This article was first published by Aaron Mondry and SaMya Overall of Outlier Media. WXYZ is a proud partner of Outlier Media
After facing a well-publicized and dire shortage of bus drivers, the situation at the Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT) has gotten worse. Two years ago, the agency was about 80 drivers short of what it needed to operate at full capacity. Now, DDOT is more than 130 drivers short.
The city announced Tuesday afternoon that DDOT Director Mikel Oglesby will be stepping down after serving in the role for a little over three years. Oglesby took the job in May 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated challenges retaining bus operators. The department was unable to change that trajectory under his leadership.
Drivers, riders and transit activists call the current situation a crisis, saying driver shortages at both DDOT and regional service provider SMART make transit unreliable in the city. Buses regularly do not arrive at stops on time or sometimes not at all.
About one-third of Detroit residents don’t own a car and one-fifth ride the bus daily, according to a 2017 survey.
The lack of drivers puts DDOT’s plans to expand service in the next year at risk. The agency said it intends to greatly increase the frequency of buses on nearly every route as part of its DDOT Reimagined plan. The plan will require the city to hire many more drivers beyond its current needs, something the agency has been unable to do.
“There should be an asterisk next to DDOT Reimagined,” said Renard Monczunski, a transit justice organizer with Detroit People’s Platform. “The only way it will work is if the city can hire the remaining drivers they’re short, plus more.”
Schetrone Collier is president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 26 representing both DDOT and SMART bus drivers. He said the agencies can’t retain drivers for primarily one reason: pay. DDOT drivers start at $16.15 an hour. Earning up to $23 an hour takes four years of employment.
“DDOT is the largest transit agency in the state, but its drivers make the least amount of money,” Collier said. “Nobody’s waiting around for four years (to make top pay). Not when they can go somewhere else and make more money right away.”
DDOT’s starting wages represent some of the lowest among professional drivers in any sector or comparable municipality, according to a recently released report from transit advocacy group Transportation Riders United (TRU). The report says Detroit’s starting wages are lower than drivers for Amazon, many school districts and logistics companies, and transit agencies in Chicago, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Memphis and Ann Arbor.
“When we brought this issue up a year ago, the agencies said, ‘We’re working on it, we understand, just give us a little time,’” TRU Executive Director Megan Owens said. “Well, the agencies have not made major progress towards resolving this problem and riders are sick of waiting.”
The city began paying drivers who consistently show up for work an annual bonus of $4,000, which translates to around $2 per hour. Drivers can also earn overtime, life insurance, medical benefits and retirement allowances.
So far, these incentives haven’t helped the department retain drivers.
“This is a national, industrywide challenge that pre-dates the COVID-19 pandemic,” DDOT said in an email sent to Outlier Media this week. “Transit agencies are facing unprecedented competition for drivers in the transportation/logistics industry and bus operator work rules and schedules make the position less attractive for some individuals, despite the pay, benefits and career security.”
A survey of 117 U.S. transit agencies last year found that 71% had to cut service because of worker shortfalls.
Driver retention may be a national challenge, but Detroit is struggling more than most. TRU’s report, called “SOS: Save Our Service,” found that other comparable transit providers have recovered since slashing service because of the pandemic. But in Detroit, just 70% of the buses that ran before March 2020 are running now.
DDOT’s internal analysis of its performance indicates service has gotten better since the worst of the pandemic. Back in August 2021, the rate of buses that left the station for their route in the afternoon, known as the “pullout rate,” was 71%. In other words, nearly 30% of all buses never even showed up.
The pullout rate between last December and June — the most recent data available — has been between 94-96%.
The department said it’s been able to improve the pullout rate, despite losing operators, by enabling drivers to work additional shifts and with “improved scheduling practices.”
“These efforts have allowed DDOT to deliver more service on a per-operator basis,” the department said.
A 95% pullout rate would still mean around 100 scheduled bus trips never take place each day, stranding every passenger along the route. Missed buses can be a major inconvenience, especially on less frequent lines where buses come every 30 minutes or an hour.
Owens said that while the department may tout improved pullout rates, most departments shoot for 99% rate at worst. DDOT’s performance dashboard also shows just 61% of buses arrived on time in June, the most recent month it’s released data.
Detroit Documenters spent 40 hours riding the city’s most popular bus routes in November last year. Alongside the Documenters, five out of 11 riders had been waiting for the bus for more than two hours.
“This is having devastating effects on riders,” Owens said. “It means missed appointments, missed classes, lost jobs.”
M. Lewis Bass, 72, rides the bus nearly every day from his apartment in the North End. He needs the bus, but he can’t rely on it. Bass is retired and on a fixed income, and says the bus is the only way he can afford to go to doctor’s appointments and the pharmacy.
“I would say (service) is very poor right now,” Bass said last week. He’s been riding the bus regularly since the 1960s. “Buses don’t show up, and there’s no way for me to find out if it’s not coming.”
Riders can view buses in real-time on DDOT’s website, but Bass said this is not well publicized. It also requires a smartphone.
Some Detroit riders can also use SMART, which operates several express lines called FAST routes on Woodward, Michigan and Gratiot avenues.
The agency is facing many of the same issues as DDOT. SMART told Outlier it needs 428 drivers to operate at full capacity across Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, but only has 311 on staff. SMART said it’s operating at 81% of its pre-pandemic capacity.
A TRU survey of 122 SMART riders this year found nearly 80% had experienced a no-show bus. More than a third of these riders said no-shows happened “often.”
SMART drivers’ starting wage is $19 an hour and they earn an average of $23 an hour — still lower than many other bus or truck driving jobs in the state. They also get a pension plan and can earn overtime.
SMART General Manager Dwight Ferrell said his agency is in contract negotiations with the driver’s union and couldn’t provide specifics about wages but said they would go up.
At the same time, Ferrell said pay is just one reason his agency struggles to retain drivers. He said most drivers don’t cite pay as the reason they resign, instead blaming other factors like the stress of dealing with people and hours that don’t line up with daycare options.
“For some people, once they see the job in its totality, it’s just not for them,” Ferrell said. “We’re able to attract a lot of people. The retention is where we’re running into trouble. People are quitting not because they didn’t know about the pay, but because the hours are difficult at first, and it’s a seniority-based profession.”
He said SMART is considering a range of new benefits and incentives to make the job more attractive to drivers like parental leave, a student loan repayment program and greater input on hours.
“When this is all said and done, our pay will be as competitive as anybody in this region,” he said.
‘The house is on fire’
Being responsible for unreliable service hasn’t discouraged DDOT from setting ambitious goals.
In April, the city unveiled a draft of its DDOT Reimagined plan said to increase the frequency of nearly every bus route. Six routes would operate every 10 minutes with the Woodward Avenue route coming every 7.5 minutes. Riders wouldn’t have to wait more than 30 minutes for any bus. The majority of routes today operate every 45-60 minutes.
DDOT is expected to release the final version of the plan later this year.
The city told Outlier it will need “significantly” more drivers on staff to fully realize the plan. It believes it can get it done over several years while slowly improving service throughout that time, and said that after recent wage increases and bonuses it had a record number of enrollees this month.
“Based upon the current surge in new hires, we expect to fill all vacant driver positions by the end of this year and have a significant expansion of bus service on the road early next year,” the department said.
Collier of the bus driver’s union said that while the department may hire more drivers, it will still struggle to retain them without improved pay.
The city said it was currently negotiating with the union on pay increases. Collier said this isn’t true.
“We were never in negotiations with the city about a pay increase,” he said. “That’s a narrative that the city would like people to believe.”
He said the city is requesting the union make concessions in exchange for pay increase, which he finds unacceptable.
“We don’t have to open up the whole contract to deal with this one issue,” he said. “We are sitting here negotiating for buckets of water while the house is on fire. We are in a transportation crisis in this city.”