Detroit Bus Company Pivots to Serve Youth, Relocates to Historic Factory
The Detroit Bus Company, a transit startup founded by Andy Didorosi in 2012 to try and solve some of Detroit’s myriad public transportation issues, announced last week that it has consolidated its operations. It has moved from a depot in Ferndale, MI, and office in downtown Detroit to a historic factory in Hamtramck. (Though Hamtramck is technically a separate municipality, think of it like Detroit’s Vatican City: It’s tiny, and it’s completely surrounded by Detroit.)
Didorosi is a firm believer in “put your money where your mouth is” when it comes to businesses that want to help move Detroit forward. It’s important to him to have his operations entirely within the city limits, he says.
He says he’s also doubling down on his commitment to Detroit by launching Eight & Sand, a business development complex within the Detroit Bus Company’s massive new space. Didorosi says renovations will begin immediately on the 90,000-square-foot factory, which was built in 1920, and will offer space to businesses looking to locate in Detroit.
Eight & Sand—the name refers to a term used in the 19th century to wish a steam locomotive engineer a safe journey—already has its first anchor tenant: Fowling Warehouse. “Fowling” is what it sounds like: a cross between football and bowling, where players hurl footballs at bowling pins in a competitive two-on-two configuration. According to Didorosi, the sport was invented at the Indy 500 by a group of Detroiters. After a successful launch at City Airport, Fowling Warehouse will double in size and also offer a full-service bar, stage, beer garden, and 20 lanes for fowling.
Also working out of Eight & Sand is Charlie Molnar of Sit on It Detroit, who builds bus benches out of reclaimed wood, fills them with donated books, and installs them at but stops that don’t have functioning benches (there are more than 2,500 of them in the city). Reclaim Detroit, another innovative startup, will use space at Eight & Sand to reclaim and reprocess deconstructed (read: abandoned) homes into organized building materials.
But perhaps most exciting for Detroit residents at large is the heated indoor food truck pavilion and communal dining tables set to open at Eight & Sand in 2014. (While practically every other city in America is crowded with food trucks, Detroit’s mobile dining scene has just begun to take off due to an antiquated city law that forbade food trucks from operating inside the city limits. El Guapo, the first official food truck in Detroit, wasn’t able to get a permit until 2011.)
But what do food trucks, bus benches, and repurposed building materials have to do with transit? Strictly speaking, nothing. But all of these projects are united in terms of sheer innovation and optimism in a city struggling through the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. They represent the kind of fresh, forward thinking that community members agree is needed for sustainable growth in Detroit.
Didorosi and the Detroit Bus Company have been doing a bit of growing, too. The transit startup still offers charter services and produces its own line of informative tours on subjects like historic Detroit bars and local architecture, but in July, the bus company kicked off a six-month pilot program funded by the Skillman Foundation called the Youth Transit Alliance.
Skillman had identified what it considered to be 40 excellent after-school programs in Southwest Detroit that were being underutilized. “The data showed that transportation was the issue—it’s not walkable, Mom’s busy working, and the Detroit Public School system won’t bus to after-school programs,” Didorosi explains. Skillman data also showed that it would cost approximately $2.2 million to bus kids to all the different after-school programs, which wasn’t financially feasible.
So, at Skillman’s behest, the Detroit Bus Company came up with a “dynamic routing model,” where it built software and a website that looks at where the after-school programs are located and where the kids who are participating live, and it comes up with pre-determined bus pick-up and drop-off locations. Parents go online and fill out a corresponding form for each program their child participates in to tell the Detroit Bus Company their transit needs.
Parents can fill out the form week by week or for the entire pilot; they are asked to provide the names of their children and emergency contact information, and to choose a pick-up and drop-off location that is an “acceptable walking distance” from the child’s home. If there isn’t a location that parents deem safe enough, the bus can arrange to drop the child off at their doorstep. By digitally signing the form, parents give permission for the Detroit Bus Company to transport their kids to and from after-school programs.
Didorosi says this dynamic routing model saves “90 percent” of the cost of transportation. (The Skillman Foundation committed $100,000 to fund the six-month pilot.) The Detroit Bus Company gave more than 1,100 individual rides to kids in Southwest Detroit over the summer. Didorosi says the program has been such a success that he’s confident the Skillman Foundation will expand it to other Detroit neighborhoods starting in 2014, especially given how critical the after-school programs are for at-risk kids.
“We’re not ruling out the ability to go citywide,” Didorosi adds. “We just need more money from foundations and private backers. We’re hoping to attract a Ford or a Penske. We’re basically raising the next generation of Detroit’s workforce, and Detroit will only truly move forward if kids go out, get jobs, and bring prosperity back. When you have skills and confidence, you can really kick some butt.”
One thing Didorosi and the Detroit Bus Company didn’t expect was to have they’d turn into a conduit of information to caregivers. “The bus is the part of the day where kids unwind,” he says. “They’re very open with our staff, who hear all the issues they’re having. We want to connect [parents and caregivers] to resources they might not know exist. We’re a constant presence in the neighborhood.”
The Detroit Bus Company is so ingrained in the Southwest Detroit community it serves that, so far, troublemakers have given the busses wide berth. “We haven’t had a single problem with public safety,” Didorosi notes. “The drivers are very diligent and strongly connected to police. There’s a whole network of phone calls if a kid doesn’t show up.”
One bus is operated by a pair of brothers; one is the driver and one is the conductor. Didorosi says he’s sending the conductor to a training course this fall where the conductor will learn to recognize problems in development to help actualize the information he’s hearing from the kids. “If the kids are fully engaged in these after-school programs, their chance of success is far greater,” Didorosi says.