SMART launches on-demand small shuttles in three Metro Detroit communities

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Dearborn — SMART, the suburban Detroit bus line, kicked off a two-year pilot in "microtransit" Tuesday, announcing its SMART Flex shuttle line will operate in three high traffic areas, one each in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.

In Wayne County, Dearborn's Michigan Avenue corridor was chosen as the pilot zone. In Oakland County, it's in Troy. And in Macomb County, it's the Hall Road corridor.

Robert Cramer, deputy general manager of SMART, announces the SMART Flex, Metro Detroit's first on-demand transit service with Via, at the Dingell Transit Center in Dearborn on Wednesday, March 24, 2021.

The program will use small vans and cars to provide short trips to people traveling within the pilot areas. Some of the vehicles will be Chrysler Pacificas. Others, which are equipped to fit wheelchairs, will be vans, Cramer said.

Rides will cost anywhere from $2 to $8, depending on the distance. But a rider can be taken from one end of the zone to the other, and it won't cost more than $8.

"Being able to pick up your smartphone and hail a ride is a new way of transit, and now SMART will have a sizable footprint in that area," said Khalil Rahal. 

Rahal chairs SMART's board of directors and is a deputy Wayne County executive. 

The three zones will cost $2.4 million per year to operate, said Beth Gibbons, spokeswoman for SMART. It will be funded by a mix of SMART funds and grant money, "mostly" the latter, Gibbons said.

Riders need not call from a SMART fixed route or bus stop. The shuttle will drop them door-to-door, in most cases. Sometimes people will be asked to meet their ride at the end of the block.

Due to COVID-19, SMART Flex trips are limited to three people per ride, and the people must be together. In the future, Flex will operate as a shared-ride shuttle, and a ride might include picking others up and dropping them off before the rider reaches their final destination.

Robert Cramer, deputy general manager, SMART, announces the SMART Flex, Metro Detroit's first on-demand transit service with Via, at the Dingell Transit Center in Dearborn on Wednesday, March 24, 2021.

Each of the three zones will have four vehicles on the road at once, said Robert Cramer, deputy general manager of SMART. The service runs from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week.

All three of the zones are high-traffic areas, Cramer said. But all cover unique geography, and SMART hopes to learn different things from each of the pilot areas.

Cramer noted that Dearborn — Henry Ford's hometown — is dominated by the Ford imprint, but that getting from Point A to Point B within that imprint isn't always easy, not even on foot.

"They have assets like The Henry Ford, they have the mall, they have the colleges, and they're nice and walkable once you get to them, but trying to get from one to the other was really difficult," Cramer said. "Even for us to get from (the Dingell Amtrak station) to The Henry Ford, you actually have to go into downtown under the viaduct and back around."

Added Dearborn Mayor Jack O'Reilly: "We love the fact that we're making it so that people from anywhere, will be able to get where they want to go and get it in a way that's really something special."

In Troy, "there's a mall on each end" of the route, Cramer said, with the Somerset Collection to the west and Oakland Mall to the east.

"You've got people you know business travelers in hotels, you've got people visiting the malls, a ton of jobs in hospitality and retail," Cramer said of Oakland County's most populous city. 

All three routes complement FAST fixed-route service.

The Hall Road zone in Macomb is thin and long, stretching from Utica on the west to New Baltimore on the east.

"The Hall Road corridor has two, three of everything," Cramer said. "It's got multiple malls, multiple Walmarts, Meijer, and hotels.

"You've got Utica at the west end, which has a ball field and a downtown," Cramer said. "On the far east end you've got New Baltimore, which has a small and traditional downtown as well. We've got a good fixed route at both ends of that zone, with Gratiot and Van Dyke, so allowing people to get to the edges of those, and now have access to everything that's in-between, was important."

SMART's partner on the Flex pilot is a company called Via, and it was chosen through a competitive bidding process, Cramer said.

Via has "a lot of experience" in the realm, including similar shuttle efforts on a for-profit basis, Cramer said.

Via provides the technology, the drivers and the vehicles: Chrysler Pacificas and  Dodge Caravans with a wheelchair lift. 

"It's their technology, it's their algorithm," Gibbons said. "Our business is to transport people, and they will help us do that."

Would-be riders can download the SMART Flex app and book and pay for rides through it. People can also set a pickup appointment by calling (734) 212-8429.