Detroit’s Big Transit Success Story Isn’t Its New Streetcar — It’s the Buses

The turnaround of Detroit's bus system is a real transit success story.
 wyliepoon/Flickr
The turnaround of Detroit's bus system is a real transit success story. wyliepoon/Flickr

Today is the grand opening for the QLine, Detroit’s 3.3-mile, mixed-traffic streetcar on Woodward Avenue. It’s getting tons of local press attention, but TransitCenter reports that the Motor City’s true transit renaissance is not due to the streetcar, but the city’s successful, under-the-radar turnaround of its bus system.

Since the first week he took office in January 2014, Mayor Mike Duggan has focused on improving buses, which “are now offering the most reliable service the city has seen for years,” TransitCenter writes. “The bus system’s current challenge is to convince locals who suffered through severe cutbacks, abysmal performance and high crime levels on buses that the rebound is real.”

When Duggan took over, just 58 percent of scheduled buses even left the depot, leaving riders regularly stranded. Months before, bus drivers walked out in protest of dangers on the job — they were being assaulted and even shot at with alarming frequency. Duggan quickly fired the director of the Detroit Department of Transportation, the city’s transit operator, and replaced him with Dan Dirks, former general manager of the suburban SMART bus system.

Dirks focused on increasing DDOT’s reliability and reducing its crime rate. He bought new buses, hired additional drivers, worked with the police department to create a new transit unit, and installed interior and exterior cameras on all buses.

The results were noticeable: All scheduled DDOT buses were leaving the depot by September 2016, and the number of security incidents on buses dropped 62 percent since 2013, according to TransitCenter. The federal government noticed the progress, too, lifting funding restrictions it had placed on DDOT in the months before the city filed for bankruptcy in 2013.

While a major regional transit ballot measure came up just short of a majority last November, the city has been able to increase bus service, spending $10 million over the past year to add 1,700 new weekly bus trips. Detroit now has 24-hour service on some routes and new limited-stop services.

Ridership, which had been falling since 2008, increased in 2015 and grew even faster last year.

Bus ridership in Detroit has turned around since Mayor Mike Duggan took office in 2014 and began to improve and expand bus service. Image: TransitCenter
Bus ridership in Detroit has turned around since Mayor Mike Duggan took office in 2014 and began to improve and expand service. Image: TransitCenter

While bus service is rebounding, the challenge now is making sure the public knows things are on the mend. TransitCenter recommends rebranding the bus service, updating its fare collection system, which relies heavily on cash payments, and possibly replacing fixed-schedule buses in low-density areas with on-demand services, in order to shift some bus runs to areas with greater demand.

Streetcar supporters and the local media are already talking about expanding the QLine. But as Detroit celebrates its new streetcar, it’s important to remember that its transit workhorse is the bus system, which still has huge potential to improve and move more people.

  • bolwerk

    What’s with all these toxic headlines touting buses over LRT/streetcars? There’s a new one every week at this point. The success of Detroit’s bus system can be noteworthy without it being deemed more important than the QLine.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    What does the graph represent? The numbers on the scale are too small to be annual ridership, and too large to be daily or even weekly boardings.

  • Alicia

    Whatever the theoretical merits of buses, streetcars, the el (People Mover) or a hypothetical subway might be, the fact remains that the buses of Detroit are a full network, but the streetcar only covers a couple miles of Woodward. In terms of serving peoples’ transit needs, the buses of Detroit are doing most of the work.

  • The Q-line has the potential to be the backbone of a frequent grid network. With some parallel BRTs on either side and some perpendicular cross connecting BRTs to feed the Q there is a true frequent gridded network. The key is dedicated lanes for all the BRTs and the Q. imho as I’m not from Detroit.

  • David Johnson

    It’s called “Transit Center Rage”.

  • Richard

    Probably monthly then?

  • Richard

    I’m not sure I would be celebrating success. Stopping the bleeding is one thing, but looking at he graph, success would be getting over 3 million.

  • bolwerk

    And I suppose you would cheer an article comparing an arbitrarily selected bus line to the rest of the Detroit transit network (all the other buses + a streetcar) that insinuates the arbitrarily selected bus line is just not very important or something? The streetcar is part of the same network. It’s not a separate, competing thing.

  • Alicia

    No, it isn’t. Different management, different fare payment system, different operational schedule. The bus lines are part of the same system. The Q-Line (and the People Mover) are not integrated into that system.

  • bolwerk

    I can believe there is something dumb somewhere* (there always is with American transit), but from what I’ve read (and reported recently here) the tariffs and transfer costs to Detroit buses are the same as Detroit DOT buses are to each other and vice-versa.

    * Off-peak frequency might be bad?

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