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Just before 1 a.m. the other night, I perused the schedule for the “new” #8 Warren Ave. bus line in Detroit (previously the #14 Crosstown). Then I checked the newly updated Transit app on my phone to see if there were delays — just a minute or two. I waited a bit, walked a few blocks to the bus stop, waited a bit longer, then hopped on a bus heading west, paid my $1.50 in quarters and gazed out the window for a few miles as Rihanna’s “We Found Love” blasted. Once I hit Dearborn, I got off the bus and hailed a car from the Lyft ridesharing app to ride right back home.
It was kind of a silly trip, obviously. But I wanted to see for myself one of the new transit experiments that have been rolling out in the city. It turns out, as we were glued to the inter-county drama over funding regional transit that ended in defeat, Detroit has quietly been making changes that seem to add up to a new mindset about mobility.
LATE-NIGHT RIDES THAT DON’T TAKE ALL NIGHT
My real reason for the nighttime joyride was a pilot the Detroit Department of Transportation introduced back in May, Night Shift. Despite sounding a little like a risqué late-night cable show, the program is actually meant to make public transit faster and safer for workers commuting late at night or in the early morning. Funded by the New Economy Initiative, users can get $7 credited toward a ride through the Lyft app between the hours of 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. as long as they’re arriving or leaving from somewhere in Detroit outside of the greater downtown area.
So, someone commuting home from a late shift can take the bus part way, then hail a free or steeply reduced ride to finish the trip. The program attempts to solve what transit geeks call the “first mile/last mile” problem, and replaces waiting an hour for a transfer at a time when buses run infrequently, or walking another 30 minutes down deserted streets.
Many transit officials see FM/LM as one of the big hurdles to cross to get more residents choosing transit over cars, and Detroit is far from the first to partner with a private rideshare company to try to fix it. Other experts aren’t so sure that subsidizing taxi trips, essentially, is the right way to solve transit’s ridership problem.
HOW IT WORKS
Night Shift started just on particular stops along Woodward Ave., but expanded this week to the rebranded ConnectTen routes, the most heavily used lines. (They’re also getting some buses with wifi and more frequent service.)
To get your credit, you have to text a code to a number after 11 p.m., and you receive a link that automatically brings the promo code into your Lyft app. The code must be used that night, but you can (for now) get the credit multiple times.
There are some obvious issues with the program. While supposedly possible to use without a smartphone, the directions as described seem complicated. I noticed a couple other bugs — the city directions tell you to text one code, but the automated response informs you to instead text the previous code. And while the program is pitched as specifically for people using those ten bus lines, the Lyft app only restricts you to rides that begin or end in Detroit to receive the $7 discount — whether or not you’re near a ConnectTen route, or rode any bus at all.
More critically, using the Night Shift program felt more like a cool hack rather than an integrated part of the transit system. It’s not clear how many riders know about, let alone use it — neither the city nor Lyft sent ridership numbers or other details about the partnership at Detour’s request, and marketing seems scant. If DDOT continues the program, they’ll need to find ways to make it both more limited to just the transit users they’re going after, and more obvious and available to those users.
IS THIS A CITY AGENCY OR A STARTUP
But it was, strangely enough, almost exciting to use this new feature, and that’s a shocker for a public transit system. It also felt like it could be an intervention that makes the difference between whether or not I choose to take the bus at night, and that’s definitely something.
It’s also not an accident. Detroit is working to implement a few more interesting ideas to streamline and improve mobility (fromLyft/bikeshare discounts, to cutting DDOT/SMART transfer fees, tomaking traffic signals at intersections prioritize buses).
Mark de la Vergne, Detroit’s chief of mobility innovation, told Governing in December that he wants to attack transit from all angles, using mini tests to try different payment systems, different types of vehicles, etc.
“We heard from the mayor that he wants to solve this problem quicker,” de la Vergne said. “So the quicker we can iterate, the better.”
THE CITY CAN’T GO IT ALONE
If any of that sounds familiar, it might be because many of the things Detroit is doing on its own were proposed in the Regional Transit Authority’s plan to overhaul transit across the metro area. Since RTA officials from Oakland and Macomb County voted against putting the funding millage on the ballot, the plan stalled, but apparently pieces of it are back from the dead.
RTA spokesman Dan Lijana said it’s great if DDOT and other agencies take some of their recommendations online independently, but warned that it’s not a replacement for a transit system that coordinates smoothly across three counties.
“We’re still leaving hundreds of millions of federal and state transit dollars on the table when folks decide to go at it piecemeal,” Lijana told Detour. “If we settle for piecemeal, we’re sending a message that we’re not interested in fixing the problem.”