DART payment system offers Metro Detroit bus riders smoother, cheaper service

James David Dickson
The Detroit News
There are four DART passes riders can buy, and eight payment options, based on whether the rider is paying full or reduced fare.

Detroit — Demetrius Rogers 42, has been a Detroit Department of Transportation bus driver for the past year-and-a-half. But over the past two months, he said, it's been a smoother ride, as a new payment system has eliminated much of the confusion bus riders face at the fare box.

This time last year, a DDOT bus rider faced about 30 different payment options. But since May 1, with the creation of the DART payment system to facilitate easier transfers between DDOT and its suburban Detroit counterpart, SMART, that's been cut down to eight. 

"We don't have to interact as much (at the fare box) as before," said Rogers, 42, who'd just arrived downtown on the inbound No. 16 Dexter route, which travels Detroit's west side. "It's much quicker. There's less confusion. That makes it better for everybody."

And cheaper.

Prior to May 1, a DDOT rider transferring to SMART would not only have to pay a $.50 fee, to bring the DDOT fee ($1.50) up to the SMART price ($2), but they'd have to pay an additional $.25 transfer fee. 

While DDOT's base fare has gone up to $2, DART eliminates not only the transfer fee, but it allows a rider unlimited transfers between the system, as well as the ability to take the route inbound or outbound without paying again.

There are four DART passes riders can buy, and eight payment options, based on whether the rider is paying full or reduced fare: 4-hour ($2/.$50 for reduced fare), 24-hour ($5/$2), 7-day ($22/$10), and 31-day ($70/$29).

This time last year, a DDOT bus rider faced about 30 different payment options. But since May 1, with the creation of the DART payment system to facilitate easier transfers between DDOT and its suburban Detroit counterpart, SMART, that's been cut down to eight.

Dwight Jones, 47, of Highland Park, sprang for the 31-day pass. With a commute that takes him south down Woodward Avenue, then to Michigan Avenue, then to Metro Airport in Romulus, Jones finds himself transferring between the systems regularly.

"I use the bus for everything," Jones said. "That's how I use, public transportation."

He gave up his car in 2015, he said, not wanting to risk driving on a suspended license. He's still a few hundred dollars away from getting that buttoned up. Until then he'll continue riding the bus. DART has simplified matters, he said. 

"I'm not going to take a chance, especially going into the suburbs," Jones said.

Jones' two-leg commute, down Woodward to get downtown, then west to get to the airport, has gotten easier in recent months, as SMART has introduced FAST bus service on three Detroit thoroughfares: Michigan Avenue on the west side, Gratiot on the east, and Woodward, the city's east-west dividing line. 

If he has the choice, Jones said he'd rather take a FAST bus down Woodward than the No. 53 Woodward route, as he finds the service to be "cleaner and much more reliable." FAST routes also don't make nearly as many stops as city busses, allowing more of a straight-shot commuter experience.

As an every day bus rider, Jones said he's found the month-long pass to be cheaper than the alternatives.

"If you buy the weekly regional, it's $22, so that's almost $90 if you buy it by the week," Jones said. 

Getting around without a car, in a city whose average high or low temps are south of 40 degrees for six months of the year, is "horrible" in the winter, Jones said, but not as bad in the summer.

"If they're not on time, you can deal with it a little bit easier" in hotter weather, Jones said. 

 While Jones appreciates the availability of bus service, and the strides the local systems have taken, he does plan on getting a car again when it's feasible. Commuting as a bus-rider requires a much earlier start to his days.

"If I have to be to work at 8 a.m., I have to wake up about 5 to catch the bus," he said. "If I was driving I could wake up at 6:30, take a quick 15-minute shower, get in the car and I'm there."

Megan Owens, 43, is executive director of Transportation Riders United, a group founded in 1999 that, she says, advocates for "more and better transit around the Metro Detroit area, regardless of whether they drive."

Owens described her experience with the DART system as "smooth and easy."

"The hope is that it can make things quicker and easier for people who are already riding, but I also hope that it gives more people the comfort to actually get on and try," Owens said. "That's the goal, to make it more accessible to more people."

She's had conversations with commuters whose confusion about how and how much they'll have to pay makes them shy away from using the bus. Now the conversation is easier: riders can pay a single fee covering every ride or transfer within the time period.

Idrees Mutahr, 25, is a co-chair of Motor City Freedom Riders, a group of transit-interested "bus riders and their allies," he said. 

"I have mixed feelings about the new fare system," Mutahr said. "On the one hand, it's excellent that SMART and DDOT are working together. The old system was confusing, to say the least. I had two passes in my wallet, and it didn't make sense to a lot of new riders."

But on the other hand, Mutahr said he's concerned that low-income riders haven't been offered a low-income option. While a reduced fare option does exist, it applies to students, the elderly, and Medicare clients. There is no low-income option per se.

The city of Detroit is studying the viability of offering reduced fares to low-income riders, said Angelica Jones, interim director of DDOT since January 2018, but the study is ongoing and no decision has been made.

"Comparing our cost, $2, to other cities, we're still reasonably cheap," Jones said, noting that some places that offer low-income fares have a dedicated funding source to subsidize those rides. "But we are doing the analysis on that to see what we can do."

Some 38 percent of Detroiters are impoverished, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Jones echoed Owens, arguing that DART has helped "take away the stigma of not knowing how to ride transit" by simplifying the process at the fare box.

SMART and DDOT riders tend to buy passes a little differently, officials said. While the top three options for DDOT riders are the 31-day full-fare pass, the 7-day full-fare, and the 31-day reduced fare, Jones said, the 24-hour and 7-day passes are preferred by SMART riders, said Beth Gibbons, a spokeswoman for the SMART system.

DDOT averages about 85,000 to 90,000 rides per day, Jones said. SMART gets just shy of 30,000 per day. Both are looking to not only maintain those numbers, but grow them, and believe that a "simple and seamless" process, as Gibbons described DART, has helped.

In 2018, from May 1 to June 15, there were some 250,000 transfers between the bus systems, Gibbons said. While the 2019 numbers were not immediately available, officials at both systems believe the numbers are higher this year.

SMART and DDOT both report positive feedback on DART via social media, but no hard data is available on how much increase in ridership there's been. Hard conclusions can't be drawn until a quarter-year of data has been compiled, Gibbons said.

Jones, of DDOT, marveled at the growth of transit options locally. She hasn't tried a sidewalk scooter yet, but is considering it. While initial DART announcements touted a forthcoming app and connections to the QLine and People Mover, officials at both systems declined to offer a timetable.

"We're doing a lot of things right in transit right now, and that's collectively, both SMART and DDOT," Jones said. "We're going from the Motor City to Mobility City. You can still have your car, but you have options now. You have bikes and scooters and whatever else is coming. You don't have to sit in a vehicle and concentrate on the road. You can enjoy this ride on transit."