Drivers Wanted: Time to Fix DDOT and SMART’s Operator Shortfall

Metro Detroit’s public transit systems, long hampered by inadequate public funding, are facing a new crisis: not enough bus drivers. The result? Drastically reduced service for riders. To fix this emergency, TRU is urging our transit agencies to take action! Sign our petition here to urge SMART to negotiate a competitive contract with its operators.

The transit operator shortfall is a national problem, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s especially acute in metro Detroit. Transit here was limited enough to start with. Now DDOT and SMART don’t have the staff to operate even that level of service. Both agencies have cut their schedules severely, and even after those cuts, many of the scheduled buses still don’t show up for lack of drivers.

That’s absurd. Riders already deal with infrequent schedules. The bare minimum we can expect is that our buses will show up as promised.

To fix the operator shortfall, agencies need to treat it like the emergency it is, and act fast to improve wages and working conditions for drivers. 

The Operator Shortfall Has Severely Impacted Transit Service

As of summer 2022, the region’s largest transit agency, the Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT), had only about 400 drivers, roughly 100 less than budgeted.

Due to the shortfall, DDOT is currently running only two-thirds of scheduled pre-pandemic service. According to the National Transit Database, this is one of the lowest levels of service, relative to pre-pandemic levels, for any agency in the country. No other major city has cut transit service so deeply. The cuts have left Detroit without a single bus route running every 15 minutes, or what the industry deems “frequent” service.

Regional transit agency SMART, meanwhile, is also short about 100 drivers (out of 400 – an even higher proportion) and is currently running about 80% of pre-pandemic service. In addition to buses being less frequent, SMART has eliminated service into the City of Detroit on major routes like Van Dyke and Fort, which now terminate at the city limits. SMART previously enjoyed a reputation of being more reliable than DDOT, but many riders have noted an increase in missed trips.

Tough Work, Low Wages Define Operator Jobs

Local transit operators and national experts describe a range of factors contributing to the operator hiring crisis. These range from the inflexibility of transit operator work schedules, especially for new hires, to heavy-handed management practices and concerns about safety on the job.

The low pay drivers receive, however, is surely one of the biggest problems. DDOT drivers start at just $15/hour after training, and SMART drivers at $19/hour. Those are hardly attractive wages these days, especially when there’s no shortage of other driving positions with Amazon and other employers. Indeed, the MIT Living Wage Calculator states that a living wage for a family of two working adults and two children in the Detroit metro area is about $28/hour.

There’s one transit agency in the region that isn’t suffering for lack of operators: the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority, also known as The Ride. The Ride’s drivers start at $28.65/hour after training, nearly twice as much as DDOT’s. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that a livable wage makes hiring quite a bit easier.

An Emergency Situation

It’s time that our transit agencies, and the elected officials they answer to, recognize the transit operator shortfall as the crisis that it is, and take immediate action.

SMART has an opportunity to do just that in current negotiations with its drivers’ union, Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1564, on a new union contract to take effect in 2023.

DDOT drivers’ contract isn’t currently up for renewal, but given the scale of the crisis, it may be time to reopen the City’s contract with its drivers’ union, ATU Local 26.

The City’s initial response to the crisis, an attendance-based pay incentive system announced this summer amidst much fanfare, has not yielded much change, according to union president Schetrone Collier, a 33-year veteran of the Department. For one thing, to get the incentive pay (maximum $4,000 per year) drivers had to sacrifice their vacation time – something they understandably prize. Almost six months after the incentive was announced, the City is still short about one hundred operators.

A genuine solution will require more serious action. One precedent was set earlier this month, when Detroit City Council approved a $22 million budget appropriation to boost the salaries of Detroit police officers by $10,000.

Given the importance of affordable transportation to Detroit residents, the city’s public servants on the buses deserve no less. After all, as Local 26 president Collier notes, drivers are often called to serve as social workers as well as chauffeurs, and “we come into contact with a way higher volume of citizens than a police officer does.”

Tens of thousands of people in metro Detroit literally can’t get anywhere without our bus drivers. Transportation Riders United urges our agencies to value operators at their worth, and in so doing, to make sure riders, too, get the service we deserve. Especially with winter coming on, there’s no time to waste: riders and drivers shouldn’t be left out in the cold. 

Tell SMART to provide truly competitive wages and more appealing working conditions for new hires in their new contract with drivers, and stay tuned for next steps on our DDOT campaign! If you’re interested in getting involved, email Joel Batterman at joel [at]