Mikel Oglesby took charge of Detroit’s troubled public transportation system just as the COVID-19 began raging.
Three years later, city data shows bus use is rebounding in the aftermath of the pandemic, but ridership remains half of pre-pandemic levels. The city’s fleet of 292 fixed-route buses carried one million more passengers last year than it did in 2021. But as director of Detroit’s Department of Transportation, Oglesby says an ongoing bus driver shortage remains the biggest barrier to improving service. The issue is among those under discussion as part of a planning study to rethink the bus network and make changes based on public feedback.
DDOT’s proposed $167.3 million budget for 2023-24 represents a 20% increase from the last fiscal year. It includes a $5.5 million boost to salaries and wages, $25 million more for employee benefits and $23 million for the department’s pension obligations.
- DDOT says paratransit service improved since cutting ties with old vendor
- DDOT switches mobile ticketing app, cash payments remain an option
- Detroit to complete multi-year bus fleet replacement this spring
DDOT has about 120 driver vacancies. Last year, the department hired 179 drivers, but only 53 of those hires remain employed with the department today. To reverse that trend, DDOT began an incentive program, which pays $1,000 in quarterly bonuses to drivers who meet minimum attendance requirements. Last year, 66% of drivers met the benchmark, DDOT officials said.
But the bottom line, Oglesby notes, is that the city’s drivers aren’t being paid enough and DDOT is actively negotiating wage increases with the local Amalgamated Transit Union.
Oglesby recently joined BridgeDetroit for a conversation about his plans to address the driver shortfall, improve shelters, expand service and prepare for the future of mobility.
BridgeDetroit: What are the key elements of your plan to restore and expand DDOT service following the pandemic?
Mikel Oglesby: DDOT Reimagined is a form of comprehensive operational analysis. It takes all of the information from riders, drivers, advocates and stakeholders and puts it into a plan. That plan will improve service by taking a look at what we currently have versus what the needs are, then you go forward with restructuring.
We’ve already gone through the first phase, which is going out to the community, having multiple conversations and gathering the information. (In April), DDOT will kick off phase two of community outreach and collect feedback on the draft. We’re retrofitting an old bus (and) will be driving around and asking for feedback from people. It should be on the road within a month or so. We’ll meet with riders, advocates, stakeholders and others to discuss the draft reimagined plan (this month) at the downtown campus of Wayne County Community College.
In order for DDOT Reimagined to be successful, we have to work closely with the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) and Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART). They’re on board, but we’re trying to better integrate SMART and DDOT to enhance regional mobility. We also want to explore new technology policies like scooter share options and other innovations to carry DDOT into the future.
We’re currently studying the potential for low-income fares, which people have been telling us to take a look at. I understand people want low-income fares, but a study that was done in the past showed it would cost DDOT $10 million. That was based on pre-pandemic numbers, including revenue and ridership. We’re also looking at cash free payment.
As we move forward, we’re looking at a new collection system. We may continue to use the mobile (Token Transit) app along with something else.
BD: Last year, DDOT recorded 64% of buses were on time. How are you going to raise that number?
Oglesby: Performance has been improving slowly and the goal of 75% on time would be realistic for 2024. Ultimately, I want to be at 88%.
We’re really pushing the schedule because we just don’t have enough drivers. When we get more drivers, the flow will be better because we can redo the schedule in such a way that gets more buses out on the road. We just need to add more service.
BD: Last we heard, service dropped by a third. Is that still the case?
Oglesby: Prior to changing the service (temporarily dropping some routes and restructuring others) in November 2021, people were complaining they were waiting for hours, they weren’t getting a bus and when the bus did come, it was completely full. That was simply because the schedule did not match the operators. When we right-sized it, people were upset that less service was on the schedule but the complaints went down because service was running the way the schedule stated.
Actual service is very close to scheduled service (now). Last I looked, we’re tracking 97% of scheduled service with 100 fewer operators. That means if we have 100 additional operators, our service will be (increased) and that’s what people want.
Our goal is not to be at a pre-pandemic level, our goal is to exceed it. Once we get the additional operators that we need, I can assure the riding public that we will exceed pre-pandemic numbers as far as service miles, on-time performance, and more importantly, overall service.
BD: What is DDOT’s plan to expand bus shelters? Some riders have said it would be great for every stop to have a bus shelter. Is that realistic?
Oglesby: The shelter replacement plan (for 100 bus shelters) is underway, they’re being designed and procured. Our plan is to upgrade and improve 350 total over the next three years. We’re working right now on identifying locations.
I would say putting a shelter at every stop is impossible. A lot of the stops aren’t compliant with the American with Disabilities Act. A lot of the stops are on dirt locations and would be extremely difficult to do. That does not mean that stops will not be looked at for expansion, but what is more realistic is replacing the existing stops with newer shelters and, as we expand the service, make sure that the sidewalks are compatible with the shelter.
Even though bus stop shelters were chosen as the No. 1 (priority) by the public, incentives for bus operators was No. 2, and No. 3 was bus stop seating. We have money to replace benches and provide additional seating throughout Detroit and throughout our system. It’s not a shelter at every stop, but we are going to address every stop that can have seating.
BD: Wages are a big part of DDOT’s staffing challenges and the department is currently in negotiations with the bus driver union. Are there other things the city can do to help with hiring and retention of operators?
Oglesby: Employee morale is very important, and employee morale is down. Unfortunately, when I speak to the operators, they indicate it’s down because of salary. I mean, that’s just the way it is.
We have worked on conditions; We can upgrade the drivers lounge. I have provided state-of-the-art vehicles. We were the first to have electric vehicles on the road. We’ve replaced the old (bus models from) 2010. As far as the conditions to do their job, everything’s fine.
We are discussing a little bit more than pay to see if there’s anything else that can be done to help retain operators. I won’t get into the specifics of that, because I can’t. It has been clear that the focus of retention and bringing operators on-board has been the pay. If we give the people we train a reason to stay – and they’ve all said it’s the pay – then we will have them coming in the door and we’ll have them staying.
The average age of a DDOT operator is about 49 years old and the average time operating a bus is 11 years. Transit clearly can be a career and the majority of our operators have proven that.
We have a lot of young people coming in the door. Once they start working for DDOT, they become very valuable. Other opportunities may catch their eye and that’s what we need to stop. If we can have this pay structure the way that it needs to be, we can keep these great people for a long period of time.
BD: Are there plans to make the $4,000 per year retention bonus a long-term program?
Oglesby: It has been very helpful for us. We made the decision to do it for a one-year period. As people take advantage of it, absenteeism goes down and our service goes up. It’s something that we definitely want to explore to continue, and we’re having various conversations internally to figure out how that works.
Right now, I would like to see it continue. I’m not even going to say it’s going to end.
BD: The QLine has a dedicated traffic lane outside Little Caesars Arena. Is DDOT considering bus-only lanes?
Oglesby: The QLine came to DDOT and I was instrumental in helping them develop (a dedicated lane) because both DDOT and SMART share that lane. What you’re talking about is bus rapid transit. We’re in the process of doing an analysis to see if we can do that.
Bus rapid transit typically is a 60-foot articulated bus. If I took any of the ConnectTen lines and only had 60-foot articulated vehicles going to certain locations with a dedicated lane, similar to the way you would with light rail, it would be smoother and faster.
There’s another way to do it, which is doing the same thing with dedicated lanes in certain areas instead of one specific dedicated lane, because that’s a monumental effort. We are in the process of looking to see which version of bus rapid transit would work, but that is on our radar and part of the reimagined study.
BD: The number of riders using DDOT fixed-route buses is recovering but remains below where we were before the pandemic. What are your expectations for ridership this year?
Oglesby: We’re looking at just about 50% of the ridership versus pre-pandemic numbers.
In the past, when you set a schedule, it was pretty easy because you knew when peak and non-peak times were. Because people are now working from home and things have changed because of the pandemic … it’s really hard to pinpoint what the trends are. That’s what DDOT Reimagined will accomplish.
We’re trying to get the riders who are existing to stay, riders who used to ride come back and new riders. We have to provide a system that makes it easier to get to and from work and get people out of their cars. We have to create a system that people want to ride.
BD: The department is recording a drop in crime on DDOT buses. Why are we seeing that change?
Oglesby: It’s a combination of a few things. We have better communication between the operators and transit police, which allows for strategic deployment of officers to troubled routes while manpower is rebounding. Also, we had operators participate in conflict resolution and deescalation training. Public perception that transit police can and will arrest and submit warrants for prosecution for assaults helps reduce this also.
There were already cameras on the bus, but it’s an older system. We’re in the process of completely upgrading our system. When you enhance that system, it makes sure you catch everything going on.
We have transit investigators that immediately pull and review video submitted to the Law Department, and that has substantially assisted them in refuting allegations (in lawsuits against DDOT).
If you’re going to create bus shelters, make them attractive. Just like murals for buildings, have artists work on shelters that enhance the area. Or give school arts students the opportunity to create an attractive bus shelter since they are the ones who probably ride the bus more than any group of people.
Leave a comment