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Detroit Bus Co. Struggles With Lengthy Travel Time On Test Run, Experiments With Technology

Posted: 05/07/2012 12:49 pm Updated: 05/07/2012 5:08 pm

After a last-minute route change on Saturday night led driver Dupree Bee to encounter -- and avoid -- a low bridge on Detroit's Grand Boulevard, the 20-something passengers aboard his brightly colored school bus cheered him on, beers in hand. The next stop was Woodbridge Pub.

This was how Detroit Bus Co. launched a test run of its downtown Detroit loop that offers riders unlimited use for $5 a day.

Offering its riders beer on its first run (but with no immediate plans to sell or provide it in the future), the company initially seems to be aiming to offer a ride that's a hybrid between a bar shuttle and a public bus service.

Started by Andy Didorosi, the new bus company is targeting high-demand routes, including entertainment spots, and is intended to supplement Detroit's public service, which recently underwent cutbacks to several routes and nighttime service.

On Saturday the first bus took a circular route, starting downtown and making stops in the neighborhoods of Corktown, Southwest, Woodbridge, New Center and Midtown before ending at Comerica Park. The bus exterior featured the work of Detroit graffiti artist Kobie Solomon.

"I've always had the desire to explore Detroit," said Michigan State student Brandon Earnest, who rode the bus with several friends from Woodbridge to Mexicantown. Though he has friends in the city, Earnest doesn't know it well and thought the bus was a good way to see new spots.

In addition to transporting a small crew of workers, the bus picked up a total of 57 additional people in its 14-hour, seven-loop run, significantly fewer than Didorosi's target of serving 15 riders an hour. Although Didorosi needs more riders before he can expand service to other planned routes, like one along Woodward Avenue to nearby suburbs and another to the airport, he believes his business can be sustained through private rentals of his buses emblazoned with work by local artists.

The downtown bus route won't be officially launched for about another two weeks. The company staged Saturday's test run through jam-packed Cinco de Mayo streets as a way to iron out kinks in the route, as well as drum up attention by the handing out of flyers at stops at bars, restaurants and coffee shops.

"Bars are the ideal bus stop," Didorosi said.

Finding an indoor place to wait may have been helpful for potential riders on Saturday. The bus, assigned a given name of Bettis, made its circuit in an hour and a half (after an initial run that took more than three hours). The company hopes to add more buses to the route, though.

The company makes it easy to track the whereabouts of a bus, by updating its progress online in real time. On each route, a bus conductor (separate from the driver) will update a Twitter feed with a note about the location of the bus. The use of technology gives riders more certainty about an arrival, giving the company a leg up on the Detroit Department of Transportation.

"Social media is really the backbone of this thing," Didorosi said. "It has really allowed us to leverage one 15-year-old bus pretty far."

Before the Detroit Bus Co.'s downtown route was made public, Henry Gaffney, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union's Local 26, expressed skepticism about its business plan, noting that the city's elevated light rail already provides a downtown loop service for 75 cents. The Detroit Bus Co.'s downtown route is much more extensive and connects farther flung neighborhoods.

Didorosi is hoping that his service will be able to offer a buy one, give one model, so that each ride purchased will support a pickup service for needy applicants living in areas not served by DDOT or the Detroit Bus Co.

"There's a need to be fulfilled," Didorosi said. "I hope we get made redundant one day."

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