Detroit, one man, one month, no car

The sun is turning 9 Mile into a sweltering concrete trench. Sweat is building up under my hat, then rolling down my face and into the crow's feet of my squinting eyes.

Every five seconds I run my hand across my brow, lean into oncoming traffic and peer down the hazy, mirage-covered street with the impatient stare of someone waiting for his blind date. 

"It's too hot to have sex, isn't it?" this long-haired man behind me yells out, his voice sneaking up on me. He's sitting on the steps of some closed nightspot holding a black knapsack bursting at its seams and balled up between his feet is a trash-filled white plastic bag.

I laugh awkwardly, unsure if that's merely weird small talk or a subtle proposition. 

"Yeah, it's pretty hot," I say and lean a little further out into the street.

Standing there with a sweaty handful of nickels and dimes in the 90-degree weather waiting on a bus that just doesn't seem to want to show up was a test of patience and fortitude. Tack on this odd conversation, buckets of sweat, and the fact that this is the first day of a month-long plunge into Detroit's mass transit system and, well, I can't help but think to myself, "of course."

A bus virgin no more

That was my first time. And like all first times I had the usual fears, apprehension, and confusion. Where does this go? What does this do? What happens when I pull this? What do I do when I want to stop? Fifty people are watching!

Thanks to a few grainy Internet videos, sage advice from some longtime riders and a year overseas (riding Germany's abnormally punctual and efficient mass transit), I had a rounded idea. Still, I didn't know how Detroit's buses were pieced together, if they were pieced together at all.

The month-long experiment was a test to see how feasible Detroit's mass transit is right now. I wanted to see what it would take to get from point A to point B, from my home in Ferndale to my job in Hamtramck, to meetings downtown, to wherever I was going out, and then back home again.

By ditching the automobile and putting myself at the mercy of DDOTSMARTand my baby blue two-wheeled one-speed, I tested each of these scenarios. And, well, a lot happened in my month of automobile abstinence. 

I waited at stops all over the city. I talked to riders. A crazy man in camouflaged pants elbowed me (I wasn't hurt) right after he yelled out, "I speak a hundred different languages." I rode my bike when I knew transfers were going to take an hour. I rode my bike to the river and hit someone (sorry). I took the bus to a family reunion in the city of Wayne, which took five bumpy hours there and back. I lost my $50 regional pass when I took the Amtrak to Ann Arbor. I lost my patience (and found it) over and over again. I was late for work – but that was mostly my fault. I gave directions and asked for help. I had the same bus driver yell at me for two different things on two different days. And, as a nice little topper-off for this whole thing, on the last day of the experiment my bike was stolen in broad daylight outside a bar in Hamtramck – lock and all. 

It felt like a lifetime of transit experience in 30 muggy days right smack in the middle of a Detroit summer.

And up until the theft of my bike on the very last day of being motor-less in the Motor City, I felt fairly pleased and happily surprised with my month-long relationship with Detroit's streets. I felt fully ingrained in the state of mass transit and confident in taking any bus anywhere. I still do, of course. But the theft brought me back to earth (or Detroit) and made me realize that it's an uphill battle here in the city with everything: With transit, with development, with population, with holding on to your bike that is bolted to a pole in broad daylight while you're in a bar for less than an hour unwinding after a long day at work. (I'm still on the lookout for the culprit.)

Anyway, it's not perfect, but what is, really – except maybe German transit? There is room for improvement. There needs to be more frequency, more information, and more signage; but, considering these things, the coverage out there is viable and works and continues to keep the city's population in motion.

The black hole, collective

However, for my first time, standing there on the side of 9 Mile, sweating, waiting, possibly being propositioned, I was like most Detroiters when it comes to city buses – they are as foreign as space travel. 

The city, for me, has always been experienced from a car window, often behind a steering wheel. As a kid with my mom downtown, to coming down for shows when I was in high school, to attending Wayne State and living in Woodbridge, to now working in Hamtramck and hanging out in Detroit, I've logged a lot of time in the city with a car.

To a newbie bus rider, the whole system seems like a black hole. To non-riders, the bus-riding populace seems alien.

"The perception of the bus is that they are scary, and they never come and they're dangerous," says Patty Fedewa, who has been riding since 2001. Fedewa is a board member with Transportation Riders United, a Detroit nonprofit that champions for the education and improvement of Detroit mass transit. "But it isn't true. Bus riders are quite nice and collegial. … Quality does fluctuate but the buses do come. And they have greatly improved over the last few years. There is more service than a lot of people realize."

"And as far as danger goes," she says, "we're all on the same bus and we're all looking out for each other."

"People really do listen to those bus drivers," James Kjellin says. He rides the bus five days a week from Westland to Detroit's New Center area where he works. It's a 30-mile trip. "If someone is acting up, the bus driver always takes control, they are like superheroes out there."

Kjellin says he saves about $500 a month taking the bus and will often sleep on the way to work. Sleeping on the bus is a pretty good sign of contentment and feeling safe.

What's wrong with us?

I told a friend when this first started that I wondered if when people saw me waiting for the bus, getting on, or getting off, they thought, "I bet he doesn't have a car," or "I bet he doesn't have a job," or "I bet he doesn't have a car or a job."

Why would I think that? When I am in New York, Chicago, or Berlin, that kind of thing never crosses my mind when I see people using mass transit. In those cities, you don't think twice about using the bus. But here, in Detroit, I wondered what people thought when they saw me at the bus stop the first few times I rode. Did this self-consciousness come from the disappointing attitudes of a racially polarized region? Or having the merits of owning an automobile burned and beaten into our Motor City brains? Or from the anti-urban sentiments in a region that views anything that smacks of city life – like using mass transit – as subpar to the suburban, strip mall, McMansion lifestyle?

These issues have been tearing Detroit apart for decades, and they still find a way into the smallest of things – like riding the bus. 

However, this stigma disappears rather quickly. While waiting for and riding the bus I rediscovered a city. I developed a connection with it that I had never known before. My apprehension and self-consciousness quickly transformed into an enormous swell of independence from a tethering car, pride in a wounded and beautiful city, and inspiration (both positive and negative) around every corner. 

The task at hand

The assignment was to figure out transit. Give up my car and find out if it works. Can I get from point A to point B? How easy or hard is it? What does it smell and look and feel like?

Well, I figured that all out:

You can get from point A to point B - it's fairly easy if you're ambitious, proactive, and just a little bit courageous (and have an Internet connection). I figured out that the system works as long as you're patient. The bus smells like 40 people and gas and exhaust. Some buses look dingy while others are a bit cleaner. I wouldn't eat off of the seats but I'll sit in them. They are packed, they are on time, they are late, they break down, they run fine, they're safe, and the ride is almost always bumpy.

My first bus eventually came that first day. Unfortunately it was 20 minutes late (thankfully I was only going to a barbeque). I then spent the next month doing much of the same – leaning into oncoming traffic, peering up the road, and waiting. Soon, however, I lost that impatient stare of someone waiting for a blind date. I knew what to expect. 

To completely drag out the metaphor, now, the bus system and I, we're a couple, albeit one that could use a little help from Dr. Phil. It's OK that it's occasionally late, it's OK that it will sometimes break down, I don't mind the smell so much, and I don't mind all the bumps. Still, I'd like to fix some things, and if it spruced up a bit, we'd get along better. So for now, I'll use her, but still keep my car on the side.