Metro Detroit is actually doing something right when it comes to transit, and riders are getting on board
Transit has long been a weak spot for the Motor City: We can’t get on board with regional transit, and we spend a paltry amount funding it. Bus service is infrequent, and if you travel between the city and suburbs, you often have to use two different systems, even on major roads. That’s if you can get a bus at all.
About 30 cities opt-out of SMART (Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation) altogether, leading to crazy, multi-hour commutes for some unfortunate workers. And for all the fanfare, the QLine — serving few riders on a very limited route — hasn’t really made it easier to get around.
But it’s not all bad! And recent improvements to SMART’s system have paid off, suggesting that people are eager to use the buses, as long as they’re a reliable, relatively convenient alternative to cars.
While ridership has been falling nationwide for the last five years
The increase follows SMART’s rollout of the FAST service on three busy routes — Woodward, Michigan
“I would say that FAST is the reason why [SMART’s overall ridership] increased,” said Robert Cramer, SMART’s deputy general manager.
That’s kind of a remarkably, uh, *fast* change for just three new lines. Cramer said the three corridors consistently had double-digit monthly ridership increases over the previous year after FAST buses got on the road in January 2018. In December, the weekday ridership for the Woodward corridor (meaning they also accounted for SMART’s local buses on those roads, which might have ridership declines from people switching to FAST) was up 75 percent from December 2017.
Cramer believes that the increase is coming from “choice riders,” or people who have the option to drive or get around without taking the bus. The FAST buses don’t cover new ground, and people already had bus options on those roads, but FAST’s convenience makes the service attractive to new riders.
In 2011, SMART made some cuts that limited routes going all the way downtown to peak commuting times.
“We heard from some people back then and throughout the years before FAST that that was … the tipping point that made quite a few people decide that it just wasn’t worth it,” Cramer said. “Bringing FAST back … really kind of flipped the story a little bit and made it something that’s convenient and useful for a lot of people.”
Overall transit ridership for the region increased last year, unlike in much of the rest of the country. SMART’s ridership rose from 8.46 million trips in 2017 to 8.99 million trips in 2019, according to National Transit Database figures compiled by TransitCenter. DDOT ridership fell from 23.89 million trips to 23.64 million trips, or about 1 percent, over the same period. Credit: TransitCenter
For bus systems to work better overall, focusing too much on “choice” riders isn’t necessarily the best approach, cautioned Kirk Hovenkotter, TransitCenter senior program associate.
“Our transit rider surveys have shown there’s not a clear distinction between ‘choice’ and ‘captive’ riders — it’s a spectrum and no one is completely captive to bad service,” Hovenkotter told Detour in an email.
AKA, even if someone doesn’t own a car (and one in four Detroit households don’t) they could catch a ride, bike, walk, use a rideshare service or limit nonessential trips. More reliable service is the factor that makes more people choose transit over the alternatives, captive or not.
Hovenkotter categorized FAST as a smart strategy for both sides of the spectrum: “Best practice is to operate frequent, all-day service on routes that connect large numbers of people to large clusters of jobs and other destinations,” he said.
Cramer also made the point that after some debate, SMART made the intentional decision that they wouldn’t cut any existing bus service when FAST service started — they didn’t want to limit access to the local stops that some riders need.
While SMART ridership was going up, the Detroit bus system had a small decline. The city didn’t respond to a request for comment on transit ridership. DDOT did make its own big change in August, starting more frequent service on 10 of its busiest route. Cramer wondered whether those changes happened too late in the year to see whether they influenced overall ridership for 2018.
In general, DDOT is used more heavily, with close to four times as many rides as SMART. The region’s transit saturation overall is way less than other major areas — metros like Seattle, Denver, Baltimore and San Francisco have a smaller population, and three to five times as many annual trips on transit.
Despite missing out on the funding and larger service areas that we’d get with regional transit, DDOT and SMART are still attempting to streamline bus service. The next big change on the docket is new fares with tickets that work for both bus systems. Starting May 1, the single ride ticket will be replaced with a pass for four hours of travel on both SMART and DDOT buses for $2.00. That’s the current price of a single SMART ride, and a significant increase from DDOT’s current $1.50 price (but transfer fee is included). Later this year, they’re launching a joint mobile payment and ticketing app so riders have the option to buy and use tickets from their phones.
Of course, mobile apps won’t solve major problems like long wait times and holes on the transit map in places like Rochester Hills that have opted out of SMART. Back in March of last year, Rochester Hills City Council President Mark Tisdel doubled down on the debatable assertion that people in exurb subdivisions don’t want walkable communities and questioned the value of SMART’s FAST buses.
“I am not interested in promoting a service with taxpayer dollars that has buses running around empty,” Tisdel said.
Looking at the diverse array of passengers on a full FAST bus last week, with people of all ages riding down Woodward at 8:30 p.m., it’s clear that the demand is there. The data actually backs this up: more routes and more frequency = more rides. Metro Detroit has been waiting a few decades for a better transit system. But in the meantime, who wants to wait an hour for the bus? –Kate Abbey-Lambertz