Biden Buses Good…But Won’t Get Where the Jobs Are

For Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden’s recent visit to the Detroit Department of Transportation’s main bus garage was a triumphant finale to his effort to secure more new buses from the feds.

For DDOT’s riders, the 80 new buses are a welcome sight on city streets. Yet sadly, they still won’t get us into the suburbs, where the great majority of the jobs are, because DDOT service is still confined to the city of Detroit.

In his speech, Vice-President Biden alluded to the disconnect between Detroiters and jobs. “100,000 Detroiters don’t have automobiles,” he said, “and jobs are places where people who need them the most aren’t. What’s the use of having a job if you can’t get there?” Metro Detroit, he noted, has the worst “job sprawl” in the nation,  with more than 77% of jobs located more than 10 miles from downtown. Continue reading “Biden Buses Good…But Won’t Get Where the Jobs Are”

Solidarity with Bus Drivers Across Michigan

This Labor Day, as in the past, the Freedom Riders were proud to march with the DDOT and SMART bus drivers of Amalgamated Transit Union Locals 26 and 1564. As we walked down Michigan Avenue – over the tracks once used by ATU Local 26 streetcar drivers – we couldn’t help but think about the need for more displays of rider-driver solidarity.

Too often, riders and drivers are pitted against each other. Across the country, bus drivers have been assaulted by angry passengers pushed to the limit by service cuts and fare increases. If you’ve been on one of the new DDOT buses, you’ll have seen the plastic shields around the driver’s seat, a newfangled design intended to insulate against attacks.

This is a tragedy for all of us. We’ve got to go in the opposite direction, the way shown us by “Boo-yah,” the legendary DDOT driver who greets riders with a friendly fist-bump. We need to build a closer bond between riders and drivers – because both riders and drivers are under much bigger kinds of attack. Continue reading “Solidarity with Bus Drivers Across Michigan”

Dirks: DDOT Will Be At 100% Pullout by September


On May 29, the Freedom Riders met with Detroit Department of Transportation Director Dan Dirks at DDOT headquarters on East Warren. These meetings have become a familiar, almost casual fixture of our work. Despite DDOT’s continued struggle to get buses on the road, Dirks was perhaps more optimistic than we’ve ever seen him. He told us Detroit would be getting all its scheduled buses running by this fall, for the first time in years, once his new drivers-in-training have graduated.

“This thing didn’t break overnight,” Dirks said, “so fixing it will take a little time. We now have more buses than we have drivers.” However, by July, he expects 60 more drivers to have finished training. “By September,” he says, “we should make it.” Continue reading “Dirks: DDOT Will Be At 100% Pullout by September”

Ford’s RTA: The Man, His Plans, and Ours

Michael Ford talks to reporters at the RTA’s Campus Martius kickoff.


It’s here.

More than two years after Michigan Governor Rick Snyder signed the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan into existence, the RTA finally has a staff and a plan for moving forward. It also has those 21st-century signifiers of existence, like a website, Facebook page, and tote bags, as well as a quick video introduction. (If you’re new to the RTA story, this one is definitely worth watching.)

This is a relief for bus riders who want a better transit system. For a while, it wasn’t clear that the RTA would come together at all. It didn’t even have a leader for nearly two years. John Hertel, the SMART bus chief and longtime regional pol who’d wanted the job for years, was offered the job in mid-2013 – but never took it, citing the need for more money from Lansing. After six months of delay, the RTA went back to the drawing board, and Governor Snyder’s staffers made a concerted effort to recruit Michael Ford, then CEO of the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority, otherwise known as TheRide.

The question is, now that the RTA is finally rolling with Ford at the helm, what is it rolling towards? Continue reading “Ford’s RTA: The Man, His Plans, and Ours”

Don’t Wait Another 28 Years to Fund Michigan Transit: Freedom Riders Endorse Proposal 1

buses-yes-2 copy

It’s official: The Freedom Riders have joined the Michigan Public Transportation Association, the Amalgamated Transit Union, and Transportation Riders United in support of Proposal 1 on the May 5 ballot. At last Thursday’s meeting, a majority of our Steering Committee voted in favor of endorsing the measure.

Why? Simply put, Proposal 1 would increase statewide funding for public transit for the first time since 1987. (Yes, there has been no increase in state support for public transit in nearly thirty years, since the Michigan Legislature cut public transit out of transportation funding when it raised the gas tax in 1997.) Proposal 1 would generate nearly $116 million annually for Michigan’s Comprehensive Transportation Fund, most of which is distributed to public transit systems around the state. For context, that’s more than twice the annual budget for DDOT, which is far and away the largest transit system in the state. Continue reading “Don’t Wait Another 28 Years to Fund Michigan Transit: Freedom Riders Endorse Proposal 1”

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. Continue reading “Springtime for DDOT? Not Quite Yet”

Proposal 1: Potholes, Principles, and Public Transit, Too

DDOT's Route 53 navigates Woodward during resurfacing.
DDOT’s Route 53 navigates Woodward during resurfacing.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, chances are you’ve heard about Proposal 1. The May 5 ballot proposal would increase the sales tax to help repair Michigan’s roads – as well as doing a number of other things, like increasing money for schools.

There’s been plenty of sound and fury about the proposal and how we should vote on it. (The Detroit Free Press has an entire website devoted to analyzing the proposal, complete with diagrams of how a pothole forms.) But almost all of the talk has been from a driver’s perspective. Bus riders, of course, also want our roads fixed. Yet we need to know what Proposal 1 will mean for public transit, too.

There’s no question that better roads will reduce wear and tear on buses, for one thing. But Proposal 1 will also put more money directly into Michigan’s public transit systems: an estimated $130 million per year across the state. That’s because it channels the new money through Michigan’s “Act 51 formula,” the state transportation law that sets aside a maximum of about 10% of all transportation money for public transportation. Some of the religiously-minded among us call it the “transit tithe.”

In fact, some opponents of Proposal 1 have been railing against the new money for transit, saying bus riders don’t pay their fair share. As we should all know, however, drivers don’t actually pay their fair share of road costs, either, and bus riders pay to subsidize freeways that we may never use. Continue reading “Proposal 1: Potholes, Principles, and Public Transit, Too”

Livonia Residents Speak Up for Buses, Rebuffed by Council

Left: Livonia Mayor Jack Kirksey argues for the opt-out. Right: Livonia resident and bus rider Bruce Keezer addresses Council.

Livonia residents turned out to City Council yesterday after they heard the Council would be discussing the issue of public transit. Despite their entreaties, however, a majority of Council voted to postpone discussion of rejoining the SMART bus system, which the city quit ten years ago.

Longtime Livonia Mayor Jack Kirksey, 86, led the city out of the SMART bus system in 2005, telling residents the tax money for SMART would be better spent on other services. He opened Monday’s meeting with a PowerPoint presentation on “The SMART Opt-Out: How We Got Here, Why it Works.” You can watch the full council meeting at this link, under “City Council Regular – March 16.”

Kirksey said that previously, only 25% of SMART riders in Livonia were Livonia residents, and that quitting SMART saved Livonia $400,000 per year (about $40 per resident). “No businesses have reported any interest in transit,” he said. “There was some humor at the time, which may be in poor taste for some members of the audience, that if you saw anyone on the bus, get the number and the time and you would get five dollars.” He called the city’s 55%-45% vote to withdraw from SMART in November 2005 a “wide margin.”

A succession of Livonia residents then spoke up in favor of rejoining SMART and participating in regional public transit. No members of the public spoke against SMART, though one resident asked for information on the cost.

“I don’t believe it is working for everyone,” Freedom Rider and lifelong Livonia resident Lynda Franklin told Council. “I’m embarrassed by the disconnect. Successful regions have great public transit systems.” Resident Joan Smykowski noted that the lack of transit shut out low-income workers from jobs in Livonia, and also hampered the city’s ability to attract young professionals. “The high-paying jobs are not coming here,” she said. Continue reading “Livonia Residents Speak Up for Buses, Rebuffed by Council”

This Suburb Opted In to SMART After 19 Years

Lathrup Village City Administrator Martha Potere stands by a brand-new bus stop on Southfield Road.

In the wake of the James Robertson story, there’s been considerable hand-wringing about the Detroit suburbs that “opt out” of the SMART bus system. Oftentimes, the “opt-out” communities are portrayed as bastions of prejudice, one more example of the metro region’s seemingly unbridgeable racial and economic divides. Undeniably, the fragmented transit system is a sad testament to our region’s history of segregation. Yet as the story of Lathrup Village shows, the opt-outs often owe as much to political inertia as continuing opposition to transit, and concerted action by citizens can reverse decades of neglect.

When the SMART bus system had its first millage back in 1995, the small Oakland County city of Lathrup Village chose not to take part. First developed as an exclusive bedroom community in the 1920s, Lathrup Village is located entirely inside the City of Southfield, which did choose to participate in SMART. For 19 years, then, says Lathrup Village assistant city manager Martha Potere, “the [420] bus actually went up Southfield Road and didn’t stop in Lathrup.” But times change – and with a little effort, city policy can change with it. Continue reading “This Suburb Opted In to SMART After 19 Years”

Rochester Hills Candidate Could Set Pro-Transit Precedent

Ravi Yalamanchi announces his candidacy last year.

Asked about James Robertson a couple weeks ago, Rochester Hills Mayor Bryan Barnett said the Detroiter “sets a wonderful example” by walking 21 miles to work. However, he didn’t think his city’s people would be willing to pay for SMART bus service. “That would be an underdog to pass in our community,” he told the Detroit Free Press, saying he only received a couple calls asking for bus service each year.

Ravi Yalamanchi disagrees.

In a strongly worded op-ed in the Oakland Press this week, the former Rochester Hills City Councilperson – who’s now running for Rochester Hills mayor – put forward an unequivocal response to Mayor Barnett.

“Do we need public transportation? Simple answer: yes,” he wrote. “The demand for it is not limited to one or two people calling Rochester Hills city hall, and definitely it is not the case where nobody needs it. The assumption that there is no demand is a fallacy. It is lack of vision and ability to understand the benefits of a good public transportation system.” Continue reading “Rochester Hills Candidate Could Set Pro-Transit Precedent”