Expert: Metro Detroit Public Transit Ridership Won’t Recover This Decade

by Scott McClallen


The ridership of the two largest Detroit Metro public transit systems has plummeted post-pandemic and one expert says it might not return this decade.

In 2020, the Detroit Department of Transportation and the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation provided free fares and reduced operations during some of COVID. The systems later revived fares and added more routes, but many people didn’t return.

DDOT ridership dropped from 2 million in August 2019 to 809,000 in June 2022.

In fixed route measures, the SMART system ridership dropped from 9 million unlinked trips in 2019 to 3.7 million in 2020.

Some ridership has returned but not to pre-pandemic levels. SMART charged The Center Square $31 for public records, including its 2022 ridership, which TCS didn’t pay. SMART also didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Marc Scribner, senior transportation policy analyst at the libertarian Reason Foundation, says ridership likely won’t return because of a significant shift to remote work.

“The growing consensus among transportation researchers is that we will not see a full transit recovery, at least this decade,” Scribner said in a phone interview with The Center Square.

Stanford University and University of Chicago research says 4.7% of Americans worked from home in 2020, but as of July 2022, that number increased to 30%.

Scribner said that pre-pandemic transit was about 70% subsidized by taxpayers. During the pandemic, U.S. transit systems received about five years’ worth of pre-pandemic funding as emergency bailouts, which has primarily sustained them. A SMART annual financial report says it received $120 million from the federal government, and DDOT received at least $64 million.

All that money will run out next year, Scribner said, so public transit has two options: raise local taxes to fund services or lobby the federal government for perpetual operating subsidies.

He said transit agencies must rethink how they deliver essential services.

DDOT marketing and outreach coordinator Kristin Lukowski said that an ongoing shortage of bus operators prevents the return to budgeted service levels.

“DDOT, like all public transit systems, is facing numerous challenges as we work to bring service back to pre-COVID levels,” Lukowski said in a statement. “Public service workers, including DDOT employees, were among those who were affected by the early waves of COVID. Many businesses switched to a work-from-home model, which reduced usage of public transit overall.”

Lukowski said that the DDOT Reimagined Initiative aims to collect community feedback to form the future of transit in Detroit, including evaluating routes, services, and mobility options.

“We have no way of determining when ridership will recover in light of the ongoing pandemic, the lifestyle changes which resulted, and other outside factors, but we strive to provide excellent service to each and every DDOT rider,” Lukowski said in a statement.

Oakland County voters will decide on the Nov. 8 ballot whether to approve a proposal for a 10-year mass-transit millage. The proposed millage would raise $66.1 million in the first year. If approved by voters, the .95 millage would equate to .95 cents of tax per $1,000 of the taxable home value.

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Scott McClallen is a staff writer covering Michigan and Minnesota for The Center Square. A graduate of Hillsdale College, his work has appeared on and Previously, he worked as a financial analyst at Pepsi.
Photo “Metro Detroit Bus” by Michael Barera. CC BY-SA 4.0.




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