Coming Soon: the Detroit Bus Company’s Newest Transit Innovations

2/20/13Follow @XconomyDET

Andy Didorosi, the founder and CEO of the Detroit Bus Company, is on a mission. Not content to merely revolutionize the city’s transit system, which is in desperate need of fixing, Didorosi is rolling out a new set of innovations over the coming months.

When we went a rollicking ride along on one of Didorosi’s buses last September, he was offering service between Royal Oak and Ferndale, suburbs just to the north of Detroit’s border, and downtown. Didorosi says he’s scrapped that model and is currently testing something closer to a subscription-based service that would allow riders to use a live tracking app and a flexible routing system that, during times of low demand, could pick up riders much like a taxi would.

He says he’s close to launching what he calls HAMDOT, a continuously running loop between city of Hamtramck—an ethnically diverse enclave popular with artists and others seeking cheap rents that Didorosi refers to as “the Vatican City to Detroit’s Rome”—and the New Center, Midtown, and downtown areas. “Nothing is signed yet, but we’re working to design a transit system that Hamtramck needs and wants,” Didorosi explains. “We’re looking at where it would go, when, and we’re approaching Wayne State University about a student incentive program where kids could live in Hamtramck very affordably and hop on our bus.” The goal is to offer the shuttle service every 10 minutes for free or $1 per ride.

Also in the data-collection stage is Didorosi’s Take Back the Commute plan. This would be a route that carries suburban riders to their jobs in downtown Detroit. (Let me take a minute to acknowledge that this might sound headscratchingly simple to a resident of a city with functional public transit. Detroit is not that city. There’s one bus system inside the city limits called DDOT and a separate bus system for the surrounding suburbs called SMART. Incredibly, the two systems don’t coordinate with one another, which makes taking the bus in or out of Detroit a major pain in the ass.)

What Didorosi envisions is giving the hundreds of young professionals who live in the outer suburbs and work downtown for Quicken Loans, Compuware, and the like the ability to opt-out of downtown parking spaces, which are becoming scarce, in favor of a bus service that runs Monday through Friday. “If we make it a really reliable, awesome service, they might find a way to make it permanent,” he points out. Talks are currently underway with Quicken Loans and Didorosi is running an online survey to determine a price point and see which cities are home to the most potential riders.

Didorosi is also in the process of surveying riders in the western Wayne County suburbs of Canton, Plymouth, and Northville for a potential on-demand service. These communities have chosen to opt-out of SMART’s service, leaving residents who are dependent on public transit without a way to get to doctor’s appointments, grocery stores, school, and work. Didorsi calls this the least developed of his future initatives, but one of the most important transportation gaps to bridge.

But to me, and to almost every Detroit resident who travels, the most important initiative Didorosi is working on is bus service between Detroit and its suburbs and Detroit Metro Airport, which is located about 20 minutes outside the city in Romulus, MI. It absolutely defies logic that there isn’t currently an efficient way to take public transportation to get to the airport from Detroit. (Technically, you could embark on a multi-hour, multi-transfer odyssey using SMART buses to get there, but come on, nobody has time for that.) Even Lansing, Jackson, and Ann Arbor residents can hop on the popular Michigan Flyer to get to the airport, but Detroiters are stuck begging friends for rides or paying $50 each way for a taxi.

Didorosi says that the newly established Regional Transit Authority has deemed a sensible bus route between the airport and metro Detroit a priority, but Didorosi expects the wheels of bureaucracy to grind so slowly that it could be years before that happens. Plus, because Metro Cars has the contract to provide ground transportation at the airport, any competing services are required to pay a fee every time they enter the airport property, which raises fares. “Metro Cars has a monopoly on land side transit, and that’s fine—they paid their way in to make that happen,” Didorosi says. “But in other cities, there’s usually a public transit component to go along with it.”

There is a way around the Metro Car monopoly, and it involves a public-private partnership where the Detroit Bus Company would hook up with a municipality, as Indian Trails did with the Ann Arbor Transit Authority for the Michigan Flyer service. Didorosi says he has a number of potential partners in downtown that are interested as well as funders lined up, but now he needs to find the public partner.

So what can we, the transit-starved public, do to speed this process along? Write emails to hello@thedetroitbus.com detailing how often we’d use the service, which Didorosi can then take to potential partners and funders to illustrate the public’s interest in an airport route. And here’s what we’d get in exchange, Didorosi says: a $10 bus ride to the airport equipped with Wi-Fi and power outlets for laptops and other devices, plus the ability to track the buses through an app.

In the meantime, as the Detroit Bus Company 2.0 gets rolling, Didorosi is offering a number of great tours, including Drunks of Antiquity, a tour of some of Detroit’s historic bars; Storm the Building, an architectural tour narrated by experts; a tour of churches; tours that incorporate the contents of books about Detroit, such as the excellent “Belle Isle to 8 Mile”; tours exploring Detroit’s history; and bar crawls.

Didorosi reworked the tours after he discovered that the average age of the Detroit Bus Company rider was 35 to 40 and that most of them lived outside the city and were interested in moving back, or they lived outside the city and had never spent any time in Detroit in the first place. He sees his bus service as more than just transit, but rather an ambassadorship on wheels introducing people to a city that is clawing its way back and offering some pretty cool things to do as it revitalizes. “This is how the seed starts,” Didorosi adds. “People get a look and start seeing themselves hanging out again at a bar, restaurant, etc. There are still a lot of structural issues in Detroit that might not work for you if you have a family, but for now, young professionals can move here quite easily.”

Sarah Schmid is the editor of Xconomy Detroit. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET

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