DETROIT—When a private bus picked up and dropped off passengers on a downtown circle route last weekend, it was emblematic of both the region’s failure to embrace mass transit and a private company finding opportunity.
The Detroit Bus Co., headquartered in Ferndale, Mich., and run largely by Andy Didorosi, a 25-year-old entrepreneur, charged $5 for a daily pass and shuttled about 60 passengers around roughly a Midtown-downtown route. It was a soft launch for the new business, which will initiate regular weekend service June 1.
“It was basically grown out of frustration for all the transit solutions that kept popping up and getting killed,” Didorsi says. “Light rail. Bus rapid transit. Street cars for three miles. They pop up and go away and even if we settle on one, we’re looking at five years until we have butts in the seats. This is a solution to the very serious transit problem we have in Detroit.”
Riders on the first day, he says, were a diverse mix of city residents and suburban visitors who traveled between city neighborhoods too far apart to walk between or who explored different parts of the city on the route’s Midtown-Downtown-Southwest Detroit loop.
“I think it’s a symbol of the failure of our public bus system to serve people’s needs, that there are still many private efforts to provide transit options,” says Megan Owens, executive director of Transit Riders United, a Detroit-based advocacy group. “It’s certainly not going to be a replacement by any stretch for the need for quality public bus service and quality transit, but, I mean, we’re all for any additional options that are made available for people to get where they need to go.”
The company bought its three buses late last year and started organizing operations in earnest in January. After making necessary repairs and upgrades to the buses, finding properly licensed drivers, filing insurance papers and other requirements, the company passed inspection by the Michigan Department of Transportation last week.
“It’s pretty unique as far as a small company doing this,” says Jean Ruestman, manager of the program administration section in office of passenger transportation at the Michigan Department of Transportation.
Detroit’s bars and restaurants run buses to and from sporting events, and up north, some private vans and buses carry visitors to wineries, for example. But a private company operating a circular route at regular intervals on city streets is new, Ruestman says.
The new service demonstrates the need for more transit options in southeast Michigan, she says.
“We know Detroit’s having problems meeting the needs so anyone that can step in and get people to where people need to be? It fills that niche,” Ruestman says. “We’re all for public-private partnerships. If we can get someone private doing this to supplement what the public agency can? I think it’s great.”
Since the company is private and not a municipality or transit authority, it’s not eligible for state funding, according to MDOT. But it’s also not required to offer lower fares for seniors or physically challenged people nor is it subject to the state Freedom of Information Act which would allow transparency and public viewing of its records, requirements that would come with public funding, Ruestman says.
Didorosi says the company plans a $5 daily fee for unlimited rides, but knows there is a challenge to fund operations solely from the fare box. Other adjustments are already being made.
“(Last weekend) was definitely a great dry run to see what we need to change, what stops are strong, what stops need to be sorted out,” Didorosi says. “We got a lot of data from it.”
One lesson for the transit company was the route had too many stops causing the route to take longer to circle than Didorosi thought reasonable.
“We’ll still serve the same area but people are going to have to walk a little bit further between stops,” he says.
And a mobile phone app is in development to let riders know how long the wait for a bus is.
When the company fully launches June 1, stops will be marked with signs in private businesses or on outside walls. Per state law, because Detroit Bus Co. is a private venture, signage on public right of ways is not allowed.
The number of stops throughout the city could expand over time. If Didorosi has his way, the private company will expand its routes to make it a viable option for commuters and people living in more of Detroit’s neighborhoods.
“We’d like to solve the whole problem all at once,” Didorosi says, “But we have to be smart about it.”
Does a $5 per day unlimited fare seem reasonable given the limited service route? Tell us what you think in the comments below.