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What data can tell us about Detroit’s transit system

Dag Gogue

The recent story of “walking man” James Robertson is just one example of a challenging reality confronting thousands of households in Detroit every single day.

At last year’s Intelligent Transport Systems World Congress in Detroit, Transit Labs and the Detroit Department of Transportation started a pilot project to comprehensively review the bus route network. This partnership deploys data visualization and analytics, as well as cloud computing, to evolve public transit in Detroit.

The simple truth is you cannot plan a transit system if you can’t see your data and combine it with external data.

As living, breathing networks, transit systems require constant analysis, both quantitative and qualitative.

Whereas full, in-depth system reviews are only practical once every few years, live visualizations can help transit providers to be much more responsive, much more often.

That’s why we have launched, an interactive data visualization that shows where Detroit’s other “walking men” live and how the current transit system is failing them.

Our Detroit data visualization project illustrates and examines the relationship between existing bus routes and population density.

Our Detroit project reveals that many residents are going to great pains just to fulfill the most basic of day-to-day life activities such as getting to work or school.

In the worst cases, many simply disqualify themselves from even getting a job for lack of reliable transportation. Neither option is acceptable in a city where the unemployment rate is triple the national average and neighborhood-level economic opportunities are limited.

We looked at Route 16, what we call the “unlikely performer,” and found that the legendary Dexter bus consistently posts strong ridership numbers. A closer look at bus stop population densities shows why: Almost all stops serve medium- and high-density areas. While the route travels through a few patches of low population density, major activity centers at the ends lend the route a strong magnetism. Interestingly, this route makes many turns rather than serving a single, linear corridor. Even with this serpentine routing, Route 16 reflects population densities, and can thus serve as a productive backbone of the city transit system.

Contrast that with Route 41, a “dead weight” route that delivers much less in terms of ridership and productivity. Our interactive map exposes a critical difference between this route and its neighbor to the west, Route 22: the long tail on the south end of Route 41. Where Route 22 mirrors density patterns, Route 41 continues beyond high- and medium-density areas, into some of the least populated parts of the entire service area. The southern segment links a geographically-isolated part of Detroit to other areas. It may be a worthwhile connection to preserve, but is Route 41 the best method to do it?

The solution is using technology to better understand the challenges facing Detroit and its transit system.

Operators, planners and executive leadership desperately want a more comprehensive picture of their transit system and real tools that enable the evaluation historical performance, make real-time decisions and model future service and growth.

The number one obstacle to increasing ridership in any city is the uncertainty of not knowing when the bus you need will actually arrive, followed by long wait times.

By bringing Detroit’s data into the 21st century, we will enable the city to address its current transit challenges, make transit more accessible to the people who need it the most and ultimately stimulate economic activity throughout the city.

Dag Gogue is founder and CEO of Transit Labs, an analytics startup that uses software to gather a transit system’s data about ridership, personnel, assets, safety and funding.