Detroit residents can play a role in the city’s efforts to improve its bus system with new rapid transit routes, extended hours, upgraded shelters and other changes based on public feedback.
Department of Transportation Director Mikel Oglesby on Monday released a draft plan that kickstarts another round of public engagement aimed at Detroiters who weren’t able to attend input sessions last year. A specially-marked bus filled with information on the plan will visit bus stops across Detroit over the next eight weeks to collect more ideas from riders. Public hearings on a revised version of the plan will be held later this summer before being implemented over the next several years.
“This was the people’s idea,” Oglesby said. “When I came (to Detroit in 2020), I asked if anyone had done a comprehensive operational analysis. The answer was ‘no’ … Let’s say we come up with a solution and (decide) this is the future of where we want to go. As we’re moving forward it can be tweaked, we can do this again. It’s going to be a working document but it will have a solid base of people’s input.”
DDOT is also working on a fare study to determine the viability of offering a discounted rate for low-income Detroiters. Transit activist Michael Cunningham II said offering free or reduced fares for the city’s poorest residents is a vital move to ensure people have access to transportation.
Renae Walls, a disabled Detroiter who relies on buses to get around, said she’s seen people turned down in freezing weather because they don’t have enough money for a $2 ticket. She also has advocated for upgrading buses to carry more passengers and offer smoother rides. Walls said she’s often had to miss a bus because there isn’t enough room.
“It’s hard to get the No. 9 (Jefferson) bus because it’s so crowded,” Walls said. “We need double-decker buses, you definitely need it on Woodward and Grand River and Gratiot. I’ve waited for two or three hours.”
Long waits were a common frustration among DDOT riders who spoke with BridgeDetroit on Monday. Nathan Whitehead spent an hour at the Rosa Parks Transit Center downtown before catching a bus to see his daughter. Whitehead said he’d like to see better shelters to protect residents from the elements during their waits.
The draft plan for “DDOT Reimagined” was completed in February after the department held public meetings and surveyed riders about their preferences for improvements. A four-page summary of the draft released Monday shows residents sought more reliability, better frequency and more connections between other communities in the region. New connections are planned for both Wal-Mart locations in Livonia, the city of Lincoln Park, Belle Isle Beach, and the Gordie Howe International Bridge multi use path.
Oglesby said expanding service will require the hiring of additional drivers, which is partly why DDOT is in the process of negotiating salary increases with the bus driver union. City budget documents show 549 bus drivers are needed next year for the first year of implementation and 584 drivers in 2025 for the second year. DDOT reported 120 driver vacancies at the end of March.
“We’re hoping by the time we get ready to expand, we will have went through the process of having (made) our wages attractive enough to get the people to bring them on board,” Oglesby said. “But I’m not letting that deter us. We’re not going to focus on resources, we’re going to focus on need. We’re going to draw out what’s needed, then we’re going to fill in that need by any means necessary.”
Oglesby hasn’t said how much salaries would increase as negotiations are ongoing. DDOT bus drivers start at $15 per hour, which roughly equals an annual salary of $31,200. That’s far below the $22.21 average national hourly wage for bus drivers in urban transit systems, and under the median income for Detroit ($34,768) as reported by the census. DDOT drivers can earn a maximum of $21 per hour.
Frequency would improve across the bus system under the draft plan, which divides bus routes into three categories.
Tier 1 routes are the backbone of DDOT’s system, including major streets like Woodward, Jefferson, Gratiot and Grand River avenues, Greenfield Road and Seven Mile. Half of all DDOT riders travel on one of these routes each day.
The six Tier 1 routes are slated to become bus rapid transit routes, meaning they will receive a higher frequency of riders, enhanced shelters, traffic signal priority technology and other improvements meant to speed up buses. Oglesby said his vision for bus rapid transit includes dedicated lanes for larger buses that can carry more passengers.
“It’s (about improving) the overall experience which includes the location of shelters, the link between scooters and biking, technology,” Oglesby said. “Bus rapid transit is a really big opportunity. We need to look at it to see if it’s realistic.”
Currently, there are no routes that operate every 10 minutes. The draft calls for increasing the frequency of service so five Tier 1 routes will pick up passengers every 10 minutes during weekdays, while the 4-Woodward bus operates every 7.5 minutes. All Tier 1 routes are planned for 24/7 service.
Eleven Tier 2 routes cover many other major streets that are important to DDOT’s network. All 11 routes would operate every 15 minutes under the plan, while only three do so today. Some Tier 2 routes will operate 24/7 while others will carry passengers from 4 a.m. to 1 a.m. seven days per week. Additional details on proposed changes to bus schedules weren’t available Monday.
Sixteen Tier 3 routes carry fewer passengers and are slated to pick up riders every 30 minutes. Buses would operate from 4 a.m. to 1 a.m. seven days per week.
Right now, seven of DDOT’s routes operate every 20 minutes or better on weekdays. The plan increases that to 17 routes. Only one route – the 4-Woodward bus – operates every 20 minutes or better on weekends. The plan seeks to ensure 10 routes operate every 20 minutes on weekends.
“I’ve run transit in other cities and with 24/7 service and you know you need a lot of service between 2 and 3 a.m. when the bars get out, but you also need more security there,” Oglesby said. “Here, it’s a little different because there are a lot of casual riders and there’s a lot of people riding after hours. It’s not linked to something standard like peak (or) non-peak service … We need to know what fits Detroit.”
DDOT Reimagined includes projects funded with federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars, like streetscape improvements on high-use routes, additional bus shelters, air-purification systems on buses and security cameras.
I’m hoping my path crosses the opportunity for a detailed look and discussing. I’ve watched transit access change for decades, and sometimes it erodes decades of progress in just a week. Apprehension is what DDOT needs to work very hard through. It’s a complex matrix of systems.
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