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Can Privatization Save Detroit’s Transit System?

Leon Kaye | Friday March 16th, 2012 | 2 Comments
View from Rosa Parks Transit Center, Detroit

View from Rosa Parks Transit Center, Detroit

When I visited Detroit last September, I did not have a rental car. Foolish me. As I waited at the Rosa Parks Transit Center (pictured), I saw line after line of frustrated commuters. The bus I wanted to take to an urban farmwas scheduled to come at a few minutes after the hour. That one never showed, nor did the one scheduled to arrive after that. One bus did arrive but it appeared to be out of service (or maybe it was the driver’s lunch break – she had a fast food value meal clasped in her hand when she left the bus.)

Finally, 45 minutes later, my bus finally arrived, saving me from a cab I had called that was also running late. Meanwhile, it struck me how commuters trying to get to home or work looked more resigned than frustrated. The upshot was that because of Detroit’s cratered population, lack of traffic and vast expanses of empty lots and even wildflowers, once on the bus, it went very quickly. But for residents who miss work and income, a fast commute is no consolation.

While the Motor City’s automobile industry is on the rebound, for those who do not have cars, public transporation is a daunting option. Detroit offers an abundance of bicycle paths, but bicycling to and from work is not the most realistic option during Michigan’s frigid winter. Do not count on Detroit’s municipal workers agreeing to work only from November to March. So the 100,000 people who use Detroit’s bus system daily face more cuts in services. As for the Detroit People Mover, the name itself is accurate an acurrate description for that rail loop but for most residents and visitors, former mayor Colman Young’s creation is less than useless.

Could privitization save Detroit’s public transit?

Privitizing transit services is often an unhappy option for commuters. After Veolia took over the Long Island Bus from the New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, the company imposed fare hikes and service cuts to make up a $7.3 million deficit. But as Detroit’s citizens display resilience while its leaders flail for solutions, one young entreprenuer is hoping his company can pick up where Detroit’s public busses often fail to show up.

Andy Didorosi bought three busses a few months ago and hopes to launch The Detroit Bus Company next month. His idea is to link downtown and popular neighborhoods like Corktown, Woodbridge, Midtown and Eastern Market. His initial schedule will operate during the hours that Detroit’s transit authority has cut: early evening until 3:00 a.m. Other buses would mimic routes that commuters used but the city slashed to save money. Another route to Detroit’s airport is under consideration, too.

A revamped pricing structure and technology are also behind Didorosi’s vision. Instead of charging by the fare, he envisions a $5 circulatory fare good for a day–more expensive than the local buses, but cheaper than a taxi. Users will be able to pay fares with a credit card, the buses will have wifi, and yes, there will be an app for that.

Currently Didorosi’s plan is undergoing review by the local government – which is probably the biggest threat to his young company. He is realistic, admitting he has no experience running a bus company, but that could be his greatest asset. Knowing he will not make millions overnight, he says those buses will run tours of downtown Detroit when they are not ferrying commuters.

Some may say Didorosi is delusional, but this is no joke. After all, look what happened thousands of dollars later after the crazy idea of building a Robocop Statue was floated. While Detroit’s leaders throw up their hands, Detroit’s citizens are using their heads.

Leon Kaye is a journalist, sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business. You can follow him on Twitter.

Photo courtesy Leon Kaye.


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  • ssj12

    The fact the NYC transit system was $7.3m in the hole displays why things need to be privatized. Government cannot run anything correctly. It cannot even run itself correctly.

  • Mark Anthony LeGreat Davis

    Nothing should be run by the government, and a transit solution is not the full solution to Detroit’s woes. The entire Detroit Metro is vastly spread out now to the point that any transit solution would still be too little. What needs to happen is for some seriously influential private investors to come together and put together more a transit AND habitat package that creates new condos/apartment complexes right next to transit stops, thus making them major hubs and giving people more incentive to use public privatized transit.