Public transportation in the City of Detroit

In late April, Mayor Dave Bing proposed a budget for the City of Detroit that included $250 million in spending cuts. The mayor proposed a decrease in the subsidy to the Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT) from the current $55.6 million to $43 million in fiscal year 2012-2013 (see related Detroit Free Press article). This week’s blogs considers DDOT ridership and operating expenses from recent years.

According to information the DDOT submitted to the National Transit Database (NTD), in 2010, the City of Detroit allocated $67.7 million dollars to the DDOT, which accounted for 40 percent of the DDOT’s $168 million operating expenses.  Note that NTD information is reported by calendar, not fiscal, year.

This graph displays the DDOT’s operating expenses from 2000 to 2010. Operating expenses increased from $155.9 million in 2000 to a peak of $189.1 million in 2004. Following 2004, however, there was a decrease in operating costs in each of the following six years. In 2010, the DDOT’s annual operating expense was about $161.5 million, roughly $5 million more than its 2000 level.

Given inflation, this represents a substantial decline in revenues. This is visible in the above graph, which displays each year’s operating expenses, adjusted for inflation. Operating expenses are presented in constant with what the dollar was worth in the year 2000. 

Ridership patterns during the same period are not aligned with those of expenses. For 2000, the DDOT reported 44 million annual unlinked trips. The term “unlinked trips” refers to the number of “passenger boardings.” For example, if someone’s commute required three buses, that person would board three buses during the course of their commute and, therefore, account for three unlinked trips. After 2000, the number of annual unlinked trips decreased each year, reaching a low of 34.7 million in 2004. Between 2005 and 2010, ridership numbers fluctuated. The number of unlinked trips in 2010 was 36.7 million.

Another way to consider ridership is to examine the average weekday unlinked trips. This graph displays the average weekly unlinked trips on DDOT from 2000 to 2010. The same overall pattern is visible: The data on the DDOT’s average weekday unlinked trips and the annual number of unlinked trips reported by the DDOT shows highs and lows in the same years. For example, the years 2000, 2006, and 2009 had higher numbers of unlinked trips that years 2004, 2007, and 2010. However, while there was a 17 percent decrease in annual unlinked trips from 2000 to 2010, there was a 21 percent decrease in the average weekday unlinked trips.

Another way to consider ridership is to examine the average weekday unlinked trips. This graph displays the average weekly unlinked trips on DDOT from 2000 to 2010. The same overall pattern is visible: The data on the DDOT’s average weekday unlinked trips and the annual number of unlinked trips reported by the DDOT shows highs and lows in the same years. For example, the years 2000, 2006, and 2009 had higher numbers of unlinked trips that years 2004, 2007, and 2010. However, while there was a 17 percent decrease in annual unlinked trips from 2000 to 2010, there was a 21 percent decrease in the average weekday unlinked trips.

In previous blog posts Detroit’s substantial decline in population has been highlighted. Viewing ridership data in conjunction with the population reveals that while total ridership has declined from 2000 to 2010, ridership per Detroit resident has increased. In 2000, there were 46.3 unlinked trips per person; there were 51.36 in 2010. Similarly the average number of weekday unlinked trips per person increased from 0.16 in 2000 to 0.17 in 2010. Both of these increases occurred despite real declines in the budget.

For comparison purposes, we present a comparison of the DDOT to the transit agencies of four cities with similar population sizes. Baltimore is served by the Maryland Transit Administration which has a 1,795 square mile service area, in contrast to the DDOT’s 144 square mile service area, which covers little more than the City of Detroit itself. It should be noted that Detroit’s suburbs are served by a separate transit system. In contrast, the service areas of the comparison transit agencies are either regional or metropolitan.

In 2010, Detroit had the second highest operating expenses and ridership of these five cities. Baltimore, the city with the highest expenses and ridership, had approximately 3.5 times the operating expenses and 2.4 times the number of annual unlinked trips as Detroit.

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