Potential help for late buses, inefficient bus routes in Detroit: Advanced metrics

DDOT Ridecheck

By BILL SHEA

Advanced metrics aren’t just for baseball fans: The oft-maligned Detroit Department of Transportation is using a pro bono analytics service in an attempt to improve performance.

A Washington, D.C.-based startup called Transit Labs is preparing a series of reports for the bus agency, and measurable changes — such as more buses running on time — could happen by summer.

The initial analysis has shown what everyone already knows: DDOT buses struggle to arrive on time, the routes are inefficient, some stations are not where people and jobs are located, and one-third of city buses never leave the garage because of maintenance problems.

The agency also struggles with costs, staffing, maintenance and financial record-keeping breakdowns that have drawn federal reproach.

Such problems have led to DDOT users taking 11 million fewer trips on the system over the past four years.

The hope is that a deep dive into fresh data can fuel some fixes as Mayor Mike Duggan’s administrator labors to meet a pledge to have the buses running on time by the end of 2015.

Unsurprisingly, the city’s effort to use data to create a more efficient city bus system isn’t a regional effort — the suburban bus system that links to DDOT chose not to participate in the analytics effort, opting instead to rely on in-house metrics. But Transit Labs hopes it can eventually segue the Detroit work into data that can help drive suburban-linkage improvements.

How it started

Transit Labs founder Dag Gogue pitched the analytics idea in September to DDOT Deputy Director Paul Toliver at the annual Intelligent Transport Systems World Congress, which was held in Detroit.

A deal was struck that month that calls for the city to get the analytics for free.

Why free? Simple: Detroit is broke and Transit Labs, as a startup, needs résumé fodder to secure transit agency contracts.

How does it work? Transit Labs uses data, mapping, predictive modeling and game theory to create analytics. The company is using DDOT’s own data, collecting new information, and it overlays all of it with the latest census and economic activity data.

Numbers are crunched on issues such as wait times at stops, availability of functioning buses, and drivers.

“We want to look at the raw data to see if there is any pattern,” Gogue said.

The intent is to create a more efficient system that serves users and businesses — getting people to their jobs on time — by using data-driven analysis that tells transit planners where critical problems exist. An example: Flagging where bus stations are misaligned, an issue that can be quickly fixed.

“At the end, we hope to help develop a brand-new system,” Gogue said. “The changes are not going to be overnight.”

Transit Labs has its own proprietary software and services, and it uses mapping software from geographic information systems giant Esri. The analytics and data are stored for the city on Azure Government, Microsoft’s cloud storage infrastructure for government.

DDOT Director Dan Dirks said via email that he’s not yet seen recommendations from Transit Labs.

He is a Detroit native who was manager of SMART from 1998 to 2007.

New thinking, new buses

DDOT has struggled for a long time.

“The network needed a lot of help. Over the years, the ways DDOT and the city have tried to improve performance was hiring more drivers, buying more buses. That’s a pretty costly activity,” Gogue said.

Instead, the agency must focus on placement of stops in relation to where people live and where jobs are, he said.

There have been massive changes in population and jobs, but DDOT has done little evolving, Gogue said.

“Cities are changing very rapidly. People are moving around a lot more,” he said. “We can no longer afford to rely on planning every five years.”

To its credit, DDOT hasn’t been idle. It has ordered 80 new buses to replace its aging fleet, and has launched an app to help users track buses in real time.

A $13 million federal air quality program grant is paying for 31 buses, and another 49 buses are via $25 million from the Federal Transit Administration. The Michigan Department of Transportation is providing the required 20 percent local matching funds, DDOT said.

Seventy of the new buses are standard 40-foot coaches. The other 10 are 60-foot articulated buses, for use on the city’s most heavily traveled routes. Those are scheduled to arrive in September.

To expedite delivery, DDOT said it piggybacked bus orders already in production for the Connecticut Department of Transportation and for Pittsburgh and Rochester, N.Y.

Once the new buses are in service, DDOT will have a fleet of 294.

The agency in January rolled out the “Detroit Bus” app for Android and Apple mobile devices that allows users to track buses in real time and plan their trips. Android data shows it has been installed between 1,500 and 5,000 times, and Apple data wasn’t immediately available.

Getting DDOT to run on time has been a priority for Duggan since he took office last year.

He told reporters during a DDOT press conference in January that his goal is a first-class bus system — a tall order, given the systemic problems that have fueled public complaint for decades.

“We’re not close to that goal yet, but we’re heading in the right direction. And 2015 is going to be the year that DDOT actually runs bus service according to its published schedules,” Duggan said.

DDOT has experienced a drastic reduction in its ridership statistics: In 2014, the bus system provided 25 million rides, a decline from 31 million in 2013. It provided 36 million bus trips in 2011.

The decline should be attributed to DDOT’s inability to get enough buses on the streets, Dirks told Crain’s last year.

Duggan, who ran SMART in the early 1990s, and Dirks have promised improvements not only in timely bus service but also improved safety with the installation of security cameras on buses.

The city will spend $3 million for the cameras, which are from Canada-based Seon. Sixty now have cameras, and the entire fleet will have them by the end of August, according to DDOT.

DDOT relies on a $51.8 million subsidy from the city to balance its $138.2 million fiscal-year 2014-15 budget. It has 917 employees.

An old issue

While using 21st century data analysis is promising, the situation is imperfect. That’s because the analytics are solely for DDOT and don’t include the region’s suburban bus system, which, in theory, is supposed to work in conjunction with DDOT to move people around the region.

The Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation balked at being part of a joint pilot project, Gogue said.

“I hadn’t appreciated the political dynamics between SMART and DDOT,” he said.

John Hertel, SMART’s general manager, said via email that the bus system he oversees now has its own data, thanks to a recently installed Automatic Vehicle Location system, and will do its own number crunching.

“We did not need to duplicate the effort and simply choose to utilize our resources and time in another way,” Hertel said, “The fact is the public believes we operate a good system, and that is evidenced by the 66 percent approval of the SMART millage last year.”

The historic lack of departmental cooperation, dating back decades and rooted largely in suburbs-vs.-city funding worries, has fueled embarrassment about local public transportation — culminating in a Detroit
Free Press story last month about Detroiter James Robertson and his commute to Rochester Hills that includes 21 miles of walking. The story got international attention.

In September, Gogue rode buses from Detroit’s downtown Rosa Parks Transit Center to Dearborn. It took hours.

“In the course of that trip, I met at least six James Robertsons,” Gogue said. “They have at least a four-hour commute because SMART and DDOT don’t talk to each other. That creates a lot of inefficiencies with routes and stops.”

DDOT’s woes run far more deeply than SMART, so tackling the city system is a good start, Gogue said.

“I’m still optimistic, as we release more and more tools for DDOT, that will there will an interest (from SMART),” he said.

New technology

Use of cutting-edge analytics in fixed-route transit planning isn’t common, Gogue said.

The Detroit work is to bolster Transit Lab’s work roster; for most clients, pricing is based on fleet size, and contracts are arranged so departments pay only when they use analytics services.

Trying to fix a bus system is a business for Gogue, but he also gets enjoyment from it.

“This is a lot of fun for us. We get to come into a system that hasn’t changed much and has so much potential. The before-and-after picture for DDOT can be amazing,” he said.

Bill Shea: (313) 446-1626, bshea@crain.com. Twitter: @bill_shea19