On January 21st, staff from the metro region’s two major bus systems gathered in a downtown office high above the Detroit River in a show of unity. It’s no secret that DDOT and SMART have often acted as competitors, rather than partners, battling for turf and for the region’s woefully small pool of transit funding. Yet as chunks of ice floated down the river below, DDOT and SMART attempted to show the Regional Transit Authority board that there’d been a thaw in their chilly relationship.
DDOT head Dan Dirks and SMART chief John Hertel were on hand, but this was clearly Neil Greenberg’s show. Greenberg, DDOT Director of Service Development and Scheduling, may be best known to many people for dreaming up the Freshwater Railway fantasy transit maps, which laid out a vision for a regional rail system in metro Detroit. He’s also worked at SMART, and his enthusiasm for transit made him a natural for bringing the two agencies together.
The “refleX” proposal Greenberg put forward was, in many ways, a model for how transit in the metro region could work better. (Read the full document here, courtesy of the Oakland Press.) However, the service’s limited stops raise equity concerns, and the limited funding for the service will make it so infrequent as to threaten its success.
The new proposal began with an action of the Regional Transit Authority (RTA). Last year, the RTA’s Michael Ford made headlines by using his authority to ask SMART to restore all-day bus service into Detroit along Woodward and Gratiot, which the agency eliminated back in 2011. The Freedom Riders have been pushing SMART to restore that service for nearly two years, since the agency won a successful ballot campaign to increase funding back in 2014.
The push to restore the SMART service, however, faced doubters both in the city and in the suburbs. SMART said it couldn’t afford to fully restore the service with the $2.8 million in annuaal funds the RTA offered, stating it would cost at least $6.5 million. Although DDOT director Dan Dirks told us he supported the move, DDOT drivers protested, asking why DDOT couldn’t receive funding to provide service into the suburbs.
Over a shared order of sweet potato fries, Greenberg worked out an alternative proposal with SMART deputy Rob Cramer. Instead of restoring the SMART service, the two agencies would launch a brand-new express service along Woodward and Gratiot, with DDOT taking on Woodward and SMART Gratiot. In contrast to existing services, the new “refleX” service would have only a limited set of stops, enabling faster travel times. It would also get a unique “branding,” with buses sporting a blue color scheme to set them apart from DDOT (green and yellow) and SMART (red and orange).
In a sprawling region like metro Detroit, express service fills a real need for fast travel. Currently, there are only a few such routes, like SMART’s 465-Woodward, with 9 rush-hour runs daily, and 565-Gratiot, with 3 rush-hour runs. However, express routes also raise concerns about social inclusion. The two proposed routes would only feature two stops between Grand Boulevard and Eight Mile Road. If you live at Seven Mile and Woodward, and want to get to work at Somerset, you’d need to catch another bus to the State Fairgrounds before boarding a refleX bus.
The refleX routes will probably appeal most to “riders of choice” who live in the suburbs and want a quick connection to work downtown. The benefits of this service, however, have to be weighed against the needs of people who don’t have access to a car, and for whom a bigger expansion of the old SMART service might provide better access. Some people will get faster service, but is that worth bypassing others?
On Woodward, there’s a 2.5 mile gap between the Manchester and State Fairgrounds stations, and on Gratiot, a gap of more than 3 miles between Harper and Seven Mile. Both of these corridor segments are home to thousands of people, many of whom rely on the bus as their only means of transportation. The Freedom Riders support rapid transit services on Woodward and Gratiot. Yet bus rapid transit typically has much more frequent stops than the proposed express services offer.
It’s not just the stops that will be few and far between, however. The limited funding available for operating the service means that each route will be served by just two buses. That means refleX riders will have to wait more than an hour between buses: 60-65 minutes on Gratiot, and 65-75 minutes on Woodward. By contrast, both DDOT and SMART currently operate service at least every 15 minutes on both Woodward and Gratiot during peak hours (early morning and late afternoon).
Greenberg acknowledged this concern in his presentation, calling the infrequent service “a real risk,” and suggested the possibility of “top-ups” to increase service. Regional Transit Authority board member Chuck Moss of Oakland County asked what it would cost to double the frequency of buses. Answer: twice as much. And that’s money the transit agencies currently just don’t have.
The Freedom Riders have pressed for more service between Detroit and the suburbs for as long as we’ve been in existence. To a point, after years of cutbacks, any new transit service is a good thing. We certainly don’t have anything against effective marketing, either. Perhaps refleX service will help to spark more interest in transit, and serve as a sorely needed example of DDOT-SMART cooperation. Those are laudable goals.
Yet in the final analysis, if refleX goes into operation later this year (with July 1 as the start date), its greatest value may lie in demonstrating how limited metro Detroit transit service will necessarily remain without more funding – even given all the ingenuity of folks like Greenberg. To get significantly better transit, we’ll need to make the decision to pay for it.