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Detroit Bus Company Aims To Make Up For City's Transit Gaps With Private Enterprise

First Posted: 02/23/2012 6:21 pm Updated: 02/23/2012 7:32 pm

Bus riders in Detroit have not wanted for bad news in the last few months.

In November, drivers walked off the job to protest poor security. In a bid to save money in January, the city outsourced operations for the chronically mismanaged bus system to a private company. This month it confirmed that there will be route and service reductions starting next week.

Amid the glum news, however, one businessman said he hopes to turn the city's transit fortunes around with an unusual business model: a private jitney bus company to be called, simply, The Detroit Bus Company. Andy Didorosi, the entrepreneur behind the scheme, thinks he can have it up and running by April. Others are more skeptical.

"We're attempting to fix some Detroit transit issues in the best way we can," Didorosi said. "Our goal is just to roll the one bus to begin with and to learn. We know very little about running a transit company, and that is both a strength and a weakness."

The solitary first bus will run, he said, in a loop connecting downtown with some of Detroit's most popular -- and gentrifying -- neighborhoods. "We don't have a route in stone yet, or even in chalk," he said. "But the first route will likely be a greater downtown connector loop, drawing a circle connecting downtown, Corktown, Woodbridge, Midtown, Eastern Market, Greektown and back again."

Along the way, Didorosi said, riders will be treated to one of three artistically "muralized" Bluebird school buses that he already purchased second-hand; a smartphone app offering live GPS updates on bus progress ("so you don't have to stand on the corner freezing your ass off"); and the option to buy wristbands, via the mobile-phone, credit-card payment system Square, instead of tickets. Bus stops will include "beacon points" like Slows Bar Bq and Woodbridge Pub.

Didorosi, who was born and raised in Detroit, hopes to bring to bear his business acumen honed on projects like the Ferndale art and business incubator Paper Street (an old warehouse he rents out to start-ups) and The Thunderdome, a bicycle and scooter racing event in Detroit.

He's also played a part in the Mower Gang, which sends a group of lawn mower owners into overgrown city parks for a little vigilante lawn care. Projects like those earned the 20-something entrepreneur a spot on the up-and-comer "Twenty in Their Twenties" list in Crain's Detroit Business.

The new company may sound a little too hip or far-fetched to replace the city's old buses; Didorosi said his original plan was a party bus with elements of the iconic Nemo's shuttle that ferries fans to Lions, Tigers and Red Wings games. But he is adamant that despite relatively high costs (he estimates fares at $5 and $10 for a day pass), his service could appeal to lower-income Detroiters who have trouble getting to work. A one-way fare for an adult on Detroit buses is now $1.50.

"We've turned it from an affluent people, nighttime fun shuttle into what we hope will be a real transit solution," he said. In the future, he said he hopes it will be attractive to a broad cross-section of Detroiters with spoke-like routes leading from downtown.

Still, Didorosi is frank about the challenges he will face. Transit experts said frequency is crucial to attracting riders, but he's not yet sure how often the bus will come. Another problem is the city's law against jitney services; another city law prevents private fixed-route transportation services.

"You have to do it first and then see what shakes out of it," he argued, adding that he will be strictly adhering to motor carrier safety laws.

In most every supermarket in Detroit, he said, there's a bulletin board full of fliers for jitney cab services, and his research indicated that the last time that law was enforced was in the 1980s. Didorosi is willing to spend the money on the buses and incur the risk of a shutdown because Detroit is "kind of the Amsterdam of jitneys."

Much less blase was Henry Gaffney, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union's Local 26, which represents Detroit bus drivers. Asked by HuffPost whether he was familiar with Didorosi's plan, Gaffney said, "this the first I heard of it, but I will be investigating this." He wanted to reserve judgment until he read more, but he said that the union "had to stop" a similar plan years before.

Aside from potential political action, Gaffney said, he was skeptical that The Detroit Bus Company would work as a business plan, noting that the city's People Mover, an elevated light-rail with a 75-cent fare, provides obvious competition for any company running a downtown loop.

"A lot of people want to do a lot of things," he said. "Doesn't mean you're actually going to do it. I want to be a millionaire."

Transportation blogger Yonah Freemark, who has commented on Detroit's light-rail woes before, said he wasn't familiar with any unsubsidized, private bus companies working as a alternatives to public transportation in the United States. A few lines in the United Kingdom, he noted, can pull it off, but in general, "public transportation is not a very profitable business."

Freemark hopes Detroit will let Didorosi's "experiment" proceed, he said, if only because the looming service cuts for DDOT will leave a gaping hole in the city's already weak transit network.

"I'm not sure that the majority of the people who are poor in Detroit are going to be able to afford to put down $5 on a day pass every day," he said. But "if anything this is the perfect time to try an alternative, so from that perspective, he's got his timing right. Good luck to him. That's great. Sounds kind of crazy and awesome."

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