From the Archive: 'Easy Riders,' August 1999

Forget light rail: The answer to Detroit's commuter woes may be as simple as hopping on a comfy new luxury bus



In the waning months of 1999, the short-term outlook for metro Detroit mass transit is no George Jetson space-age vision. It’s as simple as this: Rubber on concrete.

We need to take a cue from San Francisco and learn to love our buses. And, in a town hooked on its muscular sport-utility vehicles, transferring affection to 40-foot-long diesel behemoths ought to be a natural.

Since 1956, when the streetcars last ran, metro Detroit has entertained a variety of mass-transit brainstorms. We’ve dabbled in passenger rail linking downtown with Pontiac and Ann Arbor; jousted over who runs the buses; installed mass transit lite in the form of a People Mover loop and downtown trolley; dreamed of light rail connecting the dots; and even considered aqua commuting via Hovercraft skimming Lake St. Clair, Lake Erie and the Detroit River. And, yes, there are heartening plans on the horizon and even money available for feasibility studies on the possibility of rail service linking the city with Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

After years of logistical fits and starts, mass transit Motor City style continues to mean masses of cars. About 95 percent of workers in this region drive to work alone each day with an average commute time of 30 to 39 minutes. Dedicated commuters here find dysfunctional solace in the fact that our rush hour isn’t as bad as L.A.’s. We cling to our vehicles, embracing our cup holders and lumbar-support seat backs. And we take road-warrior pride in our knowledge of Detroit’s concrete canyons, easily ticking off the numbers and names of our freeways: 94 (The Ford), 75 (The Fisher and The Chrysler), 696 (The Reuther). Note the auto industry theme here. Motorist moxie aside, the truth remains: Earlier in this century, we knew how to move the masses en masse. The streetcar tracks shining through the asphalt on aging city intersections are urban archaeological evidence of that. When the topic of streetcars pops up during cocktail conversation, devoted drivers cluck about the auto industry’s alleged role in their demise. In the next breath they swap commuter war stories openly admiring the guy who adeptly drove up onto the Davison Freeway embankment and back down again to avoid a stalled car in the right lane.

Listen a bit longer, however, and the talk about town veers in a new direction.

Beth Chappell, a Bloomfield Township management consultant who chairs the public transit committee of the Detroit Chamber of Commerce regional trans-hub initiative, maneuvers her Lincoln Navigator along Oakland County streets while chatting on her cell phone, advocating mass transit.

“We can dream all we want about light rail and maglev trains,” Chappell says. “But it’s very important to start by optimizing what we have: two bus systems. We could not today financially justify light rail. We don’t have enough money. If we can’t get the buses right, think of the complexity of light rail.”

What we need right now, Chappell and others say, are comfortable buses running on dependable schedules. Maybe then metro Detroiters will realize that you can get to work while you read a book or tap on your laptop. Similar versions of that thinking seem to be coming from all corners of the transit community — from the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), to the Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT) and the Suburban Mobility Authority on Regional Transportation (SMART). Most important, at the Detroit Chamber’s annual leadership conference on Mackinac Island in June, the big four — Mayor Dennis Archer, Wayne and Oakland County executives Ed McNamara and L. Brooks Patterson and Macomb County Commission Chairman John Hertel — all recommitted themselves to making mass transit work. Chappell said her committee would like to see real progress before the end of the year.

"We could not today financially justify light rail. We don’t have enough money. If we can’t get the buses right, think of the complexity of light rail.” - Beth Chappell

In metro Detroit, if you want to talk buses, you go to Al Martin, DDOT director, and Dan Dirks, SMART general manager. Martin fully expects Detroit eventually will have light rail and passenger rail service linking with buses and taxis at a New Center intermodal station. Right now, however, he says, “We are woefully lacking. We should have no less than 1,000 buses on the road each and every day all day long. We are an area that is larger than the entire state of Connecticut, and SMART and DDOT combined have 650 to 700 buses daily.”

Invite Martin to dream, and he envisions one regional system. (We have two in metro Detroit largely because no one has been able to agree on the city-suburb balance of power overseeing such an operation.) He also envisions center-lane express buses running along Woodward Avenue and, in fact, has been receiving responses to a request-for-proposal to study feasibility of a dedicated bus way from Grand Circus Park to the Detroit Zoo.

For long-haul commuter service — serving General Motors employees in the Renaissance Center, Compuware workers when they move downtown or Detroit residents with long commutes — Martin says the buses should be comfortable coaches with foot rests, reading lights, padded high-backed seats that recline and maybe even television for watching the Today Show en route. The sticker price for such a luxury coach is about $300,000, Martin says.

There are other technologies that would help lift buses above their bad reputation. There’s AVL (automatic vehicle locator), which SMART expects to install at major stops within 18 months. AVL monitors in bus shelters tell waiting riders the location of the expected bus, much like the illuminated floor numbers above an elevator door. Looking ahead, SMART and DDOT have a list of 10 future joint objectives, a list that includes shared timetables, development of a downtown Detroit bus terminal study with passenger amenity improvements and coordinated Web sites.

Pie in the sky? Not really. At the beginning of our long summer of road construction, the big four were busy comparing calendars, seeking a first meeting date on transit. Meanwhile, Martin and SMART’s Dan Dirks are talking. Dirks says the key to the future of buses not only is greater rider comfort, but flexibility, with buses going where the customer goes. “Transit begins to be attractive when it has the conveniences of an automobile,” Dirks says. Changes including fare boxes that accept SMART cards and, eventually, credit or debit cards will make riding more accessible.

The roadblocks to bus progress go beyond amenities, control and coordination. They include funding. Martin says metro Detroit is 20th of 21 major U.S. cities in the amount of funding for its buses. SMART is funded, in part, by a one-third mill property tax while Ann Arbor’s system travels along on a relative windfall from a 2.5 mill tax.

“Most cities have a sales tax; Chicago, Atlanta, New York, Boston, Baltimore, D.C.,” Martin says. “I believe a sales tax would be appropriate because it spreads it out to everyone who purchases — and that means visitors and tourists.”

SEMCOG executive director Paul Tait says the single biggest remaining problem with rapid transit in this area is underfunding. “We’re rock bottom,” Tait says. “The  ultimate solution is probably a combination of revenue sources. Other parts of the country use property taxes, license plate fees, business-type taxes.” The lack of funding presents a chicken-egg dilemma, Tait says. “We have to demonstrate good bus service to the public, but we need more money to improve the bus service. We’re asking very unrealistic demands of our transit operators.”

The odometer of Tait’s personal car is testament to an unmet need. A resident of Ypsilanti, Tait rode the rails to work back when there was passenger train service between Ann Arbor and Detroit. “The perception was that trains were okay for professionals,” Tait says. “We have to do a little public relations for buses.”

And one of the best selling points may be testimonials like this from Tait: “I know when I was taking the train, I was the best read and the best rested in my life.”

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