In the age of Uber, will metro Detroit shell out billions for buses?

Scooters in Detroit

Transportation options have skyrocketed since a similar plan was defeated in 2016 by voters in Oakland, Wayne, Macomb and Washtenaw counties. In the past two years alone in Detroit, companies have introduced about 1,000 electric scooters, a bike-sharing system used for 237,000 rides last year and a driverless shuttle system in downtown. (Bridge photo by Anthony Lanzilote)

DETROIT —  As transportation planners gear up for a tax request for regional transit next year, debate is percolating about how the explosion of mobility options could influence the vote.

The Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan by January is expected to call for a multibillion tax request to establish express bus lines along major roads, commuter rail service from Ann Arbor to Detroit, airport express lines and rapid bus transit along Woodward Avenue.

Transportation options, though, have skyrocketed since a similar plan was defeated in 2016 by voters in Oakland, Wayne, Macomb and Washtenaw counties. In the past two years alone in Detroit, companies have introduced about 1,000 electric scooters, a bike-sharing system used for 237,000 rides last year and a driverless shuttle system in downtown.

Add in the popularity of ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft –  and the prospect of self-driving cars hitting the market in the next decade –  and some question how the technology will influence the bond request that’s expected to be for $4 billion or $5 billion over the next 20 years.

To transit skeptics, paying big money for regional transit amid fast-changing technology is akin to investing in buggy whips at the dawn of the 20th century. But advocates say the so-called new mobility will complement, not replace, traditional mass transportation.

“There is no silver bullet,” said Megan Owens, executive director of Transportation Riders United, a Detroit-based nonprofit that advocates for transit improvements.

“People always want to oversimplify the issue, and say that autonomous vehicles are going to save us all. Not necessarily. If Uber is any example, the result has been more congestion and more pollution in some of the biggest cities. All of these different pieces work best when they complement each other.”

The discussion comes as RTA leaders continue talks with government officials about when to seek a tax and whether such the request will cover all four counties. Last year, a lack of support from Macomb and Oakland counties killed the $5.4 billion, 20-year Connect Southeast Michigan plan that would have been repaid through a 1.5-mill tax.

In Oakland, the tax is viewed more favorably by government leaders following this year’s death of Executive L. Brooks Patterson and appointment of his interim successor, Dave Coulter, a transit booster.

Resistance remains in Macomb County, whose Executive Mark Hackel has long questioned whether his taxpayers get value from transit and last year’s tax renewal for the SMART bus system passed by only 39 votes

“You can’t push that square bus peg through the round hole in the suburbs. It doesn’t work,” said Macomb County Commissioner Leon Drolet, founder of nonprofit Michigan Taxpayers Alliance. 

In an opinion column this fall, Drolet wrote “Detroit would be foolish to waste resources on a dying transit model.” 

Last year, Drolet proposed scrapping SMART’s fleet of buses, instead tasking the agency with issuing subsidized transit cards redeemable for Lyft and Uber rides.

Like almost all transit systems, SMART requires a hefty subsidy: Fares comprise just 10 percent of its $127 million budget, records show.

“We do have a transit system that works for the great majority. It’s the car,” said Drolet.

MoGo, Detroit’s bike-sharing system, locates many of its docking stations near bus stops and coordinates with the city’s bus system, the Detroit Department of Transportation. (Bridge file photo)

New mobility and old transit

If his plan sounds far-fetched, it’s not a new idea. Uber markets its services to city planners, mostly in a support role, as a way to address pollution, congestion and parking shortages. 

In 2016, the public transit provider in Florida struck a partnership with Uber to provide taxpayer-subsidized rides. Nationally, bus ridership is declining as ridesharing increases, and Detroit’s curbside rail service, the QLine, is far short of ridership expectations since its 2017 debut.

The RTA’s transit plan isn’t expected to address new mobility. Instead, the new options will help fill the gaps in southeast Michigan’s regional transportation network that is often ranked as among the worst in the nation.

 “On a strong mass transit system, it’s significantly more affordable to move people than with single-occupancy trips for everybody,” said Matt Webb, the general manager of the transportation authority.

“We’re looking at a combination of both, making sure we have a strong transit network with multiple options, so that everybody in our 4.5 million-person region has access to transportation.”

“Just like you wouldn’t take an airplane to get to a city 15 miles down the road, you’re not going to take new mobility to travel across the entire region,” Webb said.

Transit activists, meanwhile, are amid a deep dialogue about how new mobility options and new technologies can broaden and deepen the reach of transit.

Last month, many participated in a discussion sponsored by Transportation Riders United in Detroit. Participants weren’t just bus boosters: The panel included executives from the Big Three automakers and real-estate billionaire Dan Gilbert.

Gilbert’s companies support regional transportation and the RTA, said Kevin Bopp, vice president of parking and mobility for Bedrock Detroit, the real-estate arm of Gilbert’s companies.

Bedrock partnered with Scoop carpooling in May and has increased the number of its employees who’ve gotten to work using an “alternative mode of transportation” by almost a factor of three in the first half of this year, Bopp said. The executive said transit aligns with Bedrock’s goal of developing buildings downtown, not parking lots.

Technology also is helping what’s known as the “last mile” problem, the gap from transit stops to riders’ final destinations that often involves a long walk.

A mobile app known as “Transit” allows users to plan trips, pay fares and learn the locations of nearby scooters and ride shares. It’s an app that Owens, the Transportation Riders United executive director, said is “the gold standard of what new mobility folks are working toward — one place to go to have all the choices presented, geo-targeted to where you are.”

MoGo, Detroit’s bike-sharing system, locates many of its docking stations near bus stops and coordinates with the city’s bus system, the Detroit Department of Transportation.

Prashanth Gururaja, the Ann Arbor-based program director with the Shared Use Mobility Center, said new mobility and its associated technologies should view public transportation as a partner, not a competitor.

After all, public transportation systems have begun to adopt some of the “smart” features of alternative transportation, including real-time updates, on-demand service, automatic transfers, fare caps, and more. 

It’s a future embraced by Patty Fedewa, a lawyer and public transportation advocate from Detroit whose family owns one car that is usually used by her husband.

She relies on a hodgepodge of services –  from Maven car-sharing and MoGo to city buses and electronic scooters –  to commute from the city’s West Village neighborhood to downtown and drop her daughter off at a private school 8 miles from home in the suburbs.

“I actually find it interesting,” Fedewa said. “You meet more people this way, and it’s sometimes faster.”

About the author

Michael Jackman is a Detroit freelance writer.

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Kevin Grand
Thu, 11/14/2019 - 7:15am

The "problem" here has nothing to do with a "lack of options".

There have always been options for the roughly previous century and a half for mass transit, with the notable exception of the personal automobile, none of the others have proven viable over the long-term.

The real "problem" here is that there is a group of people who don't want to act like financially responsible adults by paying for their own transportation, but would rather use the power of government to shift that cost to others.

More people are becoming aware of this tactic, along with the stage props that are eventually trotted out along the way to justify this.

The RTA tax will fail...again.

It's a shame that the same cannot be said of this redundant layer of government bureaucracy.

Thu, 11/14/2019 - 10:24am

ever try taking a bus to livonia from ferndale? ever try to take a bus to auburn hills every morning?

Thu, 11/14/2019 - 10:24am

It's amazing that you can flatten decades of corporate pressure and malfeasance, concerted anti-transit government policies at every level, and urban planning based in racism and classicism into "Lol, buses don't work and poor people are irresponsible." Is that the trick to being a Libertarian? Igoring context and nuance in favor of simple solutions that flatter your own perspective?

Thu, 11/14/2019 - 12:16pm

> The real "problem" here is that there is a group of people who don't want to act like financially responsible adults by paying for their own transportation, but would rather use the power of government to shift that cost to others.

It seems like you're under the mistaken impression that drivers pay for the roads. Both transit and roads are subsidized from general taxes at about the same rate.

Fri, 11/15/2019 - 5:08pm

Paying for their own transportation?
Who do you think pays for the roads? the toothfairy?
The government subsidizes 100% of private transportation costs in Michigan, and yet we expect mass transit to somehow pay for itself?
IF you truly cared about keeping costs down, you would advocate for mass transit as it is dramatically cheaper to maintain than the current system of roads and highways.

middle of the mit
Sat, 11/16/2019 - 12:19am

Isn't it funny how Kevin hammers Governor Whitmer for WANTING TO FUND ROADS while Mike Shirkey wants to shirk roads and turn them back to gravel, yet he promotes individual travel by automobile?

It sure is a conundrum in my book.

The only option I see that fits Kevin's book and Mike Shirkeys is GRAVEL!

NOT Mike Gravel



OHHHH WON'T you be pi$$ed!

Send your letter to Mike Shirkey @ the MI Capital building and Kevin Grand @ any article.

Sun, 11/17/2019 - 3:25am

People who use the roads already pay a tax to do so. It is called a gas tax. They also pay a sales tax on gasoline and a registration fee on their automobile. If politicians would get their grubby hands off the accounts that taxes were intended to pay, and let the money go to the specified reason for the tax, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are now. But no, Whitmer wants to increase the tax then siphon off a large percentage of it for the flavor du jour. A normal expectation is that when I pay a tax it is used for what it was intended. There is no reason to pay a tax and have it be used for some other purpose.

middle of the mit
Sat, 11/16/2019 - 12:35am

This is what your arguments are for me to beat.....


Yet you tell us business will do it. THEN LET THEM DO IT! They aren't Patriotic and that means THEY DON'T CARE ABOUT AMERICA! And you still feel loyalty to them and not your Country?

Like I said;

Thu, 11/14/2019 - 8:37am

“We do have a transit system that works for the great majority. It’s the car,” said Drolet. Ah, yes...this idea has worked wondrously for the Metro Detroit region for the past five decades! Let those other cities (NYC, San Francisco, Seattle, Minneapolis, LA, Chicago, D.C., Atlanta, Indianapolis, Portland, St. Louis, Kansas City, etc.) waste their money on investing in transit (light-rail, BRT).

Talent wants transit. Millennials (the most important sector of the current and future workforce) want transit. Without investing in transit, Metro Detroit's population and workforce will continue to stagnate and fall further and further behind other Metro areas.

Gary Lea
Thu, 11/14/2019 - 10:16am

I prefer electric.

Thu, 11/14/2019 - 10:23am

lol sure a 15 dollar uber ride is the same thing as a 2 dollar bus trip.

Thu, 11/14/2019 - 10:26am

Government. Always investing in old, dirty, inefficient buses and light rail that few in the quad-county area want.

Thu, 11/14/2019 - 3:32pm

I've yet to meet anyone (outside of the usual dolts here and some racist chuds in Grosse Pointe) that wasnt excited at the prospect of intra and inter city rail in SE Michigan.

John Q. Public
Mon, 11/18/2019 - 6:23pm

You sound like a New York mass media worker in 1968.

"What do you mean, Nixon won?! I don't know a single person who voted for him!"

Thu, 11/14/2019 - 10:41am

All those bond holders and other creditors that got screwed over in the "Grand Bargain", the beneficiaries of the un/under funded pensions (if they have a clue) should feel real good about this! More emty money puking mass transit systems experiments , just getting them set up for the next financial crisis.

Thu, 11/14/2019 - 12:34pm

Rapid Transit is only good when the system can support itself. Just look at the half or more empty busses, Q-cars, and People Movers running around the region, and you will know that any further investment will only increase the need for more subsidies. When the current system is over filled, then it is time to invest in more.

Thu, 11/14/2019 - 2:49pm

Actually, transit is only as good as the investment that goes into it. Just look at the full buses and light-rail/commuter-rail cars in cities and metro regions that decide to fully-fund their transit systems (notably Portland, Dallas, Denver, Minneapolis, Seattle, Salt Lake City, St. Louis, to name a few).

Fri, 11/15/2019 - 8:46am

An example closer to home would be the enormous success of Cleveland's (significantly smaller city-proper & metro populations than Detroit) HealthLine BRT.

Thu, 11/14/2019 - 2:50pm

What a ridiculous story. I just asked Uber to quote me a price to go home (7 miles). $34. A bus, on the other hand, will do it for $2. Maybe I should take a scooter, or a MoGo? It's 33 degrees and there's snow on the ground. Any other ideas, Leon Drolet?

Thu, 11/14/2019 - 4:36pm

Newsflash: buses aren't going anywhere. Like NOWHERE. Your favorite city's favorite city is one with a good bus system and network. Transit app that you mentioned, JUST added scooters because it was designed for PUBLIC TRANSIT. DDOT and SMART are in there as well.
This actually isn't that interesting or well thought out. Uber and lyft are HEAVILY subsidies. those companies are NOT standing on their own and still cost a fortune in comparison. Nobody is commuting from Pontiac or Romulus to Detroit using an uber every day. However, you can do just that on a bus for a fraction of the cost.
MoGo is great but also, subsidies, I"m pretty sure they're funding is secured by the city (which means good ol tax dollars). Not to mention the scooters that LITERALLY get picked up in the winter and only one company last year was an option. the usage drops drastically.

Lastly, how does uber lyft, mogo, and SPIN work for families, people will children, seniors and people with disabilities?

Fri, 11/15/2019 - 11:45am

After many failures, the RTA is once again going after the already exploited property owners to pay for their fantasy. They need to go get their fantasy free cash somewhere else