How Can Detroit Improve Its Disastrous Public Transit System?

This November, constituents will vote on a proposal to fund a $4.6 billion overhaul

The Rosa Parks Transit Center in downtown Detroit

Detroit’s public transit is widely regarded as the worst in the United States. At the edge of downtown Detroit sits the Rosa Parks Transit Center, the raucous and at times chaotic central hub for the city’s bus system. Last week, hordes of passengers shuffled about the hub — a minimal facility with a small indoor waiting area and a roundabout for buses to dock.

“Zero-to-10, 10 is awful? I’d give it an eight,” said Roberto Rodriguez, a sixty-seven-year-old retired veteran who lives in the city’s Southwest neighborhood. Short and portly, wearing a Vietnam Veteran’s hat to mask a mat of gray hair, Rodriguez said he doesn’t use the Detroit system much anymore. About once a month, he takes a bus to the local Veteran Affairs hospital, near Midtown. “It’s just more convenient for me,” he said. In the city of 680,000, one-quarter of households don’t have access to a vehicle.

In the city of 680,000, one-quarter of households don’t have access to a vehicle.

“There’s not enough buses, there’s too long of delays, there’s not enough shelters, bus stop shelters for people in the rain,” he said. “And the thing that pisses me off the most about Southwest Detroit — besides not having enough buses — is that the signs, there used to be signs where the bus stops were.” He raised a finger to emphasize the next point: “There’s one sign between Livernois and Scotten,” he claimed, in reference to a mile-long stretch along the area’s main drag, Vernor. “One friggin’ sign.” (SuVon Treece, Marketing Manager for the city’s bus system, said that “could be accurate,” but it hasn’t received a complaint. The city has since launched a project to review individual routes and assess bus stop signs, and Treece said: “When we receive complaints, then we make sure to get the signs out.”)

Rodriguez mused about a common sight in his neighborhood. “So I see these mamacitas and abuelas with bags, and they’re walking around, and they’re saying: Señor, señor, where’s the bus? And they’re walking down with a bag or two, or pushing a cart load — and the fucking bus goes right by them, because they were not standing where they need to stand. There was no sign. It’s outrageous. I see it every week.”

For decades, officials have sought to establish some semblance of a functional, connected public transit system across Metro Detroit. Decades ago, the region infamously squandered a pledge of hundreds of millions of dollars for public transit from President Gerald Ford’s administration after local government couldn’t agree on how to organize a central authority, largely due to intense political rifts between the suburbs and the city. But in 2012, after two dozen failed attempts to create an agency to oversee public transit, state lawmakers formed the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan (RTA).

From the outset the agency has hobbled along, with little funding to get on its feet. And, last month, it nearly fell apart when representatives from Oakland and Macomb counties dredged up old sentiments: The board members felt they were getting a raw deal on the RTA’s Master Transit Plan. Oakland County executive L. Brooks Patterson said, “I cannot in good conscience support the current plan, which spends over $1.3 billion of Oakland County taxpayers’ dollars over 20 years, but only gives our businesses, workforce, and residents a fraction of that back in transit services.”

Why, he argued, should Oakland County tax dollars support, say, a streetcar system that only runs in Detroit? (A New Yorker feature on Patterson from January 2014 was titled, “Drop Dead, Detroit!”) In recent years it felt as though change were afloat: counties surrounding Detroit supported regional taxes for the Detroit Zoo, Detroit Institute of Arts, and a new regional authority to oversee the Detroit water system. But Patterson’s RTA representatives said the proposal could be a “detriment” to the current suburban bus system and its riders. The officials said, “the plan fails to demonstrate with specificity just how the financial resources to do so will be guaranteed to each agency to allow that goal to be achieved.”

Still, if the RTA’s estimations are on target, the suburbs could stand to gain significant access to more of the region: The agency said 92% of jobs within southeast Michigan aren’t accessible by a sixty-minute trip on public transit. The region also only spends $69 per capita on public transit operations, compared to $119 for Atlanta, or $471 for Seattle.

92% of jobs within southeast Michigan aren’t accessible by a sixty-minute trip on public transit.

The $4.6 billion master plan envisions a massive overhaul of public transportation across the region, including rail service between heavily populated cities like Ann Arbor and Detroit; new bus rapid transit lines along busy corridors and to the Detroit airport; and coordinated service among the suburban and city bus systems, with new express routes aimed at reducing long waits. Eventually, the RTA says it’ll assume oversight of a 3.3-mile streetcar line on Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit.

Eric Green, a fifty-seven-year-old native Detroiter who has been taking buses for over three decades has seen improvements in the city’s bus system since Detroit’s new mayor, Mike Duggan, took office. Of the new buses, he said, “it seems like they don’t break down as much as they used to.” On any given day, he’ll wait upward of forty-five minutes to an hour for a bus to cart him across the city from the west side where he lives to his job at a car wash, just outside downtown. The ride, including at least one transfer, lasts about an hour. Green seems resigned to the typical waits for a bus to arrive, but he said the city’s system still has its problems.

“You wish there were more buses out, especially in the winter time,” he said. “That’s when it’s really bad.” Like many riders scattered about the transit center, he hadn’t yet heard of the RTA’s expansive new plan. But the streetcar on Woodward, known as the QLine and under construction since 2014, doesn’t interest him. “I’m not into that,” he said, turning on a common refrain shared about the streetcar: “I mean, it’d be cool if it was going further, to [the city of] Pontiac or something like that. They should stretch it.” He went on, “My job is right downtown, but people have jobs way out where they need the transportation. It’d be cool if it was further.”

Otilia Jones, an auto worker in her fifties, echoed Green’s comments on long wait times. “In the winter time, sometimes you wait maybe two hours for a bus,” she said. “That’s uncalled for.” Her colleague, Londell Coles, said that two weeks ago, his morning bus to commute for work never showed up. In a city where the unemployment remains in the double-digits, the repercussions of a no-show ride are vast.

“In the winter time, sometimes you wait maybe two hours for a bus”

“I have to wake somebody else up in the morning to have them come pick me up, and drive me all the way down here, then go all the way home,” he said. “I can’t afford to be late for work.” Coles said he once waited two hours for a bus to arrive; Jones, who said she has used the city’s bus system “all my life,” bested him by an hour.

Whether the plan has potential to become reality is left to the ballot box this November: the RTA board earlier this month approved a ballot proposal that asks voters to green-light a property tax increase to fund the agency for 20 years, a roughly $8 per month increase for a home assessed at $78,856, the average value for a household in the region.

Patterson and Macomb County executive Mark Hackel, the hesitant county execs eventually came around and supported the plan, saying that, with adjustments, they believe it incorporates the entire region. (Hackel, seen as a likely Michigan gubernatorial candidate in 2018, was reportedly bothered by criticism that race and objection to the city played a part in his initial objections; he countered it was aimed solely to ensure his constituents receive decent service and sound governance of the RTA, “nothing more, nothing less.”)

Officials backing the plan still potentially face an up-hill battle: Voters have recently signalled support for public transit, approving a small tax increase for the suburban bus system, which operates some routes into Detroit. Perhaps a 15-year project to rebuild a busy highway in Oakland County will convince more motorists to lend additional support to transit instead.

It remains to be seen whether the RTA proposal will garner a similar level of support as the regional zoo and art museum taxes. Whatever it takes though, public transit has to improve. “The system has to get better,” Jones lamented. “Who’s got $25 to get a cab every day to come downtown?” she said. “That’s money you lose.”

Ryan Felton is a journalist who lives in Detroit.