In his fourth meeting with the Motor City Freedom Riders this year, Detroit Department of Transportation Director Dan Dirks said the Motor City’s long-suffering bus system is on its way to recovery.
The Freedom Riders had a request for Dirks this past November 21: make DDOT’s bus performance information public, so Detroiters know whether we’re making progress towards on-time buses. On our previous visits, we’d seen this information posted in the DDOT headquarters building, but Dirks had said he preferred to wait before releasing the information publicly.
“It’s like the doctor taking your pulse,” said member Glenn Maxwell. “We want to see demonstrated improvement.”
Dirks agreed to post the information on the DDOT website. (You can find it there under News and Events.) He also told us he’d ask Mayor Duggan to make DDOT performance information a part of the Mayor’s Detroit Dashboard. The Dashboard currently lists things like streetlight installation, demolitions, and emergency response times, but not DDOT information – despite the fact that Duggan has said improving DDOT is his top priority.
Dirks said that morning pullout – the number of buses getting out of the garage and onto the road – is up to the 170s, out of 189 scheduled buses. That’s an improvement from 145 earlier this year, but it still means that of every ten buses that are supposed to show up, one won’t be there.
31 new buses will be arriving soon, and should be on the road by the spring. Of course, they won’t last long if maintenance isn’t improved. Dirks said there’s also a new system in place for monitoring bus maintenance. Hiring new drivers has been a challenge, though. “You name it, we’ve tried it,” Dirks said, citing competition from SMART and school districts.
Asked about “bus bunching” – the frustrating tendency of DDOT buses on major routes to clump together and arrive at the same time, instead of at regular intervals – Dirks said that the new bus dispatcher facility at DDOT headquarters would help dispatchers keep the buses where they’re meant to be. Previously, the dispatchers had been working off generator power at DDOT’s Shoemaker Terminal.
Dirks also acknowledged that even if DDOT was running on time, there wouldn’t be enough buses on the road to meet demand from riders, due to years of service cuts. “Even when we get full tilt, we’re not gonna have enough buses,” he said.
Before the 2012 cuts, Dirks said, DDOT had 350 buses scheduled. Over the long term, he hopes for more money to support expanded service. Among other options, he noted that Duggan is working with the State Legislature to allow Detroit to flex more of its road money to public transit. Dirks, who worked 32 years at the SMART bus system and ran it as General Manager from 1998 to 2007, also said he hoped SMART would begin restoring some of its services into the city – something the Freedom Riders have repeatedly advocated. “I might live in Macomb,” Dirks said, “but I’m a Detroiter.”
We’re glad to hear that. But it’s clear that we need to build more momentum for change. Competent, accountable management is important. But without enough money for buses, there’s only so much a transit professional can do. That makes it all the more important for us to build a movement capable of getting all the region’s top dogs to support transit progress.