Starting out in Ferndale, Laura Joseph Lyons shows up at the 9 Mile and Woodward bus stop religiously every morning and takes the SMART bus down the Woodward corridor. She gets off at New Center where she walks the rest of the way to her job as a GIS analyst for Data Driven Detroit.
Lyons, a petite woman with long, brown hair, started riding the bus because she felt it was better for the environment, was cheaper, and it gave her some time back that she used to spend sitting in traffic.
“It gives me time to read while I'm commuting,” she says. “I think that mass transit is hugely important."
This newfound freedom has prompted Ms. Lyon and her husband to leave their car parked at home and use public transportation whenever they can. From meeting friends for a happy hour to going to see a play at Wayne State to attending a Pistons games at Little Caesars Arena, the couple takes the bus.
On any given morning commuters from all over Metro Detroit take the bus into Detroit. According to the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transit, better known as SMART, 70 percent of its riders use their services to get to work. Another 20 percent use it to get to an educational institution. Roughly 10 million commuters — including seniors, students, and professionals — use SMART services.
Elliot Darvick, a native Metro Detroiter, is one of them. Darvick sits slightly cockeyed in his seat as he explains that he first started taking the bus as an experiment. He wanted to see for himself if someone living in Metro Detroit could get around using only public transit.
After months of taking the bus day in and day out, his answer, unequivocally, was yes.
“It’s affordable, it’s comfortable, and I get work done,” he says. "It’s just a better use of my time than sitting in the car. I can also get an extra 25 minutes of work or reading in."
As a result of Darvick's transit experiment, he and his wife have gone down to only owning one car.
Like Darvick, many suburbanites who have discovered the benefits of taking the FAST buses or other select routes recently introduced by SMART into the city. According to SMART, about 56 percent of riders using FAST and other fixed routes prefer to take the bus over using their vehicle.
FAST buses are designed to stick out; black with the letters "FAST" written in all white caps above a rainbow streak of red, yellow, green, and blue, these buses are trying to embody their mission in every way they can: frequent, affordable, safe, transit.
Not only have FAST buses made getting in and out of Detroit more comfortable and more convenient, but they are also saving riders money. The cost, as well as speed, are the main reasons rider Cory Daniels decided to take the bus.
Daniels, who works as a home healthcare provider, says he takes the bus because it’s convenient for him, and he believes it’s much safer. Daniels also says he saves money taking the bus.
“I save money," he says. "Even if I did still have my car, I would still end up on the bus."
Even those who have cars are opting to ride. Each morning, Scott Struzik, a resident of Rochester Hills (one of the current SMART opt-out communities that do not pay taxes to support SMART) drives to the park and ride lot at the Troy Civic Center and hops on the FAST Woodward bus.
For Struzik, a thirty-something with gelled brown hair and a computer perched on his lap, making that trek to the bus stop every day is worth it.
“I have a car,” he says. "I can operate it, but this is a lot better for me because I estimate it saves me about six hours a week of free time. Instead of driving behind the wheel, I am on my laptop working or doing whatever I want to do.”
An employee of Quicken Loans, Struzik gets $150 a month for declining his downtown parking spot. He can also purchase his bus fare using a pre-tax deduction that reduces the cost of the bus ride from $2 per trip to about $1.30.
Since he began riding the bus, Struzik has made it his mission to change his friends and family's perception about riding the bus, by making Facebook posts with helpful and reassuring information on how on to use SMART buses.
In one of his recent posts, he writes,
"For those of you that were worried about taking a bus like I was, don't be! It's not very complicated. There is a myth that only criminals take the bus to "get to the suburbs and rob people," is FALSE. The bus is filled with people going to jobs or school, and quite often I run into people I work with. Buses aren't just for people without transportation. They are often used by people like me that have a choice but want the free time and reduced costs that using mass transportation offers.”
Someone later commented saying, "You may have changed my life dramatically for the better!"
However, even for those who choose to take the bus, learning the ins and out of SMART hasn't always been a walk in the park.
Shalaka Neik described learning to ride the bus as confusing, and at times, inconvenient. A software developer who moved to Detroit recently from India, Neik takes the bus each morning from Somerset Mall in Troy and gets off right in front of her workplace in downtown Detroit.
Neik, who doesn’t have a car, says she likes taking the bus because she doesn’t have to worry about driving, and it is cheap. But she says she would use it even more if the routes were better connected.
"In India, I never had to buy a car because there is bus connectivity everywhere,” she says. “Even on the small roads I could get around.”
Here, she finds getting anywhere outside of work to be a challenge.
“Major locations sometimes don’t have bus connectivity,” Neik explains. And even when there is a stop outside of a store, she is skeptical she can smoothly take the bus from her house, go to her destination and then later catch the bus back home, because of the variable frequency in service.
Another issue she says prohibits her from using the bus more is the accuracy of the different transit apps. Currently, you can use Google Maps, the SMART bus app, and the Transit app to find a bus stop and routes. However, as Neik has learned the hard way, certain stops aren’t accurate or positioned the same between the various apps.
Even Lyons, who was reluctant to say anything negative about the bus system, admits that riding the bus could be an adjustment.
“I have to keep in mind that the bus schedule is now my schedule, instead of just getting ready whenever I want to,” she says.
However, she and the other riders agree that the only way for the bus system to improve is for more people to start using it, and for SMART to actively advertise its services more, especially its FAST routes.
“They need to completely change how they think about bus riders in general, and they need to reach out to different types of demographics with different messaging,” says Lyons.“I want more people to understand that it’s not this scary thing. It can add such positives to your life.”