If you see a big groovy bus on Belle Isle, feel free to jump on.
The complimentary transportation service runs from noon to 8 p.m. Thursday through Sunday to shuttle visitors to key island destinations. It’s being offered as part of a Michigan Department of Natural Resources strategy to alleviate vehicle congestion and parking limitations on the state-run park.
The route transports visitors from a lot near the island’s entrance to a handful of destinations. Pickup starts outside the 10-acre concrete paddock created for the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix. The bus takes a leisurely loop to Oudolf Garden, Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory and Belle Isle Aquarium, Kid’s Row Playground and Belle Isle Beach. A second route moves directly between the beach and the first pickup location.
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The Detroit Bus Co. is providing the rigs. Two custom painted buses from its fleet of electric vehicles circled the island Thursday; a smaller 20-seat bus nicknamed “Sanders,” after the bite-sized Detroit chocolate, and its larger sister, a 32-seat bus dubbed “Lottie the body” after the famous burlesque dancer.
Chauffeur Matt Mowers said word is slowly getting out about the service that began on June 30, but he said the Detroiters who have stumbled across the bus so far are digging it. A nondescript handmade pink sign sits outside the pickup and dropoff area, but the DNR plans to install proper signage this summer.
“Everyone has said ‘this is great, I wish more people knew about it,’” Mowers told BridgeDetroit.
The first weekend of service began amid a spike in traffic to the island for Independence Day, but Mowers said few visitors knew his bus was waiting to take them around. The island did not hit capacity over the holiday weekend.
Detroiters have long raised fears over speeding, distracted driving and crashes on Belle Isle. In the wake of a recent hit-and-run crash that killed a young beachgoer, the state has stressed that multiple efforts are underway to improve mobility and safety on the island known as a cruising destination.
This weekend, a low-flying airplane will circle the island and return again Wednesday and Thursday to collect aerial images of traffic patterns for an ongoing transportation study.
Cameras staged around the park will collect additional information about traffic counts, interactions between cars and pedestrians. DNR officials said that the videos and images collected will not be used to identify individuals or license plate numbers.
“The purpose of the study is to optimize visitor experience,” said Amanda Treadwell, an urban field planner for the DNR. “We want people to come and enjoy the park, not have to get stuck in their car or on Jefferson Avenue waiting to get on the island. We’re looking for long-term (solutions) and short-term, low-hanging fruit recommendations to improve the visitor experience.”
Detroit-based engineering firm Wade Trim was hired to conduct the traffic management study and produce recommendations to enhance safety while getting around the scenic park. One major goal is to make the island more accessible for emergency vehicles that can get choked in traffic at the MacArthur Bridge entrance.
The DNR hopes to finish data collection in early 2023 before scheduling public meetings to gather feedback between February and April next year. A final report is expected in late 2023.
The study comes as transportation advocates decry fatal crashes and the frequent accidents resulting from, in their view, unsafe infrastructure that prioritizes vehicles over pedestrians and bicyclists. Some have called for vehicles to be banned from the park, though state officials say they’re finding a way for all visitors to safely coexist.
Newly-released state data shows 19 crashes occurred on the island or at the main intersection leading to its only road entrance in 2021. Data for the first half of this year isn’t available.
On Memorial Day weekend 12-year-old Ghadir Saleh was fatally struck by a driver who veered onto the beach.
“This is an emergency. There are children being killed on holidays,” said Paul Jones III is a native Detroiter and urban planner. “It’s good that we’re having discussions … and trying to come up with a long term plan, but they can change markings and add barriers in places that they know are dangerous. It can happen very quickly.”
Jones, who previously worked in the Detroit mayor’s office, sits on the board of Transportation Riders United and envisions alternatives to the park traffic scheme in his spare time. In one map posted online, Jones proposed creating two-way traffic around the island’s outer ring and adding more than a dozen bus stops. He’s skeptical of the state’s management of Belle Isle, saying a decade of accommodations for vehicle traffic and the Grand Prix hasn’t instilled confidence in their leadership.
Belle Isle has been operating as a state park since February 2014 under a 30-year lease agreement reached during the city’s bankruptcy.
“Long before the state took over, you can look at traffic studies from the 90s that had a lot of these same conversations,” Jones said. “What else do we need to do to point out this problem?”
Jones said the bus shuttles are a half-measure because they don’t provide any new, non-motorized options to get on or off the island. Those who travel by bicycle did not have access to a rack to store their bicycles near the shuttle pickup site.
The city’s No. 12 Contant bus makes hourly stops on the park, including at the conservancy where riders can link up with the island shuttle, and the city bus also stops at a busy intersection outside the MacArthur Bridge entrance. However, bus service is not viewed as a reliable form of transportation for all Detroiters, particularly as the Detroit Department of Transportation struggles with understaffing problems.
Jones said he’d like to see the DNR remove 400,000-square-feet of concrete laid for the Grand Prix paddock. With last month’s race marking the final contest hosted on the island, Jones said there’s no reason the paddock shouldn’t be returned to trees and grass.
The DNR, he said, should stay focused on allowing drivers to have alternative transportation once they arrive by car. But he’d like to see a future where cars aren’t needed at all.
“You have to overwhelm Detroiters with so many different ways to get to Belle Isle that driving is least interesting,” Jones said. “That’s how we should be approaching it, not as a punitive thing. It’s not that we’re shutting this down to cars, but we’re offering so many different ways to get there that that is more exciting.”
Treadwell said the DNR views public feedback as vital to its process of improving traffic issues and changing the culture of how people access the park.
“We’re kind of doing that already with this bus service; I’m really encouraged that folks are hopping on and trying out new ways to get around the park,” she said. “Learning what is acceptable to the public, how the public wants to access the park, and how we can provide the best services for them is going to be really key.”