In Detroit, wheels on the bus go round and ...
At a time when many of his peers are finishing college to find a still-depressed job market, Andy Didorosi isn't waiting for anyone to offer him a slot. At 25, the college dropout describes himself as a “social entrepreneur” and is currently at work on his latest start-up -- the Detroit Bus Company, founded with the idea that even the Motor City can use a little more mass transit, especially if it’s targeted to the right people.
Looping through downtown neighborhoods and close-in suburbs where people in Didorosi’s demographic live, Detroit Bus Company offers a way to bar-hop a weekend night away for $5 without the worry of a potential drunken-driving arrest. DBC buses offer music, graffiti-style paint jobs and onboard transponders that allow riders to track the buses in real time, something the more conventional buses run by many public-transit utilities haven’t been able to figure out yet. Bridge Magazine caught up with Didorosi before the bus started running one recent afternoon for a chat.
Bridge: What was the idea behind the bus company?
A: It came out of frustration for all the ideas for Detroit transit that popped up and then fizzled. First we heard about light rail, and that was awesome -- living up here inFerndale, and to be able to go downtown (on that), it was everything we wanted it to be. And then it went away. That was when I decided there had to be a solution to this, and there's no reason there shouldn't be buses running up and down Woodward, to replace light rail and the crappy service that's there. Replace isn't really the right word; let’s say, “exist until light rail shows up.” Because even if they broke ground right this very minute, we're still three years away from light rail. But everyone knows we're five to 10 years from a usable solution. Meanwhile, we're all here, and we have no way to get around except for big, expensive cars.
Bridge: It started out as a park-and-ride arrangement based in Corktown (on Detroit's west side), but it looks like you’re changing that now?
A: We went through the different ways to make it feasible. We tried to make it as logical as we could, but the park-and-ride didn’t work out. So we're slimming down a little. At first we ran Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and getting to that point was really difficult. I've started a handful of businesses so far, and transit is, like, tenfold more complicated. Just when you think you have it figured out, it unfolds 10 new layers of beautiful complexity.
So we got on the road and found that people weren't (using it) on Sundays, and we learned that people's Tigers plans are really written in stone. They're going to do what they do. People are happy to pay $30 to park near the stadium (rather than $5 to ride the bus, which early on offered Comerica Park service on home game days). They've accepted that. So we're getting simpler, doing less better, and just running Friday and Saturday, 6 p.m. to 2:30 a.m.
Bridge: The idea is to give people an option for weekends. This isn't a get-to-work issue.
A: Not yet.
Bridge: It's that what you're thinking?
A: Absolutely. We've got six buses. Starting July 7, we’re running our Royal Oak/Ferndale/Hamtramck-to-Detroit bus, and this will re-habituate people to coming to Detroit for entertainment. Once we get that down, then we'll begin running easterly. We'll run an airport bus. Our goal is to charge $10 to ride from downtown to the airport, fast. Right now GM, Chrysler, everybody downtown sends people to the airport in taxis or (car-service) cars, and that's $60-$80. These companies might support us.
These are all things in motion. We're meeting with the Detroit Enterprise Fund for a potential very-low-interest loan to infuse some capital. It's going to take time to percolate to build into a reliable system. We never plan to compete with the (existing) system. The demographic we're looking for is distinctly different. But, to ride the SMART bus is $2.25 each way, so twice is $4.50. We're $5. It's not that different. We don't take a single tax dollar, we don't take any public money, and we're operating.
Bridge: You have an iPhone app where you can see where the bus you’re waiting on is, in real time. How is this raggedy little start-up like yours able to do this, and not the regular transit company?
A: Because we think about it. Did you hear that (the city's Transportation Department) is now working on a tracking app? We feel we pushed them out of the nest a little bit on that.
Bridge: About how many people are riding in on the weekends?
A: About 60. We'd like to see about 100. But we’re breaking even.
Bridge: How'd you get into this sort of entrepreneurship?
A: When I was 16, I started buying and selling cars. I found this little police auction on the east side where they sold humble, dirty, distressed cars, and they'd go for about $200 each. I was working as a busboy, and I was working as an assistant at this garage, and I thought, 'OK, I can buy three cars with the money I have.' And I did. Brought them home, cleaned them up, and I sold my first one for $1,200. I was in the bathroom in my mom's house, with the money laid out on the counter, and I thought, 'It would take me forever to make this money cleaning wrenches at the garage or busing tables.' They act like $10 is a gold nugget when you're working at a restaurant.
I went to college for a little bit, and I was working as a piston design engineer, making about $45,000 at 19, and that was pretty good. I got into racing cars, and they wouldn't let me go racing the week between Christmas and New Year's, and I quit. I left a letter on my boss' desk, and I went racing, and life's been awesome ever since.
Staff Writer Nancy Nall Derringer has been a writer, editor and teacher in Metro Detroit for seven years, and was a co-founder and editor of GrossePointeToday.com, an early experiment in hyperlocal journalism. Before that, she worked for 20 years in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she won numerous state and national awards for her work as a columnist for The News-Sentinel.
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