Imagine buses that run, for the most part, on time. Buses that are fairly clean, reasonably comfortable and even somewhat air-conditioned. That aren’t generally overcrowded, and take you (roughly) where you want to go, as long as it’s within Detroit.
It’s not some urban transit utopia. It actually exists, right here in the Motor City. I didn’t believe it either, until I went and saw for myself.
On the other hand, getting there by bus could take about five times as long as it would take by car. It was sometimes hard to find a bus when I needed it, and buses didn’t go to all the places I needed to get.
And therein lies some of the problems with mass transit as it currently exists in freeway-striped metro Detroit: It just isn’t the fastest way from point A to point B. Or the most direct. Or the simplest.
But with the summer’s gas prices hitting a record high of more than $2 a gallon, I set out to find some transit alternatives, determined to make the bus system work for me.
Freedom of information
Feeling a little like a tourist in a foreign city, I arrive at the bus information kiosk at Cadillac Square, looking for a comprehensive schedule of the routes available. My conversation with the attendant goes something like this:
“Can I have schedules for all the buses?”
“We don’t give them out here. You have to go to the main office at 1301 E. Warren.”
“Between Russell and the service drive.”
“How do I get there by bus?”
“Where does that bus go from?”
She points to a spot somewhere along Cadillac Square. The next one isn’t for half an hour. If I were really a tourist, especially one from a transit-friendly city like Chicago, Toronto, or anywhere in Europe, I’d be hailing the next cab back to the airport. Most cities with mass transit have clearly marked stations and stops, with buses or street cars or trolleys or trains that either run so frequently a schedule hardly seems necessary, or are documented in handy booklets that fit in your pocket, available anywhere you can catch a bus. Sigh.
Make that date
Because I still don’t have a bus schedule (I couldn’t figure out how to download a schedule from www.ci.detroit.mi.us/ddot/, the D-DOT Web site), I have to take matters into my own hands (or feet, to be correct).
Needing to get from home to a 12:30 lunch appointment downtown, I decide to hike to the nearest People Mover stop and ride from there.
I leave the house at 12:13, and stomp along the street. It is a hot day, and the noon sun leans over me like an interrogation lamp. I begin to seek out shade, but there aren’t a lot of trees planted along Michigan Avenue. There aren’t a lot of buildings, either, so I find I really appreciate the ones I pass. Wow, a car wash! A car dealership! Look at all those shiny cars. Cars … cars … let it be known that in Detroit, temptation has wheels.
When you walk, you like to have things to look at, ways to judge your progress. It’s why strolling from 73rd to 17th in Manhattan might take a while, but you don’t mind. It’s why even a block of Michigan Avenue feels like a mile.
Not once does a bus pass me, so I’m feeling pretty smug when I arrive at the DPM station 40 minutes later. With only a four-minute wait and a 50-cent fare, this has got to be the best transit deal in the city. Too bad it goes so few places.
I get to lunch 20 minutes late. “Sorry,” I apologize. “I was taking public transit.”
Get outta the rain
Bus shelters aren’t meant to be cozy hideaways where you spend hours of your quality time. Then again, they are meant to be places where you can escape the worst of the elements on one of those long waits for a bus. So when a surprise downpour hits, complete with hail and drenching rain, I start wishing for more bus shelters.
Of all the stops I wait at, outside of the main downtown ones, only one has a shelter with a bench. The rest take the open-air, roughing-it approach, with nary a seat nor roof to be found. All fine when you’re camping, but not so cool when you’re exhausted (or disabled, or elderly — two groups which rely heavily on transit, and can now ride for free, though the availability of wheelchair lifts remains an issue. You get what you pay for, apparently.). And definitely not cool when it rains.
Besides giving people a place to wait in relative safety and comfort, transit shelters are like living advertisements for a bus service. It’s easy for drivers — or even pedestrians with a mind to take the bus — to pass the tiny green and yellow bus stop signs without ever seeing them, but bus shelters are harder to miss. Helps drivers spot the stops, too.
Get the kid
One benefit of riding the bus is that you don’t need a car seat for your kid. One drawback is standing at the bus stop, waiting for the bus to arrive, hoping you’ll be able to get to the daycare before 6 p.m., when the dollar-a-minute overtime rate kicks in.
This time, I gave myself an hour to get from home, near Tiger Stadium, to the daycare, near the DIA. The distance on the car’s odometer is about four miles, and the trip usually takes less than 10 minutes by freeway.
The 4:58 No. 37 bus arrived, almost on schedule, at 4:56. It was quiet, with only 10 other people aboard. I rode in comfort to Michigan and Woodward, where I hopped off and waited for the No. 53 Woodward bus at a temporary stop just south of Michigan (the Campus Martius construction has taken over the spot where the buses used to stop).
Time passed. People accumulated. More time passed. Buses went by. A block south, the Dexter bus left its stop, and I realized had I known it would leave sooner — had I had a comprehensive schedule — I could’ve taken it up Cass Avenue instead. Too late now.
When we finally board the Woodward bus, 15 minutes later, it’s standing room only. Apparently the driver is hurrying to get through the route, because when I pull the cord just past the DIA, he ignores the call and carries on up Woodward, over I-94, and past several more blocks before he hears me yelling out, “Can we please stop?”
I jog back the eight or so blocks, arriving at the daycare just three minutes before 6.
One other benefit of riding the bus: Kids love singing that song about the wheels going round and round. And round. And round. And round.
Change the destinations
By the time we get home, it’s past 7 p.m. I’m beginning to think buses don’t make the days longer, they just take all your free time and compress it into bus-riding time, especially when you rely on them to get to school or work. You have to reorganize your schedule around the buses, and hope the buses stick to their specified times.
But when you’re on your own time, you’re a little more flexible. So, ordinarily, I’d get groceries for dinner from big stores in either Royal Oak or Dearborn, each about a 20-minute drive. On the bus, the more direct (and therefore preferable) Dearborn round-trip is just under two hours.
Time to shift priorities. Fortunately, there’s a small but clean grocery store not far from home, and I can walk there in about 15 minutes one-way. “Think globally, shop locally,” I tell myself. When you depend on the bus, you also begin to depend on your neighborhood in a whole new way. I rediscover the nearby hardware store too.
What they’re driving at
As unlikely as it seems, Detroit’s bus drivers themselves are pretty unimpressed with their own system.
The Amalgamated Transit Union’s Local 26 held a rally last month in downtown Detroit. From the picket signs (“We need clean & reliable buses” and “More money for transportation now”), you might think the rally was held by radical members of a Green Party transit coalition, but no, these were D-DOT bus drivers.
For them, it’s not about trying to get to work on time — it’s a question of what they have to deal with while they’re on the job. If it sucks to be a passenger on a sweltering bus in July, or wait in the cold for a late bus in January, think what it’s like to be stuck on that hot, sweaty, cold or late bus for an entire eight-hour shift. When buses break down, run late or are filthy, the bus drivers say they are the ones who hear about it from rightfully disgruntled passengers.
Al Martin, then the director of the city’s department of transportation, agrees with the drivers. “We know we are not providing the service the way you want it, or the way we want it,” he tells the rally, before announcing that the city is planning to add 100 new buses by the end of August. It’s about time, apparently. One driver, who has been driving for 14 years, pointed out that the same buses he trained on are still in service. (Martin would subsequently announce his resignation, effective Aug. 31, noting disappointments such as not merging city and suburban bus systems.)
The money is there to fund transit, but it’s not being used, state Rep. Keith Stallworth (D-Detroit), the House vice chair of transportation and appropriations, tells the drivers. Priorities need to change, he adds. “Poor people are not the only people who take the bus. Taking the bus should be an option for every person in this state.”
That sentiment is also echoed by the anonymous Commuter X, who maintains the Mass Transit for Metro Detroit Web site (hometown.aol.com/motranzit/index.html).
“The primary problem with transit in metro Detroit is not funding,” Commuter X tells me in an e-mail. “You can prepare a grand ball, but if you don’t invite people to come in the proper way, nobody will come. We have two bus systems which have lots of assets. Where is the inducement to use them? Has anyone seen a D-DOT advertisement on TV? A SMART ad? If we are trying to improve mobility in metro Detroit, we should let the residents know that there is a choice now.”
A wider range of choices could also bring more people into the transit fold. Instead of spending $1.3 billion dollars to widen I-94, M-DOT should consider taking its own advice. In a 1997 study, it found that it would cost about $130 million to buy a comprehensive rail system for metro Detroit, which would link Ann Arbor, Pontiac and Mt. Clemens with Detroit through 100 miles of track and 30 new train stations.
A system like this seems like a bargain, especially when you consider this: In 1999, M-DOT told the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Kelly Thayer that just managing the traffic changes during the freeway expansion could cost between $130 and $260 million.
Or maybe there just needs to be more fun things happening on the bus. Like what happened in Boston, recently: a couple held their wedding on a chartered city bus, to celebrate the fact that they’d met at a rainy bus stop three years earlier.
At the rally, a British tourist asks me what’s going on. When I explain, he shakes his head. “I’m from Europe. We don’t have that problem there.” And he wanders away, on foot. I wonder if he’s about to hail a cab.Alisa Gordaneer is MT features editor. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org