How “People Data” can Help the James Robertsons of Detroit and Jump-Start Transit Improvements


When you hear Detroit, you probably think of cars before you think of transit.  The reality, however, is even in the Motor City, access to your own set of wheels isn’t a foregone conclusion — leaving many at the mercy of the transit system.  Take the recent story of James Robertson, a Detroiter whose job is located 10 miles beyond the reach of the transit system.

James’s story attracted international attention and inspired a number of people to help James purchase a new car.  It’s a great story, but the reality confronting thousands of households in Detroit is that they still don’t have a car. And they’re spread out all over the city.

Detroit Population Without Access to Cars

The solution is using technology to better understand the challenges facing Detroit — and its transit system.

Transit Labs is integrating data already collected by the city, including passenger counters, vehicle locators, next bus arrival data and more, to overlay with census, GIS and economic activity data.  Operators, planners and executive leadership desperately want a more comprehensive picture of their transit system and real tools that enable the evaluation historical performance, make real-time decisions and model future service and growth.

Using data and analytics, and with the help of our friends at ESRI, we produced data visualizations for the city government that reveal every Detroiter without a car.

Where are the Non-Vehicle Households, Vacant Houses, Detroit Residents, and Jobs?

The map above illustrates how many households in Detroit do not have access to a car.  Many residents are going to great pains just to fulfill the most basic of day-to-day life activities such as getting to work or school. In the worst cases, many simply disqualify themselves from even getting a job for lack of reliable transportation. Neither option is acceptable — especially in a city where the unemployment rate is triple the national average and neighborhood-level economic opportunities are limited.

Regional mobility challenges aside, how is transit doing for Detroiters commuting within city limits?

The transit system has shrunk — that’s no secret. A look at standard industry metrics collected by the federal government tells a discouraging story. Annual ridership, for instance, plunged from 47 Million in 1996 to 33 Million in 2012 — contrary to the national trend.

What’s Detroit to do? Give up? Stop offering transit service altogether?

If we focus solely on the ridership numbers, that’s the only conclusion we’ll ever reach. But if we’re looking to improve transit rather than simply watch it disappear, perhaps it’s time to ask different questions.

That’s exactly what was on Paul Toliver’s mind when he met us last year at the Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) World Congress in Detroit. Paul is the Deputy Director of the Detroit Department of Transportation. On any given day, he deals with challenges ranging from fleet availability to labor relations to funding volatility. As day-to-day issues stack up, with elected officials and the media circling, there’s little room to zoom out and consider the very foundation of the transit system: the bus routes.

Paul saw the value in our approach, and enlisted Transit Labs for a pilot project — starting with a comprehensive review of the route network. If we were starting from scratch, how would we build Detroit’s transit system?

This partnership deploys data visualization and analytics, as well as cloud computing, to evolve public transit in Detroit.  We began by considering external data — population changes, employment figures, demographic trends. None of this is transit data, but it all affects the transit system.

As Paul said last year, “strong data analytics and visualizations will assist us in our efforts to increase accessibility to public transportation options, reignite economic activity throughout the city and offer an improved quality of service our customers deserve.”

We can reframe the current discussion by introducing these factors into the equation. Rather than judging the transit system strictly on internal numbers, we’re understanding transit in its living habitat.

READ PART II: A Deeper Look at Detroit’s Routes and Population Density

Learn more: Interactive Map of Detroit’s Routes and Population Density

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