Recap of TRU’s Virtual State of Transit 2021

If you’ve been wondering what the heck is going on with Detroit area transit and what’s coming up next:

Watch our State of Transit 2021 video!

On Thursday, January 28, TRU brought together many of the region’s top transit leaders for our annual State of Transit event – but of course, all virtually. And despite some technically difficulties, over 100 people explored those key questions. (Sincere apologies for anyone who was unable to get in, for sound difficulties, and my random greenness!)

TRU staff were joined by top transit leaders. From top left, TRU’s Outreach Associate Andre Iadipaolo, Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter, Detroit Director of Transit Mikel Oglesby, TRU Director Megan Owens, TRU Outreach Manager Claire Nowak-Boyed, RTA Manager Ben Stupka, TRU Social Work Intern Bianca Miles, and SMART’s Deputy General Manager Robert Cramer

TRU kicked off the event with Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter, who took the time to reiterate his continuing commitment to transit. Stating that “maintaining and increasing existing services is going to be critical”, Coulter reminded us that public transit is essential to Detroiters.

“Don’t give up folks! We are going to work hard and get this [transit milage] passed” Coulter exclaimed, rallying the crowd. Coulter also conveyed the message of transit being essential to a growing post-COVID economy. “Our region needs it, our employers and employees need it. I’m still committed to this!” Coulter finished.

Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter joined to reiterate his commitment for improving our region’s transit, even if COVID-19 delayed and may modify how that is accomplished. View at minute mark 3:00.

To recap the crazy year that was 2020, TRU presented a video Year-in-Review of:

  • how TRU responded to COVID-19,
  • how TRU shifted it’s work online thru Virtual Town Halls and other events
  • our advocacy work at the state, county, and federal levels, and
  • where we plan to go from here.
SMART’s Deputy General Manager Robert Cramer explained out they handled the COVID-19 crisis and improvements efforts they are undertaking this year, including automated wheelchair restraints. Introduced at minute 23:30, remarks from minute 24:00 to 40:00.

Robert Cramer, General Manager of SMART, and Mikel Oglesby, Detroit’s Director of Transit followed up with organizational updates and what they are planning to implement in 2021. Both described the precautions they have taken to ensure that bus drivers and riders remain safe. Protocols include:

  • barrier shields for drivers
  • back-door boarding
  • reduced bus services on certain routes
  • free fares for a contactless service

Cramer spoke on how critical CARES Act funding was in keeping SMART rolling “during this time of increased expenses and decreased revenue.” Cramer noted SMART ridership dropping considerably during COVID-19, with current services being dropped down to 30%. SMART reported their numbers had dropped from 21,000+ riders a day to just over 6,000+ riders a day since the beginning of the pandemic.

The struggle to meet demands for expanding service while facing funding challenges underscored SMART’s comments. However, like Coluter, Cramer was quick to acknowledge the importance of public transportation as an essential service.

There’s too many important trips out there, no matter how restrictive the orders are, to say ‘Let’s just close up shop and wait for this to blow over.’”

Robert Cramer, SMART

As vaccines roll out and businesses reopen, plans for increasing bus service have begun. Cramer stated during the meeting that SMART has been in “close coordination with DDOT [and] will only grow stronger”. Cramer also noted that fares will only be restored once they are safe to do so, likely beginning in March.

TRU’s Bianca Miles and Andre Iadipaolo asked riders their thoughts on the current State of Transit, getting mixed opinions and concerns. Watch at minute mark 41:00.

Between the presentations of agency leaders, TRU showed video of Outreach Specialist Andre Iadipaolo & TRU Intern Bianca Miles interviewing a few community riders about their experiences on the bus during the pandemic. Many riders said they have a majority of good experiences on the bus, while others have expressed their frustrations with bus drivers or passengers who do not comply to the mask protocols.

Following Rob Cramer, Detroit Executive Director of Transit Mikel Oglesby also provided important service updates and debriefed on safety protocols. Oglesby noted DDOT has continued to provide free masks for passengers, reduce the number of riders allowed on each bus, and has maintained back-door boarding. Keeping service running fare-free has been a challenge, but “we are doing what we can with what we have” Oglesby explained.

Like SMART, DDOT has seen considerable ridership decline in the last year. Per the speaker’s report, DDOT ridership has gone from an average of 65,000 per day to an average of 27,000 rides per day. 

Detroit’s new (in 2020) Executive Director of Transit Mikel Oglesby shared numbers of how much COVID-19 tanked their ridership, as well as how they responded and improvements coming up next. Introduced at minute 42:45; remarks from 43:30-58:30.

In his comments, Oglesby also mentioned how bus driver-rider relations has proven a recent challenge. Following the October 2020 bus driver sick-out, Oglesby and his deparment responded with “deescalation training” and increased Transit Police presence. Both Cramer and Oglesby agreed that driver-retention has been difficult in the past year.

Oglesby likewise echoed Cramer’s position on restoring fares, citing it may be financially necessary, even though bus service has yet to be fully restored. “We are discussing restoring fares in order to stop the bleeding financially” Oglesby elaborated.

State of Transit concluded with Ben Stupka from the Regional Transit Authority (RTA). Stupka presented a thorough overview of RTA’s Regional Master Transit Plan (RMTP) Process, which will influence the coming RTA Master Plan. Rolling into their RMTP planning process, RTA will start by consulting with their “briefing book”, which outlines their proposed plans for transit expansion. The briefing book is set to be released in March. From there, the RTA will move into their “engagement” phase with regional communities to discuss the plans proposed and receive community input. The RTA aims to roll out the official master plan in September.

Stupka also touched upon the hotly anticipated, recently proposed Detroit to Ann Arbor (D2A2) connect route. The route was set to launch on March 13th, 2020, the exact same day Stay-at-Home orders went into effect. Consequently, the system has not been re-launched, but Stupka revealed that the RTA do plan on re-starting D2A2 when feasible.

“Funding is secure, contracting is secure. We are ready to go with the funding”

Ben Stupka, RTA, on the Detroit to Ann Arbor (D2A2) route
Ben Stupka gave a few updates from the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan (RTA) and explained their process for updating the region’s transit priorities before deciding when to go back to the ballot for funding. Watch from hour: minute 1:17-1:33.

To wrap up the State of Transit, TRU Executive Director Megan Owens ended on 5 Key Takeaways:

TRU Director Megan Owens closed with personal take-aways from the year that was and from this event, encouraging everyone to get involved to create the transit system our region needs.

The future of mobility is slowly becoming clear, and with the support of our members, transit leaders, advocacy groups and other key stakeholders, TRU will keep on fighting the good fight for better regional transit.

Join TRU today!