Detroit struggling to get enough buses on the road

Jun 25, 2014

Detroit bus riders complain they still have to wait too long too often. Relying on the system to get to work on time is at best difficult.
Detroit bus riders complain they still have to wait too long too often. Relying on the system to get to work on time is at best difficult.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

This week the Detroit Journalism Cooperative is looking at how the city is functioning under bankruptcy. Mayor Mike Duggan suggested he’d get a lot done in six months. We’re nearly there and took a look at progress with mass transportation in Detroit.

One out of every three Detroit households doesn’t have a car. They rely on the bus system. But it’s broken.

The Rosa Parks Transit Center in downtown Detroit.
The Rosa Parks Transit Center in downtown Detroit.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

People at the Rosa Parks Transit Center in downtown Detroit disagree whether it’s gotten any better since Mayor Duggan took over the Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT). Here's a sampling of some of the comments:

  • “They come late all the time. I’m never on time for jobs and nothing. They always come late.”
  • “I’ve seen more of them out there, a little bit more adhering to the schedule.”
  • “Well, they’re still running late all the time.”
  • “I think he’s got more buses out here now.”
  • “DDOT bus system is terrible.”

So opinions are a bit of a mixed bag. Some people do give the mayor credit for trying.

Megan Owens is the executive director of Transportation Riders United. She says the group hears from a lot of people who ride the buses often.

“There are some days where things seem to be working pretty well and other days that they don’t,” Owens said.

The group says it's hard to measure whether things are improving because the bus service stopped publishing the daily pull-out rate. That’s the actual number of buses that operate versus the number scheduled for a day.

“So we don’t have any explicit data to show concrete improvements,” Owens said.

At the main garage at DDOT headquarters they’re working to get more buses on the road.

Workers installing a new diesel engine in a bus. Dozens of buses have been put back on the road since Duggan became mayor.
Workers installing a new diesel engine in a bus. Dozens of buses have been put back on the road since Duggan became mayor.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Detroit needs 270 buses to properly serve its 100 thousand passengers a day. The city only has 228 buses and a lot of them are broken down.

Dan Dirks is the director of DDOT.

“Right now we are getting out a little bit over 200 – 201, 202. And that contrasts when the mayor took office, we were in the 150-160 range.”

I asked why he stopped posting those pull-out rates.

“It’s a matter of getting to a decent level. Once we get close to the 228 number, I’ll feel very confident. It’s really a preference on my part.” 

LG: But shouldn’t the public be able to see that?

“Yeah, they absolutely should.”

But, they won’t. Not until Dirks and the mayor like the numbers.

The bus fleet is aging. Mayor Duggan says the average fleet age is approaching 10 years. Buses are usually retired at 12 years. George Robinson is a mechanic with DDOT. He says the streets of Detroit are rough on the vehicles.

“Can you imagine buses running 24/7 most of the time and high maintenance? You got a bus 10 years old, nine years old, the older it is the more work it takes to keep it on the road,” Robinson said.

The city has hired more mechanics. It’s also hired more drivers, who are being trained. It’s fixed the problems with parts suppliers; the city hadn’t been paying its bills.

Dan Dirks, DDOT Director, says they're "beating bushes down" trying to find new drivers.
Dan Dirks, DDOT Director.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

And new buses might be coming. During Mayor Duggan’s State of the City address in February, he indicated the Obama administration was helping Detroit get 50 new buses.

“And we’re going to have these buses on the street this fall. We’re going to start to make a difference,” the Mayor declared.

That was then. Now, Dan Dirks tells our Detroit Journalism Cooperative partner WDET that Detroit won't get the buses in the fall as hoped. It'll be later. But, until the feds actually deliver, there's the chance that it could all fall apart.

Dan Dirks says Detroit has a more certain opportunity to get 10 to 13 other buses through an EPA air-quality program.

“So, if we’re lucky, we could get anywhere between 60 and 63 new. Worst-case scenario, we’ll get 10 to 13," Dirks explained.

One of DDOT's battered buses seems to be smiling.
One of DDOT's battered buses seems to be smiling.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Getting Detroiters back to work depends a great deal on getting more new buses. Megan Owens with Transportation Riders United says getting a job when you’re dependent on the city transit is really tough.

“Is the city really going to be able to grow and succeed without people able to get to jobs? I mean people are riding public transit to make money or to spend money. The city needs people doing a heck of a lot more of both,” Owens noted.

Support for the Detroit Journalism Cooperative on Michigan Radio comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Renaissance Journalism's Michigan Reporting Initiative, and the Ford Foundation.