Ah yes, the many moods of the friendly SMART bus. SMART of course being short for Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation, and the bus in this case a white, boxy Gillig Low Floor with sporty orange and red vertical stripes.
But a turd by any other name would smell as bad, and SMART certainly stinks.
Yet tens of thousands of Metro Detroiters depend on SMART to get to work every day, or maybe just the welfare office. Either way, according to SMART the average jaunt to wherever it is you’re going takes about a half an hour – that is, unless you dare to transfer between buses. When one considers that most crosstown buses only arrive once an hour, and most north-south buses arrive once every half-hour, what should be a simple 10-15 mile trip can quickly turn into a migraine of suburban sprawl proportions. Especially since the buses are rarely on time.
So, in the end, the thirty minute transit time is self-reinforcing, because you’d to be crazy or desperate to attempt a longer trip. Or worse, me.
Get this: I can bike and, more often than not, beat SMART to my destination. Yes, it’s that bad – an entire fleet of buses defeated by a lanky kid on a Huffy. Once, out of sheer desperation, I called the SMART hotline and asked if their buses ran 20 minutes late or 40 minutes early. No one, from what I gathered, was quite sure.
Still, occasionally you run out of options and have to ride the bus, packed in with your fellow unfortunate passengers like sardines along traffic-choked hellholes like Woodward, Gratiot, or 9 Mile. Sometimes, sadly, it’s too much for SMART too handle. The strain on the system’s limited resources killed the Detroit Diesel engines in the dozens of Gillig models SMART bought in the early 2000s, and I’m pretty sure the grim reality of life taking the bus in Detroit has killed more than one bushy-tailed rider’s hope for humanity.
Fact is, life in the Motor City ain’t easy if you aren’t a car. Period. Dot. Dot. Dot.
Logistically speaking, a big part of SMART’s problem is that funding it is optional for municipalities, like public transportation in a major metropolitan area is a side of cream cheese or an extra value meal. Livonia, for example – a city of nearly 100,000 people just west of Detroit – voted against the SMART millage after years of support. ‘I don’t take the bus, so why pay for it?’ they figured. It’s an attitude that’s crippled bus services regionally.
The other major problem is that Metro Detroit has two bus services, one run by SMART and the other by the struggling DDOT, or Detroit Department of Transportation. When in reality, we only really need one. But because of the arbitrary divide, you need two buses to go up Woodward from Detroit to Pontiac instead of one; federal money for public transportation is split unevenly across two inefficient systems; and poor Detroiters face inordinately long travel times to get to the hundreds of thousands of jobs in the suburbs.
Then again, the people on the bus aren’t the “job creators”. They aren’t in the top tax brackets. In fact, if you ask the average voter in Livonia, we’re leeches. So who cares, right?
Well, shame on us, I say. We can afford millions of cars like it’s nothing, but somehow a few hundred buses is too much, that we can’t even be bothered. It raises the question: who do we really serve? Ourselves or the greater good?