Mack Avenue is punctuated with shelter-less bus stops. The lack of shelters is urgent for the city’s approximately 750,000 monthly riders, many of whom rely on the bus. Photo credit: Nick Hagen

Jonathan Peters rides the bus nearly every day, commuting from his home in Detroit’s Warrendale neighborhood near the Dearborn border to his job in Pontiac. It’s a long ride—over an hour when the buses arrive on time. And he’s fortunate that the first stop on his commute on Warren Avenue has a bus shelter. 

“During the wintertime, you at least have some protection,” said Peters, 35. “If it’s snowing, it definitely helps.”

But lately, the waits have been getting longer. Peters said he’s had to wait hours on some days. And because he doesn’t own a car, he regularly catches the bus at stops without shelters.

“I definitely think we need more bus shelters or benches for people to sit,” Peters said. “There aren’t as many as there should be.”

Adequate seating and shelter at bus stops is basic but lacking. Just 234 of the approximately 5,400 stops—around 4.3%—along Detroit bus routes have shelters, Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT) officials said.

That puts Detroit near the bottom of the pack of large U.S. cities. Pittsburgh and Minneapolis both have shelters at about 8% of stops, and New York and Los Angeles have more than 20% of stops covered with shelters. The figures are from TransitCenter, a group that advocates for progressive transit policy.

“Transit agencies and city governments typically don’t spend much on bus shelters, even though they’re an extremely cost-effective way to improve trips for transit riders,” said Ben Fried, communications director at TransitCenter. “But Detroit appears to fare worse than most other cities.”

Bus benches and shelters provide obvious benefits, like a place to sit and protection from the rain, sun and snow. If there’s good lighting, bus shelters can provide a sense of safety. They are also good for displaying a route map and signposts for where a bus will stop. 

The overall effect is to make the riding experience more enjoyable, giving people more reasons to continue to use the bus. A survey of bus riders from the University of Minnesota found that stops with shelters made waits seem shorter, and ones without seem longer. 

More shelters? Not now

The lack of shelters is urgent for the city’s approximately 750,000 monthly riders, many of whom rely on the bus for their transportation needs. About one-third of Detroit residents don’t own a car.

A pandemic-induced driver shortage has caused DDOT buses to frequently arrive late, if at all. In October, 81% of buses left for their intended route in the morning, and just 64% after noon, according to the department’s data. Two years ago, the pullout rate—which is the percentage of buses that leave the station—was around 95%. Earlier this month, DDOT adjusted its schedule to decrease the frequency of buses on all routes to make service more reliable. 

DDOT’s declining performance since the start of the pandemic leaves riders exposed to the elements of Michigan weather, waiting for buses that sometimes arrive several hours late. 

Idrees Mutahr is a board member of Motor City Freedom Riders, a public transit advocacy group based in Detroit. Mutahr said increased wait times makes the lives of bus riders more challenging. Photo credit: Nick Hagen

“In terms of the state of bus shelters in the city, it’s not a great situation,” said Idrees Mutahr, a board member of Motor City Freedom Riders, a public transit advocacy group based in Detroit. “And the long delays from DDOT make it even worse.”

Motor City Freedom Riders is advocating for a bus shelter at every stop.

In 2019, the city added 40 bus shelters and replaced another 19—all equipped with solar-powered lighting systems and USB charging ports. But plans to add more won’t come for at least another year.

Corey McIsaac, deputy director of media relations for the City of Detroit, wrote to Outlier by email that next year DDOT will undertake a comprehensive analysis to “reimagine the entire bus route network” with a goal to implement it in late 2022 or early 2023. Any additional shelters will be built after it’s complete.

The shelters aren’t ideally placed either. Sarosh Irani, who’s currently in Medical School at the University of Michigan, rode the bus nearly every day when he was a public health student at Wayne State University from 2016 to 2020. He often noticed riders lined up at busy bus stops without a shelter. 

In 2019, Irani conducted a study with the WSU Urban Planning School analyzing wait times at bus stops and whether those stops had shelters. He found a lot of room for improvement.

“The bus shelter system was only operating at about 55% efficiency,” Irani said. “We found that just by moving low-usage shelters to more efficient locations, you could greatly enhance the experience of bus riders.”

Creative solutions

Detroit riders and neighborhood groups have long recognized the need for more and better bus shelters, especially once the weather gets colder. Often they’ve had to come up with their own solutions. 

The nonprofit think tank Detroit Future City offers a basic toolkit on how to build a bus shelter, from community engagement to permitting to construction. The guide came about in 2016 through discussions with residents in the Cody Rouge neighborhood who wanted more protection while waiting for the bus. 

“There were a lot of concerns around safety and transportation needs for the community,” said Shari Williams, a senior program manager at Detroit Future City, who wrote the guide. “Through our discussions, we decided to document and share what it takes to execute such a bus shelter project.”

In 2018, two neighborhood associations in Cody Rouge worked with an artist to design and install three shelters that spelled the word “BUS.” 

Creative approaches to building bus shelters like the ones in Cody Rouge can be found all over the city.

In 2014, a group from the University of Michigan worked with local artists and installed 12 unique shelters made of salvaged materials from demolished homes. Another group of U-M students worked with residents to install two shelters in the Brightmoor neighborhood for $240 each.

Sometimes the origins of these DIY structures aren’t known—like a bus shelter at Mack and Gratiot avenues with a simple wood frame, curved corrugated steel covering and a floral design inside the roof’s semi-circle opening also made of steel. In 2016, Rory Lincoln, a Challenge Detroit fellow, built a series of shelters on the east side using a few simple posts inserted into buckets, a wood bench and corrugated steel covering. 

A bus shelter at Mack and Gratiot avenues is made of a simple wood frame, curved corrugated steel covering and a floral design inside the roof’s semi-circle opening also made of steel. Photo credit: Nick Hagen

Those interested in a shelter or bench, however, can’t just build one wherever they like. Altering the “right of way”—publicly owned land that includes sidewalks—must comply with ADA standards and requires a permit with either DDOT or MDOT, depending on who owns the street.

Kyle Bartell and Charles Molnar, owners of Sit On It Detroit, have installed about 100 benches at bus stops using a combination of salvaged materials and pressure-treated wood to extend the lifetime of the seat. 

“People who rely on the bus need a place to sit,” said Bartell, who co-founded Sit On It Detroit in 2013. “They’re grocery shopping, they’re carrying a child, they’ve been on their feet all day. It’s simple, but it can have a big impact.”

For Sit On It Detroit, the work most often happens after they receive a message from a community group interested in a bench. If the group can’t afford the project, which currently costs around $450 due to increased lumber prices, Sit On It tries to find a sponsor; it has previously worked with Carhartt and Marathon Oil. The benches sometimes come with a little library underneath the seat for the benefit of the community and riders. 

It’s also a collaborative effort. Sit On It builds the benches with people in the community, teaching them the basics of carpentry in the process. 

“It’s not just a bench. It’s an opportunity,” Bartell said. “We’re learning from each other because these benches are built on-site as a group.”

Reach AARON MONDRY at aaron@outliermedia.org or 313-403-7221.

Get quality info and insights on neighborhoods in Detroit every week.
Sign up here for our weekly newsletter The Dig.