Transit Follies - Lessons From Detroit

City Of Detroit Teeters On Bankruptcy As State Audits Its Finances
J.D. Pooley/Getty Images News

Transit Follies - Lessons From Detroit

What happens when people who do not know anything about transit attempt to start a transit system? Recent events from Detroit tell us that they plan transit systems that are not likely to benefit the people in need of transit.

Transit in Detroit has suffered terribly in recent years, with both SMART and D-DOT (Detroit Department of Transportation) enacting service reductions of more than 25%.

D-DOT has cut the service span on routes that connect with SMART to such an extent that they have literally left passengers stranded on Eminem's Eight Mile Road. Many suburbs have "opted out" of transit service, leaving the transit dependent prisoners in their homes.

The fact that basic transit service is missing in Detroit has not stopped non-transit people from providing new transit service in Detroit that will do nothing to promote mobility for the poor. Two recent proposals discussed are the Detroit Bus Company and a Detroit light rail line.

Detroit Bus Company

The Detroit Bus Company is planning to operate a circular route connecting a series of nightlife spots around the central city. Operating only in the late afternoon - early morning hours of Friday and Saturday with an earlier closing time on Sunday, the Company seems to want to attract the kind of passengers Darrin Nordahl wants to attract: the kind that would take transit if it were fun.

Even if you believed that passengers at 11 PM would like to take a bus from Trumbull to Russell via the old Tiger Stadium Area, there is one problem: when is the bus supposed to come by each stop? Will I have time to savor my PBR, or will I have to down it? Nowhere on the website does it say. Certainly, unless impoverished Detroit residents live near one of the bars on the route and work at another bar on the route, they will not benefit at all from this service.

An interesting (and novel) idea is that the Detroit Bus Company promises to devote half of its proceeds to help the transit dependent get to work. However, the website does not specify how this is to come about, although there is an inference is that the Company will take them where they need to go on the bus. Considering how the transit dependent live everywhere in Detroit and need to go almost everywhere in the suburbs (a huge area), it seems nonsensical to expect that the Detroit Bus Company could make even a small dent in the transit problem by providing rides themselves. The Company would be better off by subsidizing the existing bus companies and enabling them to restore some of the service.

Of course, there is one very important feature of the Detroit Bus Company that would definitely give them the right to tell me to (insert favorite term here) off - the company is totally privately funded. I applaud them for that, and wish they would consult with transit professionals so that their generous private resources could be spent in a way that could actually make a difference to the average Detroiter.

One aspect of their company that I think is worthy of emulation by transit agencies is their choice in rolling stock: used school buses.

While definitely not glamorous in comparison to the buses that agencies usually buy they are much cheaper and, being fully accessible, meet the dictates of the ADA .

Detroit Light Rail

The route of Detroit's first light rail line keeps getting cut back: first, it was supposed to reach into the suburbs; next, it was supposed to reach the State Fair Grounds at the city limits; now, it would reach only from downtown to the New Center Area. Unlike the Detroit Bus Company, the light rail line needed federal funds; fortunately, the federal government decided against funding it because operation of the line almost certainly would have caused D-DOT to cut other bus routes - used by the transit dependent - in order to pay for this rail line , which, in its current state, is likely to be used mainly by suburban residents who want to go bar-hopping before or after a sporting event.

In recent months the backers of this rail line - mostly downtown Detroit property holders - have pledged to pay 80% of the cost of operating the line for a number of years. Again, if private parties want to pay to operate a transit service that almost nobody will use then that is fine; I only object when government subsidy is required - subsidy that is required elsewhere to provide bus service for people who have no other means of traveling around.

Lessons From These Proposals

These proposals are far from the only transit proposals made by people who do not know anything about transit. In fact, the average transit agency probably deals with many such proposals a year, including some from politically powerful people that must be delicately handled. I believe the basic key to resolving these situations is to keep an eye on the basic facts, especially how much is the proposal going to cost to operate and how many riders are expected to ride it. If I assume that each bus in the Detroit Bus Company costs $100 per hour to operate (assumes as 19% profit on a charter rental of $119 per hour), and each day the bus will be in operation for ten hours, then in order to break even 200 people, or the entire capacity of one of the bars served along the route, will have to pay $5 for a pass. In 2010, Detroit transit agencies served a metropolitan area of about 4.8 million with 48 million rides - which equates to a per capita ridership of 10 and a mode share for transit somewhere in the range of 1 - 2%.

To me, expecting 100% of the patrons of a bar to ride a bus in a city where around 2% of all trips are taken on transit seems very unlikely, especially when considering that he is operating a park-and-ride lot where patrons will have to pay $5 to park. In the United States, charging for parking at transit park-and-ride lots is extremely rare because it is a deterrent to ridership.

While ridership would be much higher on a light rail line, costs would be even higher, so similar math would apply, especially on the abbreviated light rail line currently proposed. One only has to look at the dismal ridership of the People Mover - another downtown circulator - to predict the fate of the rail line.  Speaking of transit follies, the jury is still out on the hyperloop.