“Transit, Uh, finds a Way”

David Gifford
7 min readApr 12, 2021

This quote is based on the famous line from Jurassic Park where Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) talks about evolution and how nature finds a way to adapt to survive despite great obstacles. Public transit in Metro Detroit has continued to evolve despite great obstacles namely inadequate funding. After 50 plus years of seeking a long term funding source to modernize our transit systems and coming up short, providers have had to get creative to make improvements. The first transit authority, SEMTA, was founded in 1967 but was unable to levy a tax for transit funding. In 2012, a new RTA was formed and in 2016 a millage was put on the ballot in four SE Michigan counties to raise $4 billion over 20 years to improve bus service, add airport routes and a commuter rail between Detroit and Ann Arbor. It failed to pass by 1% but it hasn’t stopped transit from improving. It is just happening slower than if we had more funding. Over the past five years, we’ve seen a wide variety of improvements and some unexpected new kinds of transit in Detroit.

FAST Bus Image by District Detroit

BRT (Bus Rapid Transit). The 2016 RTA plan proposed three BRT lines along Michigan Ave, Woodward & Gratiot. These would have been articulated buses running in dedicated lanes that made limited stops with level boarding at dedicated stations. In 2018 SMART Bus started FAST routes which are regional buses that run frequently 7 days a week making limited stops on Michigan Ave, Woodward & Gratiot. The big deal is that these buses run all day and don’t require a system transfer at the Detroit border. They may not have dedicated lanes, like BRT, which prevents the service from being as fast as it could be but spacing stops to every 1–2 miles makes for a faster trip than a regular bus. SMART has installed new shelters at many FAST stops with lighting, emergency call boxes and ePaper schedule screens. In 2021 SMART will put 23 articulated buses into service to increase the capacity on their popular routes and FAST routes, which includes one to Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

New DDOT Connect Ten bus, a 24-hr service — Image by DDOT

24-hour Bus Service. In 2014 Detroit had no 24-hr bus service. In 2016 it added 6 routes, 3 more in 2017 and 3 more in 2018. DDOT now has twelve 24-hr bus routes. This is a big deal because people work all different shifts and need to go places at any given time. DDOT is funded as a city department so any funding improvements must come from city council or grants. A fully funded RTA would mean more funds for increased frequency and new routes.

D2A2 Bus in Grand Circus Park Detroit — Image by Baul104Luigi

Ann Arbor to Detroit Commuter Rail. Commuter service ended in 1984 and restarting it has been of interest in recent years. In 2010 MDOT Rail leased 23 passenger rail cars from Great Lakes Central Railroad and paid have them refurbished. Testing was performed and open houses were held then nothing happened. No funding was established and the train cars were sold. Commuter rail funding was in the 2016 RTA plan that failed to pass. In 2020 the RTA received a three-year grant to start all day hourly bus service between Detroit & Ann Arbor. The service kicked off just as COVID spread through Michigan and was quickly put on hold. They are currently studying to see when they can reopen the service, which runs from Grand Circus Park to the Blake Transit Center by way of I-94 / I-96. Hoping for a return to service this summer.

Image by QLine Detroit

QLine Detroit was originally supposed to be a streetcar that ran down the center of Woodward between downtown and the State Fair Transit Center. Then the federal government withdrew support in favor of a BRT line between Pontiac and Detroit. When that didn’t pan out it was built by private investors, with some federal aid, as the 3.3 mile route it currently is. Despite losing the RTA vote in 2016, the streetcar opened in 2017 with hopes that by 2025 it would have a regional funding source. Fare revenue only covers a small portion of the cost. Most of it is funded by private donations. Call it a development tool or another layer of transit, it is part of the ever evolving story of Detroit transit.

Image by MoGo Detroit

MoGo Detroit is a bike share system that is a collaboration between the Downtown Detroit Partnership, the City of Detroit, Henry Ford Health System, and Health Alliance Plan. It started operating in 2017 as a means of taking short trips and has been so successful in Detroit that it has expanded to cities outside of Detroit like Ferndale, Hazel Park, Oak Park, Clawson and Royal Oak. They recently adjusted their fares to be more friendly to casual riders and also offers adaptive bicycles for people with disabilities in the summer. Some bike shares are operated by transit authorities which allows for transfers from transit to bike. MoGo recently received a grant so they can investigate how to integrate bike share and bus transit using the regional DART pass.

DART Pass. One of the things that advocates have been asking for over the years is a universal transit pass that works on buses and the streetcar. This became reality in 2020 with the arrival of the DART pass. Not only is it good to use on all three systems, it eliminated transfer fees and provides riders with up to 4 hours of unlimited trips & transfers. 24-hr, 7 day and 31 day passes are also available. You can purchase a fare at a QLine kiosk, transit center or by using the Dart App on your smartphone. Riders used to have to pay to ride both ways, even for a quick errand. That used to discourage me from taking the bus for short trips. Currently MoGo is looking into a way to integrate their bike share service with the DART pass.

Image from The Verge

Scooters, scooters, everywhere! At first scooters looked like a passing fad but it looks like they’re here to stay for now. Four companies, Bird, Lime, Spin and Boaz can be found on every corner downtown & in some neighborhoods. You can use TransitApp to locate & unlock them. Landing downtown in 2018, they are popular with visitors and tourists but are also finding their place in the transit food chain. Spin, which is owned by Ford, has been working with the City of Detroit to place scooters in locations where transit doesn’t reach or doesn’t run frequently.

May Mobility vehicle image by MEDC

May Mobility is an autonomous low speed shuttle company based in Ann Arbor. In 2018 they were contracted by Bedrock to run a loop from a parking structure to Bedrock & Quicken offices downtown Detroit. May Mobility is now operating similar shuttle services in cities across the country.

Image by Proterra

Going Electric. In 2019, SMART & DDOT won a grant to share six new electric buses and charging infrastructure. Delivery of the Proterra buses, what routes they will be used on and when is estimated for 2021 but there has been no recent news yet.

SMART Flex Micromobility. The latest transit development happened in March 2021. SMART bus introduced a new service like Uber that uses an app so people can request a ride. Riders can request a WAV (Wheelchair Accessible Vehicle) and prices are capped at $8. Ride hailing companies like Uber and Lyft have no cap so prices can surge based on availability. It is currently available in Sterling Heights/Macomb/New Baltimore, Troy and Dearborn and will hopefully expand to cover all opt in cities in the future.

We’ve come a long way in the last decade but could be so much further ahead if we had a large increase in funding. Currently each transit provider relies on a different funding mechanism. The RTA would provide increased funding for 20 years but it relies on four counties, which are comprised primarily of suburban car dependent residents, to vote on a property tax millage to raise the funds. While 2016 looked hopeful, another plan has yet to make its way back to the ballot. Macomb almost voted down their SMART millage renewal in 2018 which is up for renewal in 2022. Meanwhile there’s been a drastic change in leadership in Oakland County with pro-transit advocate, David Coulter, who was elected as County Executive in 2020. No matter what happens in 2022, one thing is for sure. Transit will keep finding a way because the need for it is still great.