This article has been updated. See our note at the bottom for more information.

A mass exodus of bus drivers from the Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT) is critically hampering service, causing many buses to never even leave for their scheduled route. Prior to the pandemic, DDOT says, there were 489 drivers on staff. Now, it says there’s only 400.

Mikel Oglesby, executive director of DDOT, told Outlier that the department is about 80 drivers short of where it needs to be. DDOT hired five drivers in June—the first new drivers since the pandemic started.

“We had many operators leave during the pandemic,” Ogeslby said. “But I had no ability to bring new ones in until recently.”

Prior to the pandemic, bus reliability had been improving. In 2011, just 50% of buses showed up to their scheduled stop on time. By June 2019, the number of on-time buses had improved to 75%.

But service quality sharply declined during the pandemic. The pullout rate—which is the percentage of buses that leave the station—was 57% in the afternoons for June this year. In other words, nearly half of all buses never even started their scheduled route. Service in the mornings was better, with a 77% pullout rate. According to DDOT, two years ago, the pullout rate was 96%, meaning almost all buses ran their route.

Bus service has been a problem throughout the country, but Detroit’s situation is uniquely dire. Pullout rates in New York City, for example, only dipped from 97.7% before the pandemic to 95.1% now. 

Megan Owens, executive director of Transportation Riders United (TRU), a public transit advocacy group based in Detroit, called the situation a crisis.

“In most cities, a pullout rate this low is unheard of,” she said. In other cities, “if there’s only 98% of buses pulling out, they’re trying to figure out what the problem is. This sadly is starting to compare to some of the worst days before [Mayor Mike] Duggan came to office.”

A 2017 survey from the University of Michigan found that approximately one-third of all Detroiters don’t own a vehicle, with 18% of these residents taking the bus daily. Carless residents are also overwhelmingly poor. Just 50% of those making $30,000 or less a year own a car.

One of those riders is James Smith, who takes the bus every day—to the grocery store, to the doctor’s office, to his job at Little Caesars Arena downtown.

Before the pandemic, it usually took the Detroiter a little over an hour to get from his home on the west side to work. But during the coronavirus pandemic, bus service simply got less reliable, making life more difficult for riders like him.

“If a bus doesn’t show up, you have to wait another 40 minutes to an hour,” he said. “That’s rough.”

These days, Smith’s commute takes at least two hours if one of the two buses he rides doesn’t show up. To be safe, he leaves nearly three hours before his shift starts. 

“I just have to sit there, but I can’t clock in,” he said. 

Another daily rider, who goes by Skye Gentlefeather, is frustrated with the unreliable service. She recently had to wait three hours for the 8 Mile bus. “It’s paralyzed my life,” she said.

Despite being on a fixed income, she’s going to buy a car for the first time in 15 years. “I can’t trust the buses this winter,” said Gentlefeather, 57, who lives in Detroit. 

Both Gentlefeather and Smith said they tried using apps to track where buses are, but found the technology unreliable—assessments that were echoed at a DDOT community input meeting in June. 

Recruitment challenges

Since recruitment restarted, it’s been hard to get potential drivers through training. Oglesby said some quit because it was taking a long time to get a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL), a DDOT-run process that can take months and is a requirement for all bus drivers. 

Glenn Tolbert, president of the local bus union ATU Local 26, said others earned their CDL, then left for a different driving job with higher pay or benefits.

“The training for these CDLs can be quite expensive,” Tolbert said. “So, people are getting the training and going elsewhere.”

The union negotiated a new contract with the city in March to make pay more competitive. New hires get $15 an hour with 2.5% annual pay raises over four years. 

But it hasn’t been enough. In addition to recruitment woes, drivers have been leaving or retiring at “high rates,” Tolbert said, which he attributes to stress and health concerns.

“The drivers that are here are doing a job that’s very hard right now,” Tolbert said, who joined DDOT as a bus driver 26 years ago. 

In April 2020, DDOT driver Jason Hargrove died of COVID-19. Soon after, a video went viral of him describing his interaction with a sick person on a bus. 

To protect bus drivers and riders, the department lowered the maximum number of riders and didn’t charge fares so riders could enter at the back of the bus. In December 2020, the city began installing protective shields on buses. Fares resumed on March 15 of this year.

Oglesby said the department is “aggressively going after more operators.” It now has the financial resources to do it because of the American Rescue Plan Act. The Regional Transit Authority will receive $134 million, of which DDOT says it will get $51 million. 

“For once, money isn’t the biggest problem,” Owens of TRU said. “So, whether it’s a hiring bonus, more work flexibility, or something else, they’ve got to do something to incentivize hiring.”

Tolbert said the department should resume the extra $5 an hour in hazard pay for drivers, which was provided in the first few months of the pandemic. 

Oglesby said DDOT is trying to improve reliability. It recently installed passenger counters on buses to get a better understanding of which routes are getting the most use, and that bus schedules will be reevaluated “in the coming months.”

But the trade-off for more on-time buses will be fewer routes. 

“Riders should expect less service, but it will be accurate and on time,” Oglesby said. “That’s better than scheduling a lot of service and not knowing if the bus will show up or not.”

Corrections and clarifications:

This article originally stated there were 270 bus operators on staff. When we first asked DDOT how many drivers were currently on staff, it responded by saying 270 were scheduled during the week. DDOT has since clarified that it has 400 operators, but only 273 are active on any given week due to planned days off. It also said that prior to the pandemic, there were only 489 operators on staff, not the 530 as stated in a Detroit News piece cited in The Dig article. We continue to work to understand how DDOT’s staffing is affecting bus performance. 

The Dig article also incorrectly stated that DDOT received $134 million in ARPA funds. In fact, the Regional Transit Authority received those funds and distributed it to transit agencies in Southeast Michigan. DDOT received $51 million, according to officials from the City of Detroit and DDOT

Our article has been updated to reflect these changes. We have adjusted our editorial practices to prevent this from happening in the future. 

Aaron (he/him) believes in telling true stories about real people. He doesn’t think there’s anything better than a crisp fall afternoon at the Detroit Jazz Fest.