Detroit Bus Company: Disrupting Old Models in a Transit-Starved City

Gail Lanzon is clearly having the time of her life. Though she drives a school bus in tiny Clintondale, MI, during the week, her weekend nights belong to Detroit. It’s the last Friday of summer, and downtown is a zoo. The International Jazz Festival is going on in Hart Plaza, and the Tigers game has just ended, meaning Comerica Park has just begun to disgorge hoards of blue-and-orange clad suburbanites.

As fireworks bloom in the night sky over Comerica, we’re idling in a Detroit Bus Company bus across the street, in front of the Fox Theatre, and Lanzon is driving. A Detroit Department of Transportation bus has jumped the curb a half block in front of us, and an ambulance puts on its flashers so the bus can back up without getting rammed by impatient drivers. “Oh my God, are you kidding me?” Lanzon says with exasperation. Andy Didorosi, the 25-year-old founder of the Detroit Bus Company and Lanzon’s patient co-pilot, passenger ambassador, and all-around transit cheerleader, turns to me and says with pride, “Gail drives this thing like a Corvette.”

“This thing” would be a 1995 Ford Bluebird bus known as Bettis, which for Pittsburgh Steelers fans is self-explanatory. (It’s named after Detroit native Jerome Bettis, a running back better known by his nickname: The Bus.) It runs on biodiesel and sports a spray-painted mural by local artist Kobie Solomon on the side. Inside, there’s a mounted iPad playing tunes off Spotify. Bettis is one of two Detroit Bus Company rigs out on the road this busy Labor Day weekend, which also counts music festivals in Hamtramck and Royal Oak among its offerings.

This is also the first night of the Detroit Bus Company’s new on-demand method of delivery. “Routes are super old hat,” Didorosi says. “We switched to on-demand—we were taking data all along on where people were riding. It opened the range within the city and every time the bus is parked, we save money.”

Instead of one bus traveling all night between downtown and the immediate suburbs to the north, Royal Oak and Ferndale, and another bus doing a downtown “party loop,” riders can now call for a ride from anywhere in a “green zone” that encompasses the neighborhoods of Woodbridge, Corktown, Midtown, downtown, Eastern Market, and Lafayette Park/East Jefferson. For $5 per person, cash or credit, they can get a ride to anywhere within this green zone or to suburban drop-off points (Gusoline Alley in Royal Oak and the Imperial in Ferndale, for now). The buses run on the weekends from 6:00 p.m. to 2:30 a.m.

Didorosi describes his self-funded startup as “the bus company built on the back of social media.” Though it’s only been in operation since June, it already has 2,746 likes on Facebook and 472 followers on Twitter. His clientele comes to him almost entirely via word-of-mouth, and he has already purchased three more buses—one of which may be running as soon as next weekend—in the hopes of expanding to more suburbs like Birmingham and running buses during the day.

Didorosi created the Detroit Bus Company as a reaction to Detroit’s well-known … Next Page »

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