A year ago, while bitterly complaining to someone working for a local transit provider about Detroit’s ineffective services, he asked me to write it all down. So here it is, presented as a blog post. This post isn’t satire, it’s not about Zelda and the Unibrows, and, frankly, it’s pretty dry. A few things have changed in the year since I wrote this commentary, and I’ve added those at the end. Enjoy, transit nerds!
Personal Perspective on Transit in Detroit
by Joseph C. Krause
- Personal Statement
- The RTA, BRT and M1
- The People Mover
- Private Transportation Services
- The Regional Pass
I’ve been asked by a member of the M1 Rail Citizen’s Advisory Board charged with building “street teams” of involved citizens to write down my comments on the M1 and transit in the city. I couldn’t help but write a very lengthy commentary, as there is a lot to say. I hope to give a personal perspective on our transit system as it is today as a customer, passenger, and as a citizen. The best way to plan an addition to our current transit system is to understand how it works from the perspective of practical daily use.
It is widely understood that Detroit has poor public transportation, but in the body of this article I attempt to describe the particulars of how it is a faulty system. There is no better way to do this though, than by experiencing it firsthand. I encourage everyone reading this to try getting around Metro Detroit using only your feet and our current transit systems. Even if this is done for only one week, it will illuminate many of the issues I will discuss here. Even if there is disagreement afterward, all parties will be speaking from shared experiences and first-hand understanding of at least some of the issues involved.
I grew up in the car-dependent Detroit suburb of Fraser, where all roads are five lanes, all parking is free, and people refuse to walk a quarter-mile. While commuting to Wayne State, I became fascinated with Detroit, and moved here in 2007. Around the time of my move, I was diagnosed with Stargardt’s disease, a degenerative eye condition that causes worsening and untreatable blindness in one’s central vision. In 2011, I decided to give up driving. For months I would hitch rides with friends or go on lengthy walks to conduct my daily affairs, until I finally began the process of learning our transit system. I moved to the CBD from Corktown in order to be in the most walkable environment possible. Still, the quality of service is so poor that it often makes me want to leave Michigan for a more functional city. Detroit is not only a fascinating city experiencing an exciting era, but it’s also where my friends and family and roots are, and despite the hardship imposed by the lack of quality transportation, I have so far decided to stick around.
I am delighted that the business community has become impatient and wants to build and operate a rail system immediately. This expression of urgency has been lacking for decades and is welcome. But I am concerned that the business leadership is disconnected from the realities of our current system, which can contribute to misguided decisions, and which is why I spend so much time in this document on already-existing systems. Although I have many criticisms, I do not write as an opponent or in protest, but as an advocate desiring the best outcome.
That said, the proposed design of the M1 rail does not follow federal guidelines for best-practices of surface running rail. The planned stops are too close together to be “rapid transit”, so the rebranding of the system as a “modern streetcar” is appropriate. The side running configuration is problematic, as it eliminates the space that could be used by bike lanes, can potentially conflict with parked cars, requiring the construction of twice as many stations, and causing potential traffic snarls should the cars transition to a center-running configuration along partial stretches.
The M1 Mission reads:
M-1 RAIL is a non-profit organization formed in 2007 to lead the design, construction, and future operation of a 3.3-mile circulating streetcar along Woodward Avenue between Larned Street and West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, Michigan.
This is an insufficient mission. The M1 should strive to contribute to a seamless transit system by coordinating services and branding with other providers.
Our current transit system mostly serves a “dependent” population, who have little choice other than the bus. The M1 seeks to serve a “discretionary” population, who likely own a car and choose the rail out of convenience. These contrasting groups can be seen in the differences between people riding The People Mover and those riding DDOT. But M1 can be the first system in ages to incorporate both populations comfortably, provided that it is well-coordinated with the rest of the systems.
Span-of-service is a problem in the city. The bus systems were once 24 hours, but now DDOT ends no later than midnight. The People Mover has a good quality span of service, operating until midnight most nights and until 2am on Fridays and Saturdays. The M1 website states 10pm as the end of service, and this is concerning. A span such as that would be good for the typical office worker, but not for a WSU student taking a late-night class, or for someone catching a show at The Magic Stick, nor for a resident of Midtown’s ever-expanding citizenry who needs to get to CVS late at night. Let’s build a city that doesn’t start snoring when the sun goes down.
The now-cancelled 2011 transit plan showed two phases, with a rapid, center-running configuration between Grand Boulevard and the State Fairgrounds. This preliminary plan for “phase 2” was sound, and should be revisited should M1 have the opportunity to expand in the future.
The 3.3-mile stretch currently planned is a good length for a short “phase 1”, but it could be improved by adding a single stop farther North in New Center/North End. Seward contains higher-density apartment buildings, many of which are being renovated, and adding a mostly-residential neighborhood at the Northern terminus provides the opportunity for significant residential renovation and infill there. The currently planned terminus shed at Bethune would be rather close to the Grand Boulevard station to justify it as its own station.
The idea of a Westward spoke of M1 at Grand Boulevard has surfaced. Although this would connect Henry Ford Hospital to Midtown, it is a somewhat arbitrary choice for something as important as rail service along our most significant corridor. It’s not an unused route by any means, but would better be served by a regular bus. Indeed, it is served already by DDOT’s 16 Dexter, which is among the more reliable and useful routes in the city.
The M1 FAQ states that SMART and DDOT service would continue along Woodward even with the streetcar in place. This is a critical opportunity to share capacity. If DDOT busses are allowed to stop at or immediately behind M1 stations, a transit customer not partisan to one form of transit over another may choose to board whichever bus or train arrives first while waiting in a single location. The two bus systems already share stops in this manner in some places, which always greatly increases usability. Some riders will only choose to ride on rails, but other riders simply want to go down the street as soon as they can, and will not be partisan to one provider over another. It would be an alienating disservice to deliberately distance bus stops from M1 stations.
The tram system in Amsterdam typically stops at every station, but only because passengers press a button to request a stop there. Late at night, with fewer riders, the tram can skip stations if nobody intends to board or de-board. Because the Amtrak and Foxtown stations are primarily planned to be used for special events, a stop-request system such as this should be examined to eliminate needless dwell time during periods of low ridership.
It is encouraging that our region finally voted-in an RTA after dozens of failed attempts to do so, but the RTA is currently unfunded and may be unable to get off the ground as a result unless it cannibalizes the funding of SMART and DDOT (see “Regional Transit Authority Funding Stalls in State Legislature”, The Detroit News).
M1 Rail should support and encourage the success of SEMCOG’s plan for BRT. The proposed BRT line would provide car-competitive connections all the way to Pontiac which could feed directly into the M1 system. If station construction is coordinated, future phases of M1, should they occur, could supplant the BRT and use a portion of its infrastructure.
Because a rapid feeder system such as this could bring so much excitement and ridership to the M1, it is advisable that M1 assists in co-marketing and co-branding efforts with BRT. The general public is often wary of the “bus” in “rapid transit”, but if they know it could beat their car down Woodward and that they don’t have to look at a schedule, and that they can connect to the M1 at the other end, the public may be more willing to vote to fund it rather than seeing it as a competetive system, or worse, simply being confused.
MDOT has allocated funds for bike infrastructure on Cass, but it is not clear if this coordinates with either SEMGOG’s plan to potentially run BRT down Cass or M1’s claim to be in coordination with SEMCOG. Construction has begun on M1, and somewhat basic design questions have not been publicly addressed in a satisfactory way.
The BRT plan may end up advising running in the median of Woodward in the suburbs. This is an excellent idea, in part because the median right-of-way exists to accommodate surface or elevated rail. It is a remnant from a 1920s plan for a subway system, whereby the trains would surface and run in the median for that section of the “Woodward Superhighway”.
To look at a system map of the DDOT, it would appear that most of the city is already well-served by transit, as most of it, technically, is covered. But service can be so limited on some lines that they have no practical use for most daily activities. The 49 Vernor bus, for example, services one of the more viable commercial corridors and population centers in the city, but with a frequency of once per hour on weekdays, ending at 9pm, it’s not reasonable to expect someone to live in Hubbard Farms, work downtown, and ditch their car. The busses themselves are often in non-functioning condition and are usually filthy. The stop-request cables, the fare boxes, and other critical components are frequently broken. When busses go out of service, it throws off the schedule for the rest of the day, so the person waiting for the 3pm Vernor bus may be serviced at 3:38 without explanation.
On the most critical lines, such as 53 Woodward, the bus is under-scheduled. This results in the first bus filling to dangerous over-capacity. This bus now must stop every few blocks as people board and de-board, and the dwell time is exacerbated by the wait to load and unload wheelchairs. While all of this is going on, the next scheduled bus, which is nearly empty, catches up to the full bus. Sometimes two of them will catch up and one will see one full bus and two empty busses bunched up with a 30 or 40 minute service-free gap behind them. This makes walk-up service on Woodward unreliable, and, when found, hostile, due to the anger generated by the confusing mess. The fantasy of the DDOT schedule makes planning a transfer to SMART impossible, so upon arrival at the State Fairgrounds to transfer, the connection may have been missed and a needless 40-minute wait is a real possibility, at a concrete plaza with no security at State Fair and Woodward.
Some of these delays are caused by the lack of maintenance of busses. When the 25 Jefferson bus I was waiting for broke down, dispatch sent out the next scheduled bus early. This resulted in people running up to their stop waving their arms as the early bus passed them by. In this case, I witnessed a driver pull two u-turns in the middle of Jefferson, a daring, traffic-law-violating maneuver, motivated by compassion. The passengers were alarmed when the bus began to turn unexpectedly, but laughed and cheered when the on-time passengers were picked up by their early bus after all.
DDOT’s routing seems to have been transferred directly from old
streetcar lines and never updated. When a road has closed or a freeway has gone through, the route simply dodges around it, no matter how detrimental it is to travel times. On the 40 Russell or 10 Chene busses, which each connect downtown to Hamtramck, the densest, most walkable city in Michigan, it can easily take 40 minutes travel time between the enclave and the CBD. This travel time is merely twice as fast as a brisk walk! The trip takes six minutes on the freeway. In the case of 40 Russell, one of the most significant problems is that Russell St. is inexplicably closed at the intersection of Canfield. Presumably this was done to reduce traffic near the Forest Park residential area, as it is near an industrial zone, but this decision is extremely disruptive to the grid, and the bus goes on extraordinary time-wasting reroute to attempt to circumvent this blockage. On Google Earth, tire tracks through the grass can be seen where motorists demonstrated their justified annoyance with this mysterious closure by choosing to ignore it. Replacing the street in this section would make a Hamtramck-to-downtown connection more viable, and allow for increased service for Eastern Market Saturdays to be logical.
The Chene bus loops in and out of Lafayette and Elmwood Parks, including a section on Chene that goes down a block, turns around, and comes back down the same block to service a high-rise cul-de-sac. Though this may help to service that neighborhood, for the passenger waiting to ride on past Elmwood Park this dithering is downright demoralizing.
These are just a few examples of routes that need reexamination. There are seemingly circuitous routes that are very effective, though, such as 16 Dexter. This bus not only runs up Cass through Midtown, providing more reliable service than 53 Woodward, but its various turns through the rest of its route connect many important parts of the city and allows transfer between many other bus routes, and with somewhat frequent service. Routes like this can be used to feed in to major corridors, like M1, and transit advocates should have first-hand familiarity with them.
Express service utilizing the freeways to connect activity nodes needs to be examined.
Code for America in 2012 installed and configured a GPS-based “text my bus” system that allows customers to get real-time arrival information on any cell phone, so our hypothetical passenger on 49 Vernor has a means to discover whether the bus will arrive at 3pm or 3:38pm. A Compuware employee, in his spare time, improved on the cumbersome text interface by creating an iPhone app to display the data visually, called “Stop313”. The availability of this information has created the potential to transform the usability of the system for the better even if the many other problems persist. While sitting at home, one can remain warm and go outside right before their bus arrives, whether it is late or not. This system is still underdeveloped and has no roadmap for maintenance, though, and already is beginning to show errors, as it was implemented by a one-time event and the maintenance on it is more than one man in his spare time should be expected to maintain indefinitely. The app is only available in the US iTunes Store, which means foreign travelers to the city and all non-iOS users are shut out.
Without changing anything else in the system, a well-designed and maintained app for iPhone and Android as well as continued text access, can improve the quality of life for thousands of riders.
If DDOT fails broadly by striving to cover the entire city with limited resources. SMART avoids this embarrassment by not striving. It is designed for a world in which the only necessary travel is into work by 9am and back home at 5pm on weekdays. In this world, there is no traveling crosstown on Sunday to visit mom, no heading out to lunch and back, and almost no living in the city and working in the suburbs.
In contrast to DDOT, it tends to run on-schedule, be in good repair, and is generally clean. The service has been kept on-schedule at least once since I’ve been a customer by running red lights on Woodward while wildly blaring the horn. There is an email system that I’ve never tried for “real-time” arrival, but sending an email from a bus stop, and navigating the non-mobile SMART website to find the correct email address on a mobile device makes it so cumbersome as to be more trouble than it’s worth. One method of coordinating all systems would be the creation of a unified smartphone app with GPS information for all. SMART also posts schedules at many stops which is very helpful.
The SMART bus also has no lines with walk-up headway, though it gets close with a 15-minute headway on parts of Woodward. The entire system is designed exclusively for commuters working a typical weekday schedule, and shuns all other uses.
The SMART bus no longer runs into Detroit except during three-hour windows at the beginnings and ends of weekday work hours. When it does run through the city, the pick-up and drop-off procedures are excessively confusing. For example, a 450 Woodward running out of downtown Detroit on a Thursday at 4pm will only pick up at SMART bus stops even though I’ve heard the drivers are to use city bus stops as well — drivers are not in agreement on what the correct procedure is. Once on the 450 Northbound from the CBD, it is against the rules to be allowed to request a stop and de-board at any point South of Highland Park, so it is impossible to ride from downtown to New Center. As Highland Park is considered to be a “suburb”, both boarding and de-boarding is allowed there. When the bus continues into Detroit again between McNichols and 8 Mile, a third set of rules comes in to play, whereby passengers may board or de-board at any city bus stop. This astonishingly confusing set of rules comes in to play for bureaucratic reasons that have no consideration for the realities of the customer.
The People Mover is often maligned as a failed transportation system, and I can’t disagree. There’s a station next to my building, and it is just as fast to walk for almost every imaginable trip. But this problem comes from the bizarre route that it takes, not the technology or idea. The oft-overlooked technology involved is forward-thinking. There’s no need for individual conductors, meaning that the headway can be around three minutes between trains. If the double-car system were decoupled, this already short headway could be reduced to only ninety seconds.
I must admit that I have a fondness for The People Mover despite its flaws. It does make downtown look more like a “city”, but that’s an awful lot of infrastructure and expense for something that effectively functions as a prop. This expense becomes an insult when placed inn the context of the dysfunctional bus system. One day, The People Mover should probably be expanded or eliminated, especially if, under the RTA, the funds running it could be rerouted to other forms of transit.
If a reinvestment were ever viable for DPM, a track reroute could be constructed without significantly changing the 3-mile length, that could expand service. By inverting the backwards L shape formed by the Cobo Station up to Times Square and running up Third instead of Cass, the MGM Grand, new Public Safety headquarters, and the edge of Corktown could be served. In particular, this would connect a 5,000 space parking garage into the PM system, which could help the urbanity of the CBD by keeping parked cars at the edges. Likewise, inverting loops elsewhere in the system and potentially eliminating close-together stations (“Bricktown” is one-tenth of a mile from “Greektown”), the entire system could be made to be more sensible and service a larger area, without increasing travel times.
One way the People Mover could be expanded to cover a much more effective area would be to function as a two-way elevated rail, perhaps heading North on Brush to connect directly to the stadiums, and through the medical and WSU campuses in Midtown. This would make the current downtown loop relevant and, without transfer and with short headway, serve the same area that Bedrock, WSU and DMC shuttles as well as M1 are currently trying to service.
Critics have maligned M1 as “People Mover 2.0”, seeing it as a boondoggle on the same order as DPM. M1 will connect a much larger area at its start and prove invalid some claims of critics, but building two downtown circulator systems serving an overlapping area, not connecting to other systems, and without compatibility is still a major problem, which is why the DPM, eventually, should probably either be expanded or removed.
Many other transit alternatives have sprung up in lieu of the impracticality of the municipal transit services. The Detroit Bus Company has been experimenting with different routes and services to try to alleviate some of these issues, but is fighting an uphill battle as a public service since effective systems must be subsidized. The Bus Company will find its niche, though, and service a small subset of customers. Moreover, University of Michigan, Quicken, the DMC and Wayne State are all running shuttle services, many of them along lines that are also served by DDOT. Many businesses and other institutions have bought old busses and use them as a shuttle service for various purposes, often, again, on lines that are technically already served by DDOT. Although all of these efforts do good by providing service, they also serve to segregate riders from one another. The Quicken employee won’t encounter a DDOT rider, who won’t encounter a Tigers fan going to Nemo’s on their shuttle, who won’t encounter a hipster visiting Green Dot Stables from Royal Oak. Social commentary aside, consider the incredible pent-up demand that is the product of the disfunction of the municipal system, being expressed by these options. A functional transit system could claim most of these riders and eliminate the need for the incredible volume of private capital necessary to run specialized shuttle services. This additional ridership could also serve to justify more frequent service along many corridors, creating the possibility of walk-up service in more parts of the city.
A “Regional Pass” is available for $49.50 per month, which is a card that can be swiped on either DDOT or SMART busses. The standard fare for DDOT is $1.50, and the standard fare for SMART is $2. As a result, even after buying the “regional” transit pass, a customer must drop in 50 cents after swiping their regional pass on a SMART bus. If the passenger wishes to avoid using cash, she must buy a supplemental card from SMART for $17 per month to make up the difference, and swipe two successive cards at the fare box. If she was unlucky enough to have purchased her regional pass from CVS, The Rosa Parks Transit Center, or any location other than a SMART transit center, SMART will refuse to even sell the supplemental $17 card.
The People Mover also offers monthly and yearly passes which must be ordered online or purchased from their office on Washington Boulevard. These function exclusively on The People Mover.
A single monthly card should exist that could be purchased from all venues selling transit passes. It should work on M1, BRT, DDOT, SMART and The People Mover. There should also be shorter-term transit cards for visitors, perhaps with discounts to attractions. An especially forward-looking implementation would include Transit Windsor in its coverage. This would not only connect our downtowns as an “international metropolis”, but would make train travel between Toronto and Detroit easier.
Transfers between systems are confusing and difficult. A transfer may not be used for a return trip on the same line, and transfers only work for a limited time-window. These difficulties could be eliminated outright with the creation of a “day pass”.
Despite the existence of a downtown transit center used by DDOT, SMART, Transit Windsor, DPM and the Megabus, there remains a separate office for DPM passes and a separate SMART “transit center” inside the Buhl Building. DDOT should welcome all providers at Rosa Parks.
The most important consideration in the design of M1 rail is its connection to the rest of our transit systems. Because of this, the proponents of M1 should have it in their interest to see the RTA succeed and to be close allies. SMART, DDOT, The People Mover, BRT and M1 should all coordinate schedules to make transfers easy. A single smartphone app should be created showing the position of every bus and train across all systems as well as routes for all systems. A single monthly pass should be launched that will work across all systems for a fixed price, and should be sold at all current transit venues. A three-day and week-long pass should also be created for visitors, perhaps with attraction discounts. A day pass should be available, which would eliminate confusion around the current rules regarding transfers. If BRT is concurrently constructed with M1, it could be used as a feeder system to effectively extend the reach of the rail to Pontiac without building farther than Grand Boulevard in phase one. If the stations for both BRT and M1 are built to be compatible across both systems, a future extension of M1 could supplant the BRT line. The ultimate span-of-service goal for M1 should be 24-hours, but in lieu of this, at least to midnight on weeknights and past 2am on weekends to service the downtown entertainment crowd. Municipal, funding and political squabbles should be secondary to the goal of coordinating all systems and making them simple enough for any first-time visitor to the city to use confidently.
“Anatomy of Detroit’s Decline” is an article from this week’s New York Times attempting to break down the particulars of the city’s downfall. It is the type of article that many Detroiters, excited by the energy of what’s happening downtown, are tired of reading. Yet there is much truth in the Times’ identification of transportation as among the top issues. The importance of good transit is hard to overstate. It is a defining characteristic of any modern city worldwide, but in Detroit has either been treated as a silly novelty or as a service for the poor and disabled. But it’s for everyone. Business leaders are often in disbelief that their only option to get downtown from the airport is a $50 cab ride, and this contributes to sneering dismissal of our region as just another part of “the flyover”, and our significant progress in improving the city as mere hype.
We have a regional culture of defeatism regarding transit. People will say “This is the Motor City,” as if this dated identity gives us special permission among cities to treat public transportation like a disease. These are not magic words that change how the universe functions. Bad transit makes for a bad city. In addition to branding across transit modes, a rebranding of Detroit from “Motor Capitol” to “Transit Capitol” is overdue.
“Bus” comes from the Latin “omnibus”, which means “for all”, and we should strive to make our transit system one in which the poor and the wealthy, the local and the tourist, and all ages and races find utility.
BRT: Bus Rapid Transit. BRT utilizes busses in a manner akin to light and heavy rail transit systems. BRT typically has dedicated lanes or “guideways” but has the ability to also run in mixed traffic when necessary. BRT can be as little as 1/8 the construction cost of rail. Stations are elevated to board at-level with busses, providing handicapped access. Fare is paid before entering, to reduce dwell time. Stations are often a half-mile or more apart, in contrast to stops every few blocks for a typical bus. BRT claims light priority, making the travel time competitive with driving a car along the same route.
CBD: Central Business District.
DDOT: Detroit Department of Transportation. Serves Detroit proper with very limited connection outside of the city limits, usually close-in shopping malls.
DPM: Detroit People Mover, a partially automated driverless elevated rail, serving 13 stations along a 3-mile one-way loop in Detroit’s CBD.
Headway: Time between vehicles.
MDOT: Michigan Department of Transportation.
RTA: Regional Transit Authority.
SEMCOG: Southeast Michigan Council of Governments. This is the regional organization studying and potentially implementing BRT along Woodward, and slated to study and implement
SMART: Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation. Operates busses primarily servicing the suburban Detroit cities in which voters have opted-in to funding. Services Detroit proper with limited rush-hour weekday service only.
Walk-up service or walk-up headway: Transit service with wait times so short that looking at a schedule is not necessary.
A year later, I’m less upset about transportation, but it’s mostly because I’ve shifted to using private services such as Uber and Lyft, which are gradually becoming established. They’re now threatened by Detroit’s taxi lobby, and I hope that the cab drivers fail. Traditional cab service is extremely terrible and if we’re really living in the land of capitalism, they absolutely deserve to be driven out of business by Uber and Lyft.
Mike Duggan, the new mayor and former head of SMART, focused his inaugural speech on bus service, adding more busses to the schedule, extending service on some lines by an hour, and hiring a new head of DDOT. This focus is welcome, but because as much as a third of the fleet is out of service at all times, the practical effect of this is usually not noticeable as a customer. New busses are to be introduced to the fleet soon, which I expect to have a much more noticeable positive impact.
M-1 Rail is well under construction and ahead of schedule after receiving a federal grant. My criticisms about its design mostly remain (I’ve found that bike lanes couldn’t fit on Woodward even if M-1 ran in the center, as federal guidelines now require extra lane-width for cars), but I am optimistic that it will erode the discretionary riders cynicism about public transportation as an enterprise. This will be very important for future ballot measures.
The RTA finally has found a CEO and plans to push BRT on a 2016 ballot initiative.
Amtrak is working to increase speeds on its Wolverine line, which connects to M-1.
The “Transit” app, which works in about 70 cities, added Detroit to its catalog. Although this was initially very exciting, their data is bad and the app should only be used to determine the location of routes and stops. Their real-time arrival has been wrong three out of five times I’ve tried using it and has not been corrected even after emailing with the developers.
That’s all for now. Since you’ve made it this far, here’s a song by “Weird Al” Yankovic:
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