In the age of Uber and Lyft, it might seem like transit service to the airport doesn’t matter much anymore. But Michael O’Callaghan, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer for the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau, says it does.
“Pretty much with every meeting planner and group that we deal with, they want to know what the transportation options are from the airport to downtown Detroit.”
O’Callaghan says, until recently, there was not an affordable, practical way for people to get to and from Metro Airport.
“We would get complaints all the time,” he says.
It used to be, if travelers wanted to take a bus from downtown Detroit to the airport, they had to transfer mid-way. The trip lasted close to 2 hours and wasn’t available at certain times of the day.
Starting in January of last year, SMART, the suburban Detroit bus system, introduced three limited stop routes known as FAST buses on Woodward, Gratiot and Michigan Avenues. FAST stands for “Frequent Affordable Safe Transit.” The Michigan bus, Route 261, runs from downtown Detroit to the airport in a little more than an hour.
On the bus, Keely Jackson sits with a carry-on bag. She remembers when she found out she could take one bus from Detroit to Metro Airport.
“I was like ‘Yes!!!’” Jackson says with glee.
Jackson is headed to New York. She says she flies there 5 or 6 times a year. Her FAST bus ticket cost her $2. An Uber or Lyft would have cost her at least $30, according to fare estimates on their websites. Driving herself to the airport and parking there wasn’t an option, since Jackson doesn’t own a car.
“This bus service is fantastic. I love it. It’s quicker than the local bus. It’s cleaner. Quiet,” says Jackson.
Route 261 travels mostly along Michigan Avenue, making limited stops in Detroit, Dearborn, Inkster, on the border of Westland and Wayne, and in Romulus.
In Dearborn, Chinese travelers Bingxian Chen and his mom board the bus. Chen says during his two-day stay in town he was unimpressed with Detroit’s public transit.
“There are not a lot of buses and in the city center it’s not often on time. It sort of drove us a little crazy yesterday,” Chen says.
But this bus gets his approval.
“I think it’s well organized. It’s right on time. It’s really good.”
Chen says he found out about the FAST bus from Google.
When the service first launched a year ago, SMART says it put out commercials and radio ads, and put up posters and literature on buses. But at a meeting during its first month, a board member said he didn’t think the airport was doing enough to advertise the service. More than a year later, the Wayne County Airport Authority’s Chief Operating Officer, June Lee, acknowledges there’s still room for improvement.
“There is signage and there is directions on them but we are aware that there have been some issues with the signage and the wayfinding,” says Lee. “It can always be made more clear and so we’re taking a look at how the passengers are actually circulating and then making sure that we’re making modifications to the signage.”
There is a clearly marked bus stop at the airport’s North Terminal. In the McNamara Terminal, SMART signs lead travelers to an indoor counter, but not to the actual bus stop. Curbside, there is a small, generic “municipal transportation” sign that could be easy to miss.
Robert Cramer is the Deputy General Manager for SMART. He says when officials implemented the FAST routes, they were a little were worried that people wouldn’t understand it or embrace the limited-stop service.
“You never know when you’re putting something new in place, it could be that you miss something and it ends up being something that’s really less convenient or too confusing and people aren’t using it.”
But Cramer says, what they found is that people are responding to the FAST bus.
“As the months go by, more and more people are realizing that this is something that can be a reliable option to get people around,” says Cramer.
SMART already had local buses that served the Michigan Avenue corridor. Cramer says he knew that adding the FAST service there would decrease ridership on some of the existing routes. So, he says, in determining success, officials decided to look at the net impact on the corridor. They had hoped to see an overall increase in ridership of at least 10 percent. What they found was an increase of nearly 40 percent.
“Clearly the airport is a regional anchor, not only with people that go there to fly, but there’s a lot of people who work in and around the airport,” Cramer says.
Back on Route 261, airport cleaner Ashley Ellington says she’s been using the bus to commute to work for about three months. Her journey starts in St. Clair Shores.
“I’ll get a Lyft from home and then I’ll take it downtown. And from downtown I’ll get this FAST bus,” she says.
Ellington says the commute takes more than four hours total. Even though she has a car, she does it because it saves her money.
“It’s cheaper for me to ride the bus versus putting gas in my car constantly driving from St. Clair Shores to Romulus,” she says.
Airport employees aren’t the only people who take this bus to get to work. After the FAST Michigan bus launched, Amazon built one of its major distribution centers near the route. SMART added additional runs that are coordinated with the company’s shift times so workers can commute to the center by bus.
Cramer says when Ford employees start working out of Michigan Central Station in Corktown, SMART will likely add an additional stop there.