How to solve Belle Isle’s overcrowding problem: Build a better bus route

David Gifford
5 min readJun 25, 2021

I am a resident of the city of Warren and a board member with Transportation Riders United. Last December I penned the letter that ran in the Metro Times asking Amazon to save the bandshell. I am so glad that they are working with the city and that it will get moved to Palmer Park. In my spare time I also run the website to promote public transit use in and around Detroit. Although I don’t live in Detroit, I have an idea about how to spend some of the $400M the city is going to receive from the CARES Act that would create more equity for Detroit’s bus riders and expand access to tourists.

Over Memorial Day, Belle Isle Park was closed due to capacity restrictions. Now there is a sign saying “expect island closures” so this may be common all summer as people seek relief from the heat. I asked the Michigan State Police on Twitter what the park capacity limit was.

“There are currently 1800 legal parking spots,” they responded. “Once the car count reaches that point DNR parks will close the island to vehicles. Pedestrians and bikes are still allowed on when the island when it is closed to vehicles.”

They responded:

In a city of over 600,000 people and a metro region of 4 million, there are only 1,800 legal parking spots on Belle Isle. The main ways to reach the island are by driving over the MacArthur Bridge, riding a bicycle or walking. Frequent bus service, water taxis or a MoGo Detroit station on the island would be good alternatives but are only an option during the Grand Prix. The #12-Conant bus could be a good alternative for reaching the park, especially when there are capacity issues, with a few tweaks.

  • Small ask: Expand the #12 Conant bus route to reach more of the island.
  • Medium ask: Expand the #12 Conant bus route and increase frequency of to every 30 minutes.
  • Big ask: Add a bus route on the island that would run all year and make a bus only lane on the MacArthur Bridge.

Small ask: Expand the #12 Conant bus route to reach more of the island.

Detroit’s oldest bus route is not Woodward or Jefferson. It is actually the Belle Isle bus route. Dating back to 1909, the Detroit Department of Parks and Boulevards ran Packard buses on Belle Isle for employees and visitors. In 1924 the city took over the route and it operated 7 days a week from 6:30am to midnight with 30 minute headways. As you can see from the map below, the bus used to cover more of the island.

Map from Detroit Transit History

Over the years the standalone route was combined with other city routes and even discontinued for a while. Currently Belle Isle is only served by the #12 Conant bus route. It only runs every 50 minutes on weekdays and every 60 minutes on Sunday between State Fair and Belle Isle. It only makes one stop on the island near the Belle Isle Aquarium and Scripps Conservatory. To reach the rest of the park, passengers must walk for miles in the road or on grass. As a parent, I wouldn’t feel safe walking several miles in the road to reach the nature center, the beach or Scott Fountain with my family yet many do. Expanding the route would be easy and would really only require adding additional signs & benches around the island.

#12-Conant — Image from DDOT route map & timetable

Medium ask: Expand Route #12 and increase frequency of the #12 bus to every 30 minutes.

Because bus #12 Conant only runs every 50–60 minutes, it is not an attractive option for reaching the island. From 1921-1980 the park had its own bus station. These days the bus stop at the park’s entrance is little more than a sign on a pole with no bench on a narrow median. I sure wouldn’t want to wait an hour for a bus there with my family. Increased frequency could make this a more attractive option. Combined with an expanded route, people could access more of Belle Isle more frequently. Also, please put a bench by the sign at least.

Images from Twitter showing the Belle Isle Bus Station and the current boarding area.

Big ask: Add a bus route on the island that would run all year and make a bus only lane on the MacArthur Bridge.

I‘m asking the city to create a new bus route on Belle Isle. It could stay on the island like it used to or run between Belle Isle and downtown where is ample parking. This would be convenient for residents who transfer at Rosa Parks Transit Center and for tourists who are staying downtown because not everyone who visits Detroit drives. To make it successful, better wayfinding would be required at bus stops and a bus lane on and off the island would keep it on schedule. There are five lanes on the MacArthur Bridge, two in, three out, and the center lane could easily be turned into a bus only lane to ensure that buses are never stuck in traffic. The bus only lane would likely be up to MDOT though.

Whatever you decide to do with the money, one thing is clear. There is currently no frequent, equitable way to reach Belle Isle unless you have your own car and even then, you may not be allowed to reach the park if its full of cars. Belle Isle needs better bus service.