Severe bus driver shortage plagues metro Detroit’s public transit, study finds

Public transit riders are waiting an excessive amount of time for DDOT, SMART rides

Jul 27, 2023 at 3:48 pm
click to enlarge Public transit activists march in downtown Detroit, calling on elected officials to improve the bus systems. - Steve Neavling
Steve Neavling
Public transit activists march in downtown Detroit, calling on elected officials to improve the bus systems.

Tens of thousands of metro Detroiters who rely on public buses are experiencing longer waiting times and canceled routes because of mismanagement and a crippling driver shortage, according to a new report.

Transportation Riders United found that SMART and DDOT buses are less frequent and more unpredictable and have fewer routes than before the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving riders waiting for prolonged periods.

The employee shortage is so severe that bus routes are often canceled altogether when a driver calls in sick.

In the past three years, DDOT has reduced services by nearly a third, and SMART’s services have declined by almost 20%, the study found. Compared to regions of similar size, metro Detroit ranks second for the most significant reduction in services since the pandemic.

Before the pandemic, DDOT had six routes that ran at least every 15 minutes. Now, no buses run every 15 minutes, according to the report. In four of the city’s seven council districts, a majority of residents live more than a mile from routes that run at least every 20 minutes.

Commuters who rely on buses to get to work, school, the doctor’s office, and the grocery store have been deeply impacted, sometimes losing their jobs or missing important appointments because of infrequent or canceled routes, the report found. School students, especially in Detroit, are increasingly arriving late to class.

“This crisis of essential transportation services has disrupted the lives of thousands of people and continues to act as a brake on the region’s economic recovery,” the study found. “Yet it has drawn little attention from most elected officials and policymakers.”

On Thursday afternoon, dozens of bus riders and transit activists marched downtown to call on elected officials to address the issues with the bus system by providing more funding and better pay for drivers, who are quitting and not being replaced.

“Save our service,” they chanted.

“I started getting to the bus stop an hour early, and even then I’m sometimes late for work. You never know when the bus is going to show up. It’s a shit show.”

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Theresa Harris, who relies on DDOT to get to work every weekday, fears that the unreliable buses will cost her a job, which she needs to provide for her two children.

“I started getting to the bus stop an hour early, and even then I’m sometimes late for work,” Jones says. “You never know when the bus is going to show up. It’s a shit show.”

In Detroit, 23% of households don’t have a car, forcing residents to rely on buses.

The most significant issue facing the bus systems is the “severe shortage” of bus drivers, according to the report.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, DDOT and SMART have struggled to hire and maintain bus drivers. In the first months of the pandemic, dozens of DDT bus drivers became infected with the coronavirus. One of them, 50-year-old Jason Hargrove, died from COVID-19 after he complained on social media that an older rider was coughing without covering her mouth.

His death made national news and “likely contributed to the decision of many operators to retire or seek work elsewhere,” the report states.

The local bus systems are struggling to hire an adequate number of drivers, largely because the pay is among the lowest in the country, according to the study. DDOT pay starts at $15 an hour, and SMART’s hourly rate is $19.11.

By comparison, the Ann Arbor region’s public transit system, TheRide, starts drivers at $28.65 an hour and has no employee shortage. The hourly starting rate is $28.99 in Chicago, $26.15 in Minneapolis, and $21.94 in Pittsburgh.

“It isn’t right that we have some city employees making over 200 grand, and our bus drivers who get thousands of people to where we need to go every day in this city make $15 an hour,” Joel Batterman, campaign manager for Transportation Riders United, said. “That’s not right, and that has to change. The drivers are worth more. The riders are worth more. We have to value our people in this city.”

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