DETROIT (WXYZ) — Weeks after the Detroit Department of Transportation canceled three bus routes and consolidated several others, performance levels on bus arrivals have improved.
But riders say the decision to downsize the system, even temporarily, has further squeezed an overwhelmingly low-income group of people at a time when they say more access and more investment is needed, not less.
DDOT cites low ridership and driver shortages for the recent cancellations. Essential riders say they are digging deep for patience, but with no clear end date for route changes and no clear plan for incoming federal dollars, that patience is wearing thin.
“I’ve been riding the bus at least 55 of these years,” Detroit resident Rochella Stewart said.
As a lifelong bus rider, Stewart has her morning routine down to science. Get ready to be out the door at 9:15 a.m., followed by a seven-minute walk to the bus stop.
No longer part of that scientific equation is the time she can expect to spend commuting to work.
“It should take maybe an hour, 40 minutes to get there, but in the worst-case scenario, it's like two and a half hours,” Stewart said.
It is the same story for 76-year-old Larry Verse.
“Buses don’t come when they’re supposed to come and the system does not work,” Verse said.
Riders feeling squeezed by changes within an already beleaguered transit system. DDOT recently canceled three routes while reducing frequency on several others.
“As we have more operators, we will be changing our temporary services back to where they need to be,” said Mikel Oglesby, executive director of transit for the city of Detroit.
DDOT says the change is already allowing for more timely service. But many question: At what expense?
“There’s going to be people out here with frostbite, elderly that can't get to a stop within 10 minutes,” Stewart said. “How far is that walk to get to that next stop because your bus was canceled?”
Transit Justice organizer Renard Monczunski worries about the impact of reduced service. Even temporarily, it could further disrupt a system he says has long been void of critical investment
“Our access to grocery, healthy foods, medical care is limited,” Monczunski said. “It is a public service that has been underfunded and undertreated for years."
“When was the turning point?” WXYZ’s Ameera David asked.
“During the Mayor Bing administration, service was abysmal.” Monczunski said.
Riders have seen improvements since, but investment is still lacking. WXYZ found that Southeast Michigan spends just $76 dollars per capita on transit compared to an average of $211. Nearby city Cleveland spends $216.
“Imagine the investment that can go into transit that can uplift the lives of people,” Monczunski said.
DDOT says better days are ahead.
"I understand that people out there are frustrated. We’re doing the best that we can with what we have, and I can assure you our goal is to expand, not take away,” Oglesby said.
Until that goal is reached, Rochella plans to fight — now at 63 years old — taking on the role of transit organizer, advocating on behalf of riders she believes are often unheard and unseen.
“They should get out, ride the buses more often, see what it’s like, the time that they're standing at the stop, and then maybe they’ll have some feeling toward what these essential riders are going through,” Stewart said.
The true test is investment. DDOT is expecting around $51 million in new COVID-19 recovery funding. So, there's an opportunity for a big boost. Riders want to see it go to expanding nights and weekend service, growing the reduced fare program and more competitive pay for drivers. But to what extent the department will allocate funds accordingly remains to be seen.