Derringer: Downtown Workers Want Mass Transit? You'd Never Know it at the Bus Stop

November 02, 2018, 12:05 AM by  Nancy Derringer

I read recently that Quicken bought all its employees annual QLine passes, encouraging them to park further out from downtown and take the straight-line streetcar down to their offices around Campus Martius. I read in the same place -- OK, in this story in Crain’s -- that Bedrock LLC has a vice president of parking and mobility, and he is concentrating on “optionality” for company employees.

So many options for getting around. (Photos by Nancy Derringer)

"We're really trying to be thoughtful about a changing commuter landscape — not everybody wants to drive to work every day," said the man with this fancy title, Kevin Bopp.

Hear, hear, Mr. Bopp. And while it was interesting, reading about the company’s five semi-autonomous shuttles, private buses and QLine passes, it was equally interesting to see what wasn’t mentioned.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you: A bus. Not semi-autonomous, not private, but very mobile. Ask your grandma about them.

Bopp is absolutely correct that not everybody wants to drive to work every day. I’m one of them. Traffic is one thing, but the daily irritant, the low-level pain in the butt? Parking. It’s a true dilemma, choosing between lots close in (disgracefully expensive), lots farther out (cheaper, but a hike) or the gamble of street spots (scarce and patrolled by an army of enforcers who strike like pythons, at $45 per bite). The sound of the Park Detroit app honking its time’s-up warning on smartphones is part of the audio landscape at Deadline Detroit World Headquarters on Griswold Street.

This summer, after working at D.D. a few weeks, I calculated that parking downtown was extracting money from my pocket and joy from my soul. The day I found myself last-mile commuting via Bird scooter from a faraway lot to the office, I thought: The hell with this. I’m taking the bus.

Readers: You should join me.

Of course I must pause for a stipulation that mass transit in Detroit sucks, and it sucks worse for the people who depend on it. Most of them don’t have the freedom I have, to work flexible hours, making a late bus merely an inconvenience, as opposed to a potential job-loss disaster.

Further stipulated: My experience commuting this summer was based on riding one DDOT line, the No. 31 Mack Avenue bus. The stop was about half a mile from my house, so I rode my bike there, stowed the bike on the bus rack, and took it to the end of the line at the Rosa Parks Transit Center. No transfers or connections. It was, in every sense, anecdotal.

But it was also awesome.

Punctual, polite pros

DDOT was punctual, its drivers professional and courteous, my fellow riders interested in nothing more than getting to their destinations. And while I’m sensitive to charges of white-lady privilege, all those experience-seeking New Detroit residents who think mass transit begins and ends with the QLine ought to try a bus once in a while. You’ll see some things.

The sights are, if not encouraging, at least interesting. I boarded one day to see a man sitting in the first row, clad in medical scrubs, more clothes in a hospital-branded plastic bag, wearing a surgical mask, looking very tired. Pneumonia, flu, plague? Something sent him to the ER, and DDOT was taking him home.

Another day, a pregnant woman with two young children in hand climbed on and rode to the Detroit Medical Center. You think you have it bad? Try taking a bus to your doctor’s appointments, or home from an ER visit. Students ride to and from school. I usually drive Mack, but with someone else behind the wheel, I’ve noticed things about the streetscape I’ve never seen before.

Of course it’s not all great, but as a lifelong eavesdropper, there’s something to be said for listening to an angry woman bitch someone out on the phone, ranting about that crackhead ho until the driver finally snapped at her to lower her voice. Elmore Leonard would have taken notes.

And even though the no-music-without-headphones rule is pretty well enforced; there was a day when I boarded on a fine summer morning, and someone was playing mellow reggae at a moderate volume, and no one expressed irritation or anything else other than head-nodding affirmation. One love.

God love this lady

Another day, a new driver was behind the wheel with a trainer overseeing his performance. We pulled to a stop well into the poorest stretch of Mack. No one was on the bench, and I wondered why.

The trainer got off and walked across the street, where a woman was standing – ancient, frail as parchment, leaning on a cane, dressed in a suit that looked almost as old as she was and likely one of the best outfits she owned (it had a matching hat). The driver took her by the arm and together they crossed Mack, very slowly. It was clear she hadn’t crossed to the stop because she couldn’t do so safely, but DDOT had her back. She was guided up the steps and to a seat.

The woman got off somewhere on Cass, and the driver, again, helped her off. She took her cane in hand and headed to a destination unknown to us.

“Is she going to be OK?” I asked the trainer, who replied that she hoped so. When my mother saw women like that, down but not out, she’d say, “God love her.” God love this lady, too.

Commuting via bus takes about 15 minutes longer than driving would. Along the way: Sightseeing, street-level anthropology, reggae, and a Detroit plenty people go out of their way to never, ever see. They shouldn’t.

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