“I thought I lived in a first-world country!”
Mitch Mantey is no stranger to transit, for better or for worse.
Mitch has been riding transit in Southeast Michigan ever since he moved to Detroit after college. In that time, he’s dedicated himself to be an advocate for transportation riders and drivers across the state of Michigan.
Mitch made a conscious choice to become a transit rider. When he first moved to Detroit, he picked out an apartment in Midtown right next to Woodward Avenue so he could take advantage of decent bus service. But then the the pandemic struck, causing one of the biggest crises ever faced by public transit providers all across the world.
“It was pretty great for the Midwest,” said Mitch, “it felt like there was a bus every 5 minutes on Woodward. [But] pretty much immediately when the pandemic hit, that changed. The QLine was suspended and didn’t come back for a while. Bus service collapsed and never really got much better since then.”
As highlighted in a recent TRU’s Save Our Service report, bus service in Metro Detroit is languishing. Pay that’s significantly below the national average means that a career as a bus driver just isn’t competitive enough. That’s led to a massive shortage of drivers, and consequently massive service interruptions. Though Mitch, an attorney who commutes from his Green Acres home to Birmingham, was able to work remotely during the brunt of the pandemic, his return to the office has let him witness first hand what the driver shortage means for Metro Detroiters.
“I thought I lived in a first world country,” said Mitch. “[It’s] embarrassing to see people lose their jobs in real time because SMART can’t put a bus on Woodward on a Tuesday morning. There have been times where I’ve been waiting for the bus and someone is freaking out because no bus has come for an hour. And this is on Woodward. This is abnormal! This is not okay! This is a system in collapse!”
“This is what society needs to function”
Like so many other Metro Detroiters, Mitch relies on transit. Though he is a car owner he says he wants to be able to rely on public transportation to get him where he needs to go. Mitch relies on several SMART routes to get him around, including the FAST 461 and 462 express buses and the 460 and 450 Woodward local buses.
“It winds up saving me money on gas and maintenance,” said Mitch. “I do not like driving, especially since drivers have gotten crazier since the pandemic. I’d probably go crazy if I had to commute driving into the office three to five days per week. Now, with the bus, I ride my bike up to the bus stop and get on the bus. If I miss the bus I grab a coffee and grab the next one. It’s way more relaxed than driving.”
There’s a lot of talk in Lansing about keeping young people in Michigan and attracting new residents and talent. And like many young professionals, Mitch says that public transportation is a huge factor in his decision to stay in or leave the state.
“It’s really a question of values,” said Mitch. “I want to be able to take the bus to work and to rely on it. I’d love to be able to take a train! But you have to be able to crawl before you walk. I don’t have to want to look at six empty lanes while someone huddles next to a sign on the side of the road with no shelter and nowhere to sit for two hours while they wait for the next bus to come. The mismatch of priorities that’s reflected in the infrastructure is a shame. It’s a shame to our city and our region.”
Thanks in part to TRU’s efforts, there’s now a renewed spotlight on the driver pay issue. Drivers for both DDOT and SMART are presently negotiating for more competitive wages which would help retain drivers and help them keep the schedules they publish. For Mitch, paying bus drivers a fair wage would be a big incentive for him to stay a Detroiter.
“It would make me feel a lot better about living here,” continued Mitch. “This is an economically vital service. It’s not just a nice-to-have, it’s just like water coming out of the tap. This is what society needs to function, people need to get around. If they have to do it with a car every time you’re going to leave people behind and you’re going to make the roads more dangerous. You’re going to impoverish a huge portion of the population that otherwise would have access to decent jobs and opportunities.”
Despite the trials and tribulations, public transportation service is slowly improving in other parts of the state. Oakland and Macomb County voters overwhelmingly passed millages to renew funding for SMART last November. At the same time, voters across the state elected the most public transportation-friendly state legislature in decades. Though the world may seemingly be burning, the future has never been brighter.
“Keeping your promises”
“People need to understand that a lot of folks don’t have a choice and we’re forcing them to put up with this,” continued Mitch, “It’s important to see what goes into riding the bus day-to-day in Metro Detroit. It’s important to see the indignities that are foisted on people by almost half a century of disinvestment.”
It’s time for all of us to join Mitch and his fellow transportation advocates to turn up the heat. It’s time that DDOT, SMART, and the mayor’s office all realize how important solving the pay and service issue is to the continued betterment of all Metro Detroiters.
“I would love to see more consistency – being able to keep the schedule they publish. After that, improvements to frequency are the number one thing. Even if the shelters and infrastructure are bad, if the bus comes frequently you don’t have to stand there as long. After that it’s keeping up with your promises, doing better, and improving infrastructure – bus lanes, bus waiting areas, benches.”