DDOT to drop, shorten some bus routes this fall

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — The city's Department of Transportation is suffering a worker shortage and plans to temporarily drop some routes this fall and restructure or shorten the frequency of others.

The city said the proposal is part of its effort to "right-size" service schedules for riders, buses and operators. The changes are expected to start Nov. 15 and remain in effect until early 2022.

The city's administration said ridership has declined significantly during the pandemic and that routes being cut or curtailed aren't getting much use. But the head of Detroit's bus driver union said staffing is a key issue and transit advocates are worried the changes will create hardships for vulnerable residents and low-wage workers. 

The city is planning to temporarily cut and reduce some bus routes as part of its effort to "right-size" service schedules for riders, buses and operators. The changes are expected to start Nov. 15 and remain in effect until early 2022.

Ridership on Detroit's bus service during the COVID-19 crisis has dropped to 153,000 riders per week, down from 440,000, Detroit's Chief Operating Officer Hakim Berry said.

"We're changing service on certain lines because there's no one catching the bus there," Berry told The Detroit News. "We put a new route, anticipated that ridership would go up from here and then it just hasn't panned out because of the pandemic." 

DDOT intends to temporarily suspend service on three routes officials said have low ridership: Clairmount, Junction and Tireman.

The three routes account for 1% of average daily boarding, according to DDOT, and 99.2% of riders on these routes will have access to an alternative service.

More: Detroit's transit for riders with disabilities under fire. Some say they've been left at wrong spots

But Renard Monczunski, a member of the transit justice team for the Detroit People's Platform, said eliminating the routes that have existed for decades will be detrimental.

“We are already experiencing lack of adequate service to begin with and what is inexplicable is that we have a lot of federal money coming in from the American Rescue Plan and we don’t have a plan on how the department is going to use this money to enhance the department and yet we’re hearing cuts,” Monczunski told the Detroit City Council during Tuesday's formal session. 

Other proposed changes include shortened service on bus lines covering Vernor and Michigan and Jefferson avenues. During the weekdays, 18 routes will be reducing the frequency of trips from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. All routes are scheduled to operate every 20 to 60 minutes.

The city says although bus trips will be scheduled less often, the service is expected to be more consistent and reliable than it is now. 

Glenn Tolbert, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 26, called the proposal a "rushed job."

A person waits for DDOT bus as a rain storm passes along Grand Blvd at 14th Street in Detroit on Friday, Aug. 27, 2021.

"While I believe that there are issues dealing with operators and shortage of workforce, I think this was a rush job as far as cuts and things like that," he said. "I wasn't notified. I learned from rider advocacy groups."

Berry said the proposed changes won't impact DDOT positions and the final route changes will be first discussed with the union. 

Another issue, Tolbert said, is bus driver pay and benefits as well as staffing losses.

Tolbert told The News that prior to the pandemic, the department had about 530 drivers. Now, with retirements and resignations, Detroit has about 410 drivers.

"People are leaving at an alarming rate," Tolbert said. "We did get a significant bump (in pay) in this last contract but we're still at the bottom of the totem pole and a lot of people are going to SMART, Ann Arbor, becoming truck or school bus drivers instead."

Berry said the staffing shortage is nothing new. There's been a natural attrition and during the pandemic, DDOT didn't have the ability to conduct training or recruit. 

"Right now, we have about 80 applicants we're vetting and we have more applicants every day with a great pay rate and we give paid training," he said. 

Tolbert said drivers start at $14 an hour during training, then are bumped to $15 which increases to $17.43 an hour after one year. Pay caps at $23 an hour, he said. Still, "the rewards don't outweigh the risks," Tolbert said.

"We have these variants coming on and it just seems like we're being treated as second-class citizens," said Tolbert, who has worked for the city for 26 years. 

During Tuesday's council meeting, a handful of community activists complained about the planned service changes, arguing many residents who rely on the buses aren't informed. 

Tarnetta Carter, a city activist, told the council she uses public transportation because she can't drive temporarily due to medical reasons. 

"How are we going to make this transition from the buses being cut and the routes being eliminated to accommodating our residents that are dependent on this service?," she asked.

District 3 Councilman Scott Benson told residents Tuesday "we as a city are not allowed to just unilaterally cut transportation service."

Benson said wants to have a conversation with the DDOT director at the council’s next Public Health and Safety subcommittee session "to quickly address these concerns."

DDOT is accepting public comment on the proposed changes through Sept. 15 by email or phone before finalizing the November bus schedules. 

Comments can be emailed to DDOTComments@detroitmi.gov or left by phone, at (313) 933-1300.


Twitter: @SarahRahal_