The Detroit Bus Company’s new old idea

"One day, we’ll have a public transit system fully capable of serving the needs of its citizens. Solutions like light rail, bus rapid transit and new, healthier budgets may arrive and bring our communities together like never before. On that day, we’ll be able to step aside and allow these systems to move people everywhere they need to go," the new Detroit Bus Company’s website states.  "Until then, we’ll be working away towards that dream." 

While Detroit grapples with crippled services and plans for a Regional Transit Authority navigate the state legislature, the start-up private bus company hopes to bring a unique but reliable transportation option to the city. Andy Didorosi, a 25-year old Detroit-area native with unbridled enthusiasm for anything carrying an engine, started the DBC early this winter -- shortly after the proposed Woodward Avenue Light Rail failed. Didorosi’s team has since developed an ambitious plan to get people back on the bus.

Private transit isn’t new idea. Nationwide, the very first streetcar systems consisted of several competing private companies. By the early 20th century, these had been gradually consolidated until monopolies controlled every major transit system.  

In Detroit, the first private horse-drawn streetcars hit the streets in the 1860s. These soon gave way to electric streetcar companies that, in 1901, were consolidated under the private Detroit United Railway (DUR). In 1922, the city took control of the company and formed the Department of Street Railways (DSR), making Detroit the first major city to operate a municipally owned transit agency in the United States. By the 1950s, most city governments nationwide followed suit and formed their own transit authorities. They relied primarily on government subsidies and passenger fares to operate.

The increasing limits to transportation funding nationwide have signaled a shift from this way of operating. In recent years, innovative financing models like public-private partnerships (think the M1 Rail project) that allow municipalities to share costs with private stakeholders have become the norm. But in cities like Detroit, where residents can’t afford to wait several years for a better system to be planned and implemented, it may be time to rely on the private sector in a different way. At least for the short term.

Ultimately, the DBC has no intention of competing with the existing services. A little competition may be a good thing in most cities, but in Detroit, where routes have been cut or eliminated, some riders may have no other choice. "We don’t ever plan to replace the public option," says Didorosi. "We’re just trying to bridge the gap."  

Several U.S. cities now have private options. In New York City and Miami, for example, fleets of jitneys, or "dollar vans" have supplemented over-burdened busses and expensive taxis for years. Corporate shuttles, like the dozens operated by Google and other companies in San Francisco, compete for congested streets along side the municipal system. And of course, there are widely popular long-distance commuter busses like Megabus or Boltbus. These all have their share of critics, and each caters to a very specific kind of rider, but they each offer a cheaper, and often more accessible, alternative to the public option. 

The DBC doesn’t fit any of these business models. In fact, the company may be the only one in the U.S. like it. Their ultimate plan is to have dedicated routes within the city and commuter routes to Royal Oak, Ferndale, Hamtramck, Metro Airport, and (maybe) Plymouth. Having no delusions about profitability, they will supplement those routes by offering private rentals, giving themed tours, running an entertainment shuttle, and offering a door-to-door service.  

At $5 a day, they aren’t yet as cheap for most riders (assuming one round trip per day for commuters) as SMART or DDOT, or even other private companies. However, they plan to incorporate a philanthropic element that might make up for that difference in social equity. For every $5 fare collected the DBC will help fund a free door-to-door shuttle for commuters who can’t afford the regular service.

The company isn’t going to solve all of our transit woes, and will never have the coverage a comprehensive system needs to have. If they succeed though, they will at least provide a temporary solution for some riders, and perhaps convince a few others that riding the bus isn’t such a bad way to get around.

The small company, whose garage is currently in Ferndale, has three full-time employees, a rotating roster of drivers, and a fleet of five, bio-diesel fueled former school busses. They have also hired local artists to paint the busses. "Bettis" (named for NFL star and Detroit native, Jerome "the Bus" Bettis) features the work of Detroit graffiti artist Kobie Solomon.

"We want to eventually send busses out to every neighborhood and connect the city and its suburbs together," Didorosi says, "But we realize we can’t do that all at once. You can’t just jump in and do that in a day, right? So we’re focusing on the entertainment dollar first."   

The Greater Downtown Loop, a weekend and game-day circuit connecting downtown, Eastern Market, Midtown, New Center, Woodbridge, Corktown, Mexicantown, and a park-and-ride lot, just finished it’s second weekend in operation. The route takes about an hour to complete but by using an online GPS tracker, having a conductor on board who is reachable by calling, texting, tweeting, Facebooking, or Instagraming, riders can easily locate the bus.

So far, riders and businesses have welcomed the service with open arms and fist-pumping cheers. During a two-hour ride early the first Saturday evening -- hours before the real party crowd got going -- 18 people rode the bus. Most of them were non-Detroiters who came downtown for the night, either for the Downtown Hoedown at Comerica Park, or just to enjoy the dinner and bar scene. None of them were regular bus riders, but all of them said they would ride the shuttle again. "I'm riding this for the novelty of it," said one rider, on his way from Northern Lights Lounge in New Center to Greektown. "But I think it’s great. It’s just more convenient than driving."

Jacques Driscoll, who, along with his wife Christine Driscoll, recently opened Green Dot Stables on a stretch of West Lafayette that doesn’t see much traffic, is especially excited the bus is running. Green Dot’s parking lot is one of the route’s 13 stops. "I love the concept of it. I think it’ll allow people to see some things in the city they wouldn’t normally see," says Driscoll. "We’re not on a road people typically drive down, so they might not know we’re here." The owner also hopes the service will help his business compete with bars that operate their own free shuttles during major events.

Perhaps the company’s most fervent champion is driver, Ronald Mackall. A former DDOT employee who left his old job for personal reasons, Mackall is committed to the DBC’s mission. "This is a wonderful service. I’m happy that a young entrepreneur like Andy is doing this for the city. I’m happy to be a part of this historic moment."

Denise McGeen is statewide transportation editor for IMG, Model D's parent group. She is based in Woodbridge.

Photos by Marvin Shaouni
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