Saturday, October 8, 2011

"All You Can Do Is Pray for a Miracle" : Detroit Bus Riders Turned Away After 3-Hour Delays



Light rail in Detroit is moving forward, and the celebratory T-shirts are retailing for $24. But meanwhile, savaged by funding cuts that have halved service over the past decade, Detroit's long-suffering city bus system is staggering towards collapse, devastating the lives of riders with no other way to go.

This week, desperate passengers waited at Seven Mile and Woodward for over three hours before flagging down a passing FOX 2 News van, whose cameras recorded the affecting video above.

"All you can do is pray for a miracle," rider Kala Miller told a reporter. When the crosstown bus finally pulled up to the dozens of people waiting on the trash-strewn Seven Mile sidewalk, it was already packed to the gills. Miller couldn't even get on the bus she'd waited 3 hours to board.

This isn't an isolated incident: it's been happening across the Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT) bus system. Of the city's 445 aging buses, less than half are in operation. 100 don't even have engines or transmissions. Mayor Bing, who cut DDOT's budget by $27 million last year, blames the mechanics' union for the backlog. But in an interview with FOX, a bus driver said that work slowdowns by mechanics couldn't account for the delays: "If you don't have the parts to fix the bus, how can the bus get fixed?"

Detroit's minimal transit funding. TLC Minnesota
In fact, the real responsibility for the bus system's breakdown doesn't rest so much with the mayor or the mechanics, but with the entire region. It's extremely unusual for a city Detroit's size to pay for transit out of the city budget. But the city has no choice, because the suburbs haven't come together with the city to finance a regional transit authority. Broken-down buses are the logical outcome of minimal transit funding. Incredibly, per capita public funding for public transit in Detroit is only one-quarter of the paltry U.S. average.

Transportation Riders United (TRU) has announced a "Right On Time" campaign to hold DDOT accountable. The group is inviting people to sign up to track bus arrival times. But over the long run, no matter how the city manages its buses, there's little hope for improvement unless the region makes the moral commitment to stop shortchanging transit riders, and we all - especially those of us in the suburbs - let our leaders know that we won't stand for anything less.

Detroit's bus terminal is named after Rosa Parks, the civil rights heroine who moved north to the city decades ago. Sadly, while the Birmingham-style bus segregation Parks experienced may be a thing of the past, the region's failure to fund transit effectively pushes all the Motor City's transit riders - poor, carless, and overwhemingly black - to the back of the bus. Detroit may never have had Jim Crow buses. At the rate things are going, though, this impoverished city built on the business of movement may not have buses at all.

In the sprawling metropolis that put the world on wheels, that's wrong, and it has to change. But it will take action to break the habitual way of thinking that says some people just don't matter. It'll also take journalists willing to pull over, like FOX 2's Alexis Wiley, and decide that the daily struggles of tens of thousands of bus riders might deserve a place in the news cycle just as much as adult entertainment buses at Lions games.

If you haven't already, add your name here to TRU's petition to the Governor for a regional transit authority.

7 comments:

  1. Joel, I'm mostly with you, but it's going to be a real tough sell when you're talking about how "the region" has to make a moral commitment or "the region's" failure to fund transit effectively. You are letting the people responsible for this particular failure -- first and foremost Mayor Bing-- off the hook by diffusing responsibility across the "region."

    Yes, DDOT needs to be replaced by a regional authority. In the meantime, the city of Detroit needs to contract bus provision out to SMART, since it has demonstrated it is incapable of providing that service itself.

    Again, I agree with your end goal, but the blame for this mess lies squarely with the mayor.

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  2. Yeah, that rhetoric is pretty abstract, and certainly Mayor Bing bears some responsibility for the present mess. That said, DDOT has been suffering for a long, long time. It's crazy to expect a near-bankrupt city to pay for buses out of its general fund. If the suburbs hadn't rejected the move for a regional system in the '70s, would we be in such dire straits?

    I'm not sure that the legislation authorizing SMART would permit the agency to provide service within Detroit (that's what the "suburban" in its name is all about). Any transit law experts out there? Indeed, SMART itself may be in for another round of cutbacks as property values sink.

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  3. Funny you should mention SMART cutbacks, Joel: http://www.freep.com/article/20111013/OPINION02/110130436/Jeff-Gerritt-SMART-announce-22-cut-region-must-act-now-?odyssey=tab|topnews|text|FRONTPAGE

    There goes that idea :(

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  5. I'm sure it's more than a little frustrating for people to have to wait for hours a stop. As you said "the real responsibility for the bus system's breakdown doesn't rest so much with the mayor or the mechanics, but with the entire region." I truly hope more funding can be brought together for the people of Detroit. I guess only time will tell.

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  6. That's just ridiculous. Praying that the transit will be fixed will never get you what you need. Detroit needs to get its priorities in check!

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