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A street in Detroit. There is a blue bus and cars traveling on the street. Photo by Michelle & Chris Gerard

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Car-free in the Motor City

The challenges of using public transit in Detroit

The streets of Detroit were built to accommodate a lot of cars. But as the city goes through another renaissance, the opportunity to better plan for public transportation—one of Detroit’s big weaknesses—should be part of a bigger discussion on where the city is headed. Curbed sat down with Trisha White, Detroit Revitalization Fellow and public transit advocate, who’s spent the last two years car free in Detroit and the previous 16 years car free in Washington D.C. We discussed traversing the city on foot, by bike, bus, and train, and what works and what doesn’t when it comes to public transportation in Detroit.

What modes of transit have you used in Detroit?

In my two years in Detroit, I have used every single manner of public transportation available: DDOT, SMART (both buses), Amtrak, QLINE (streetcar), Uber/Lyft (ride-hailing services), cab, People Mover (elevated rail), MoGo (bike share), and Megabus (intercity bus). But I bike or walk most of the time.

Which has been the most effective?

Since I live and work in Detroit, I can only speak for Detroit and not the ‘burbs. If you have deep pockets, of course you can Uber everywhere. It’s effective but it gets expensive. The next most effective has to be DDOT. For all its shortcomings, it’s the only system we have that runs citywide. People Mover and QLINE might run on time but that doesn’t help you if you need to get anywhere in the other 99.9 percent of the city.

An elevated train track in Detroit with a train on it. There are buildings on one side of the tracks. Under the tracks are trees. Photo by Michelle & Chris Gerard

Which has been the least reliable?

Sadly, that title also goes to DDOT. It’s getting better but still has a lot of room for improvement. Some days, the transit gods smile on you, the bus shows up, you get a seat and you get to your destination on time. Other days, you wait in freezing rain for 45 minutes, the bus is packed like sardines and you show up wet and late. Stuff happens, but transit shouldn’t be a daily crap shoot.

What could Detroit learn from other cities?

Don’t worry about trains—that train has left the station. Look to other rust belt cities who have worked with what they have to improve mobility. Look no further than Grand Rapids for a great example of a modern, efficient, and reliable bus system. They have a smart card, they connect to the airport, and they integrate with other modes like vanpools and parking lots. AND it's used by all different kinds of people. If they can do it, so can Detroit. Light rail or BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) would be great but what if it doesn’t happen? We don’t need fancy, we just need reliable. Oh, and pay drivers a decent wage.

What have been the major difficulties in using transit in Detroit?

Lack of reliability is the killer. The industry standard is 90 percent on time performance but DDOT’s is between 60-70 percent.

Bus stops are also hit or miss. Some stops have nice shelters and some are just a sign on the side of the road. For my first 18 months, I waited at a bus stop at Eight Mile and Dequindre that was no more than a bent sign on a pile of garbage just three feet from 60 m.p.h. traffic. In winter, these become dangerous icy mounds of garbage just three feet from 60 m.p.h. traffic. This goes from inconvenient to hazardous for people with disabilities.

A street in Detroit. In the foreground is a part of the street that has a red box painted on it.
Some new bus stops in Midtown have red pads indicating where the bus will stop.
Photo by Mark Hall
A sidewalk in Detroit. Part of the sidewalk is dirt and the other part is concrete. There are buildings adjacent to the sidewalk.
A typical Detroit bus stop
Photo courtesy of Trisha White

What do you think of the QLINE so far?

A street in Detroit. There is a bus that has a sign that reads: Q Line. There are buildings on both sides of the street. Photo by Michelle & Chris Gerard

The QLINE is neat but it doesn’t really function like transit. When I think of public transportation, I think of moving people from home to work, shop, school, play, and then back home. Right now, only a handful of people can do all of those on the Q because we don't have the housing density near the line. Maybe over time that will grow, but for now it's just a fancy shuttle for Tigers games

Do you think residents need a car in Detroit?

I’m sure plenty of people have legit reasons to have a car. You do you. But if you live and work in Detroit, give car-free a try. If 26 percent of Detroiters live without a car, maybe you can too. Park your car for a month and get around on foot, bike, and bus. Use ride-hailing services sparingly but when you need to. While you’re waiting for the bus, do some back-of-the-envelope math on how much money you would save if you sold your car. Then make a list of things you would rather do with that money.

This subject is bigger in Detroit because the high rate of poverty runs smack into the prohibitively high cost of owning and insuring a car here. What if more Detroiters had reliable transit and could shift their car spending to investing in homeownership, health, education, or savings?

What do you think of current bike infrastructure in Detroit?

I'm always wowed by the amount of bike lanes—200 miles—in the Motor City. With the flat terrain, cool weather, and light traffic (compared to other cities), Detroit can be a bike paradise. Everyone should check out the new protected lanes on Cass Avenue. Once we teach people to stop parking in them, it’ll be the Cadillac of bike lanes.

A bike lane in Detroit.
New bike lanes downtown
Photo by Mark Hall
A person rides a bicycle on a green bike lane along Cass Avenue in Detroit.
New bike lanes along Cass Avenue
Photo by Mark Hall

Having said that, all the bike lanes in the world can't change how people drive. Even in bike lanes, you have to stay alert and keep your head on a swivel. Drivers aren't looking for you so you have to look for them. With car vs. bike accidents, it doesn't matter who had the right of way because the human on the bike is going to lose every time.

This is true in all cities, but Detroit is going through a weird learning curve with bikes and bike lanes. Drivers may not be familiar with how to share the road and many Detroit riders ride against traffic because they believe it's safer. Sadly, some leaders oppose bike lanes as harbingers of gentrification, only for the spandex crowd.

I'd also love to see more bike racks. I went to the Lions' opener and guards shooed me away from locking my bike on a fence. I spent 40 minutes looking and talked to three managers, none of whom could tell me where to park a bike at Ford Field. So a facility designed for 65,000 people was not designed for even one bike. Weird.

What advice would you give someone who's moving to the city without a car or a resident who wants to get by without one?

Walk and bike! It’s by far the cheapest and most reliable transportation. You’ll also burn calories and get to know the city much better on the ground. And bonus—you’re making everyone safer by being out and about. Jane Jacobs called it “eyes on the street”—the more people on the street, the safer they become.

And just get on the bus. In so many other cities, public transportation is used by people of all ages, abilities and ethnicities, across all socio-economic strata. Everyone. For everything. It’s just how you get around and it’s normal. Here, there’s this ugly stigma and a glaring lack of diversity on DDOT buses. I can count on one hand the number of times I saw another white person on the bus. If you want to use your privilege to make it better, get on the bus.

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