Springtime for DDOT? Not Quite Yet

ddot pullout spring 2015If you’ve spent any time in Detroit these past several months, you’ve almost certainly seen one of the most visible symbols of Mayor Duggan’s stated commitment to improving city bus service. Sleek new New Flyer buses sporting DDOT’s green and yellow trim are all over city streets these days, joining the fleet’s boxy older New Flyers and Gilligs and aging, high-floor NovaBuses, which date to the early 2000s. The new buses are also an eye-catching symbol of Duggan’s clout in DC. The Mayor used his leverage with Vice-President Joe Biden to get Detroit in front of other cities in the bus production line, making up for the buses DDOT handed over to SMART last year.

But how’s DDOT actually doing, beyond simple optics? The hard data above – posted quietly, and a little erratically, to the City of Detroit website in weekly reports – suggest that while slow improvement continues, the system still has a long way to go.

Early February was rough. On at least one day, scarcely half of scheduled morning buses actually made it out of the terminals and onto the road. Since then, pullout (the number of buses hitting the road) has steadily improved. Since March, more than 200 buses have been regularly – though not consistently – hitting the streets each afternoon. That’s the first time this has happened since before Duggan took office in January 2014.

And yet, performance is still well below the afternoon target of 229 buses needed to run scheduled service, and every bus that’s missing means dozens of people are delayed from getting to work or school.

We’ve known for a long time that DDOT’s trouble getting buses out of the garage has two main causes. One is equipment: DDOT’s buses simply weren’t in any condition to hit the road. Two is personnel: even when buses were available, drivers weren’t always there to get behind the wheel.

Delivery of new buses should at least partially resolve the equipment issue. It’s encouraging that Dirks and Duggan seem to be taking new steps to fix the personnel problem as well. A contract renegotiation with the DDOT drivers union, ATU Local 26, was voted down by members a few months ago, despite support from Local 26 president Fred Westbrook. However, after failing to turn up many new drivers willing to join DDOT at $9.38 per hour, Dirks and Duggan took the initiative, upping the starting hourly wage two dollars to $11.38. This remains well below SMART and AAATA pay, but two-digit wages will still put DDOT in a more favorable position to compete for employees against, say, your local coney joint.

It will take time to rebuild the ranks, however. According to Westbrook, DDOT went from 800 drivers in 2010 to to less than 400 at the start of 2013.

Will the Mayor still meet his goal of running on-time, scheduled service by the end of 2015? Only time will tell. As DDOT leadership knows, even currently scheduled service is grossly insufficient to meet Detroit’s needs, and the Freedom Riders intend to keep pushing the envelope. As the story of DDOT demonstrates, without an organized voice for riders, all bets are off for Michigan’s largest transit system.

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