someone pumping gas in a car
A Detroit driver pumps gas at a station on the city’s east side on June 27, 2022. Residents say they are over burdened by high fuel costs and choosing between driving to work or paying bills. The city’s bus service isn’t reliable enough to consider as an alternative, transit advocates say. (BridgeDetroit photo by Bryce Huffman)

The city’s bus service is too unreliable and understaffed to provide struggling Detroiters an alternative to the high fuel costs that employee unions and transit advocates say is forcing low-income residents to skip out on work or paying bills. 

With gasoline prices near or above $5 per gallon, Detroit’s Department of Transportation should be seeing more ridership, but Megan Owens, executive director of Transportation Riders United, said there’s not enough trust that buses will show up or get riders to their destinations on time.

“It’s really a missed opportunity (for the city),” said Owens, adding the question of whether DDOT buses will arrive and depart on time is made “far worse” by the infrequency of most routes, even though some that were temporarily suspended late last year are being restored. 

Black Detroit resident Tony Mitchell recently visited a gas station on East Jefferson Avenue and told BridgeDetroit that it typically costs about $110 to fill the tank of his Dodge Ram pickup.

“The prices are just too damn high. People are choosing between going to work and paying their bills on time. But that’s exactly what’s happening to folks like me,” Mitchell said. “If a person has to use our transit to get to work, think about it, they’re gonna be late. So this is creating problem after problem after problem.”

The criticism comes as the city’s bus service grapples with ongoing driver shortages that have led to reduced or eliminated bus routes and longer wait times for riders. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said last month that the city’s bus service and absenteeism among drivers has been a “continuing aggravation” as officials announced a plan to provide quarterly bonuses to drivers who show up for work. City and union leaders said the move is expected to help the department boost its recruitment and the frequency of several routes.

Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT) data shows city buses arrived on time 61% of the time during weekdays in May. Mikel Oglesby, executive director of Transit for the City of Detroit, said in a statement that “reliability and consistency are two things DDOT is always looking to improve,” and confirmed there’s no evidence that the spike in gas prices is driving up ridership.

The city last fall temporarily suspended some bus routes and cut frequency to others because there weren’t enough drivers to meet the service needs. 

Oglesby said when DDOT “right-sized” the system in November, by temporarily cutting some routes, it was able to meet its schedule 14% more often on weekdays.

Owens said if buses were running every 10 to 15 minutes and were a few minutes late, it wouldn’t be a big deal. But that’s not been the case, she said.

“It’s because DDOT hasn’t been able to hire enough drivers that they have cut their services even on the more frequent routes down to like every 30 minutes,” she said. “Some are far less frequent than that.”

Oglesby said the quarterly DDOT bonuses will reward operators for “excellent” attendance and will encourage bus operators to come to work on time, benefiting the riders. 

“With that said, we are also increasing frequency on three of the Connect 10 routes: Gratiot, Woodward, and Jefferson,” he said. “Additionally, our Bus Tracker app is available to help riders plan their trips and minimize time waiting at bus stops.”

DDOT bus routes range between one bus every 30 minutes to one bus every hour when the buses are running on time. Glenn Tolbert, former president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 26, which represents the city’s bus drivers, told BridgeDetroit in May that DDOT needs at least another 150 drivers to “give Detroiters great service.”

Schetrone Collier, the union’s new president, estimated on Tuesday that the department needs closer to 250 additional bus drivers to increase frequency on routes. 

“I’m just as interested as anyone else in getting back to the service we were providing before the pandemic,” Collier said. “Right now, we still are working on reduced schedules thanks to the driver shortage.”

Collier said when he started driving buses in the city in 1989 he was among the nearly 1,200 drivers working for DDOT. Now, he said, there are fewer than 400.

“I understand that the population in the city dwindled,” said Collier, “but at the end of the day, the service that was out there was service that was needed and still is needed.”

A Detroit Future City report from 2021 found that Detroiters were spending about 24% of their income on travel costs related to their daily commute compared to 16% for people living in Metro Detroit suburbs. Black Detroiters in particular are spending a fourth of their total income on travel costs. 

Service Employees International Union Local 1 janitor and Vice President Pam Owens-Moore said the high cost of gas and lack of alternative travel options is especially hurting janitors who work in downtown Detroit. Many of those front-line employees, she added, also worked in-person throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Some of us janitors are making as low as $11.75 an hour – a large part of that paycheck goes straight to paying for gas,” Owens-Moore told BridgeDetroit. “The hike in gas prices isn’t hurting the rich, it is hurting working families being paid low wages to keep this city running.”

Owens-Moore said many of the union members have few options. They can’t afford to live downtown and have said that they don’t have access to reliable public transportation, she said.

“We have to drive to get to work and work to afford to drive,” Owens-Moore said. “It contributes to the cycle that leaves working people at the bottom.”

Karen Jones, another Detroiter who commutes for work, told BridgeDetroit that she’d been  spending about $500 on gas each month between driving to work, driving her kids to school, and trips to the grocery store. 

Jones said the prices are too high for comfort but there’s nothing she can do about it. 

“What am I gonna do?,” Jones asked, “not go to work? No, I need to go to work every day, even with these high prices. I can complain about it all I want, but that won’t change anything.”

Bryce Huffman is a reporter for BridgeDetroit. He was formerly a reporter for Michigan Radio, and host of the podcast, Same Same Different.

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