Detroit’s public transit system has struggled for years to be extensive and reliable enough to get people to work, school and wherever else they need to go. To see what’s working and what needs improvement, each year, Detroit Documenters ride buses operated by the Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT).
Since Documenters spent more than 40 hours riding buses last year, a few things have changed.
A few weeks ago, Documenters spent close to a combined 50 hours on the city’s 10 most popular routes and tracked persistent problems like on-time performance, how reliable the tracking apps for determining when buses will arrive are, and whether buses showed up at all.
There were two new things in particular we were curious about this time around. Documenters specifically looked for what makes buses late after they start on time. We’ve also heard complaints about buses not being accessible to people who need them to pull right up to the curb, so we paid particular attention to the accessibility of stops.
Here’s what the Documenters found.
Leaving the station, but not showing up
A pullout rate keeps track of how many buses leave the terminal to go on their route. In October 2021, DDOT reported that the percentage of buses that left for their route past noon was an abysmal 64%.
DDOT’s pullout rate has improved a lot since then and hasn’t dropped below 90% since October 2022. But that still means about 180 buses don’t show up at their stops each day, leaving Documenters and anyone else stuck waiting at the bus stops.
Documenter Autumn Jackson-Hines had the bad luck of waiting for a route 10 Greenfield bus that turned out to be what frequent riders call a “ghost bus”: It appeared to have left the station when she tracked it on Apple Maps, but never showed. The next scheduled bus came 21 minutes later. (That bus wasn’t on time either, instead making it to the stop nine minutes early).
As Documenter Clarissa Williams waited to travel up 7 Mile Road, she tracked two separate route 7 buses on the app that passed her while she waited. That counts as not showing up in our book.
“I followed the DDOT bus tracker app to time the bus,” wrote Williams. “It reported the next eastbound bus at 6:06 p.m. Eventually the time was changed to 6:20. The bus passed by the stop at 6:18 p.m. as I waved at the bus driver who didn’t seem to be slowing. She drove past without even looking.”
Williams wrote that she second-guessed whether she was at the right stop after the first bus passed. She walked to two stops down for a more visible stop, but a second bus passed by her, too. She wondered if they skipped stops to make up the time.
The Detroit Department of Transportation faces a driver shortage that has gotten worse in the last two years.
When buses leave the station as scheduled, they still might not make it to their stops on time. DDOT reported that its weekday on-time performance has been at around 63% since July.
Some routes performed better than others when it comes to on-time performance. Of the 10 routes Documenters rode, those on routes 2 (Michigan), 3 (Grand River), 9 (Jefferson) and 10 (Greenfield) reported shorter waiting times and fewer delays than on routes 1 (Vernor), 4 (Woodward), 5 (Van Dyke-Lafayette), 6 (Gratiot), 7 (7 Mile) and 8 (Warren).
A bus that is even slightly off schedule can cause passengers to miss connecting buses. Documenter Colleen Cirocco missed her route 9 Jefferson bus due to just a two-minute delay.
“This driver consistently left about a minute or two early from many of the stops,” Cirocco wrote. “Whether early or late, inconsistency can lead to a lot of frustrations from riders.”
Cirocco noticed more than 40 stops on her route, which spans about 7 miles. She wondered if buses are delayed when there are passengers waiting to be picked up or asking to get off at a significant portion of those stops.
So, where is that bus?
Riders can track the locations of DDOT buses through its official websites DDOT Bus Tracker and DDOT.info, and third-party apps including Apple Maps, Google Maps and Transit. But Documenter and transit advocate Corey Rowe noted that DDOT’s real-time tracking data has had longstanding accuracy problems, causing the websites and apps that rely on this info less accurate.
All Documenters who used the DDOT Bus Tracker website had technical difficulties figuring out where their buses were. Many had to cross-reference with other tracking apps to narrow down arrival times.
Documenter Clarissa Williams said that the website was missing arrival times for some stops. The website only indicates when a bus is expected to be at a stop, but it doesn’t account for delays or if the bus doesn’t come at all.
Williams said a rider she spoke with prefers the Transit app because it gives information on how many people are on the bus. From Williams’ experience, the Transit app was also more accurate than DDOT Bus Tracker.
Bus stop conditions
Documenters paid attention to what bus stops looked and felt like. Many of the stops were clean, but some didn’t have lighting. Many had nowhere to sit.
Documenters noticed a lack of shelters or benches at bus stops. Documenter Jen David, who took route 8 Warren, experienced some unexpected rain while waiting for the bus and only had a tree to stand under.
“Very few stops had any shelters,” David said. “If I got all wet and then had to ride on a jam-packed bus to work, my life would have been miserable.”
On route 1 Vernor, Documenter Carole Hawke noticed more shelters in Dearborn than in Detroit. The Dearborn shelters also had directions in three languages: English, Arabic and Spanish.
Hawke noted that some Detroit stops didn’t have signs at all: She only knew the stops were there through the tracking apps.
Bus stops closer to New Center and downtown were noticeably cleaner than those further down, Documenter Tiffany Pilson noted. She wrote that shelters and stops looked cleaner on Detroit’s westside than on the eastside.
“The stops east of Woodward were not as well kept,” Pilson wrote. “Most of the trash cans were overrun, and (there was) trash all around.”
Other Documenters noted that buses were reasonably clean compared to when they rode buses several years ago, and others said that the Rosa Parks Transit Center was likewise clean.
Use our guide to sightsee along the routes and keep watch on the city’s transit system.
Detroit and the surrounding areas are facing a lot of construction, affecting bus stop accessibility. Some stops were moved down the block or around the corner to accommodate construction, but their new locations weren’t always clear. Documenters witnessed buses needing to drive past a blocked stop and honk at riders, who would then need to walk into the street to board the bus.
Documenter Taura Brown uses a wheelchair. She wrote that the debris made it difficult to navigate to the bus stop in her wheelchair.
“I missed my first bus,” Brown, who rode the 9 Jefferson, wrote. “I don’t navigate outside in my wheelchair as fast as I do in my apartment. I had not considered trash, cracks in the sidewalk and crossing the street as obstacles before I left home.”
Brown did find bus drivers and passengers to be helpful. Drivers “kneeled” or lowered the bus for her to board and folded up seats; passengers quickly moved to make room for her without complaint.
Cars were parked at some bus stops, often making it impossible for drivers to stop at the curb and for riders who use a wheelchair to board easily. Documenters Corey Rowe and A J Johnson witnessed construction vehicles blocking some bus stop signs, making it unclear where riders should wait.
Other things of note
When Documenters ride the buses, we learn about experiences we don’t hear in public comment at DDOT or City Council meetings. Several Documenters were pleasantly surprised about the overall experience, given past experiences or public comments.
Tyler Parlor said, “I was pleased to find an atmosphere that made me rethink public transportation.
Documenters enjoyed talking with their bus drivers. Drivers eagerly helped riders in wheelchairs board the bus, made conversation with Documenters and were patient with new riders despite Documenters noting they must contend with traffic, safety, construction, rerouting, communication issues, other passengers, time, and more. DDOT needs more than 100 additional drivers to operate at full capacity and improve its pullout rate.
DDOT drivers and their union say pay is the main issue. Drivers earn a starting wage of $16.15 an hour, which goes up to $23 an hour after four years of employment.
Many Documenters were left wondering what it will take for public transportation in Detroit to become a viable and preferred form of transportation.
“Overall, it was a really good experience to ride the bus,” wrote Documenter Anna Harris, who rode route 5. “I feel empowered to take the bus more often. While I recognized that this likely isn’t representative of many experiences with our transit system, it made me feel optimistic about how it could look under more ideal circumstances.”
Documenters A J Johnson, Amelia Benavides-Colón, Anna Harris, Autumn Jackson-Hines, Carole Hawke, Clarissa Williams, Colleen Cirocco, Corey Rowe, Elyas Khan, Jen David, Kristin Fehrman, Lukas Lasecki, Meghan Rutigliano, Sandi Nelson, Sherrie Smith, Taura Brown, Tewonia Alamu, Tiffany Pilson and Tyler Parlor contributed to this article. Full reporting from the Documenters on the Bus project can be found here.