Can Data Visualization and Analytics Solve Detroit’s Transit Woes?

There’s a sign above the entrance to the Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT) building that says, “Through These Doors Pass Transit’s Best.” But ask any regular rider of Detroit’s city bus system how DDOT is functioning, and they would likely disagree with that optimistic motto.

Detroit’s transit system has long had the reputation of being unreliable, yet trying to make systemic changes in the face of perpetual budget cuts has proved to be a massive challenge. DDOT’s fleet of buses is decrepit and rarely operates at full capacity—it’s estimated that roughly one-third of city buses don’t run on a daily basis—which means routes go understaffed and buses show up hours late.

Not only are DDOT buses late, they’re dangerous. And sometimes maddening: Once Detroit bus riders cross the city limits, they have to get off the DDOT bus and continue their journey on a bus operated by the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART), which oversees buses in the suburbs immediately bordering the city.

Thanks to this provincial way of operating, a 15-mile trip from downtown Detroit to metro airport takes hours by bus. It’s an infuriating way to travel, and Detroit’s myriad transit issues could put the brakes on revitalization efforts in a city drawing an influx of young professionals who expect to have efficient, functional public transportation options.

However, a new day may be dawning at DDOT. A team of experienced transit consultants has been brought in to run the department. New buses have been ordered, thanks to a $25 million federal grant, and a Washington, DC, startup called Transit Labs has stepped in and offered its services pro bono to help modernize DDOT through data visualization and analytics.

“In the case of DDOT, it’s a question of the current nature of the transit network—who it’s serving, what it costs, and how the transit network fits into the bigger story of the economics of the area,” says Dag Gogue, CEO of Transit Labs.

Gogue says Transit Labs is dedicated to building smarter cities by improving municipal data collection, reporting, analysis, and modeling practices.“We met with DDOT and made a case for the department leveraging the data they have to restructure the network. There have been a lot of changes to the demographics of Detroit. Those changes can be captured, and we can integrate census data to better plan service: stops, routes, and schedules.” The goal, he adds, is to build an interactive product that enables better decision-making on the part of transit administrators.

“Public transportation is a lot cooler than people realize—it plays a really important role in any city,” Gogue points out. “There’s no way a city can grow without addressing transit issues. I think Detroit must and will resolve its transit issues, and I’m lucky to be working on it.”

Gogue became familiar with DDOT’s plight firsthand while visiting the city to participate in the Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) World Congress in September. He spent a morning riding both DDOT and SMART buses. He talked to other riders, who shared their tales of woe: One DDOT passenger described his four-hour daily commute; another young woman told Gogue that it took two hours to travel across town to get to school. “It was mind-blowing,” he says. “Once we realized the nature of the beast, we started thinking very seriously and smartly about how to redesign Detroit’s transit network.”

Paul Toliver, DDOT’s deputy director, happened by Transit Labs’ booth at the ITS conference, and Gogue pitched his ideas for improving Detroit’s bus system—pulling no punches when it came to explaining where he saw systemic failures.

“Our approach got DDOT’s attention, especially when we told them we’d do it for free,” Gogue says.

As a result of the pitch, Transit Labs will officially work with DDOT for at least two months. Gogue says his team will use software to integrate data already collected by the city—automated passenger counts, automated vehicle locators, next bus arrival data—and overlay it with census, geographic, and economic activity data, dumping all of the information about ridership, personnel, assets, and safety into one database on Microsoft’s Azure Government platform. Then, Transit Labs will crunch the numbers to allow city transit officials to evaluate historical performance, make real-time decisions, and plan future service and growth.

“I think they’re pretty serious about solving these problems,” Gogue says. He’s impressed that the department sends monthly performance reports to the mayor—an unusual level of oversight. “I’m very bullish on DDOT’s potential.”

Indeed, it helps to have a mayor, Mike Duggan, who used to oversee the SMART bus system when he served as the deputy Wayne County executive from 1987 to 2001. Toliver says fixing Detroit’s transit system is a high priority for Duggan, third in line after blight and crime.

“He’s on us and he’s tough, but he’s also fighting for us in DC and on the state level,” Toliver says, adding that Federal Transit Authority officials also oversee DDOT and are pushing for systemic reforms. For example, Toliver says current DDOT procedure is to order the same number and kinds of parts to fix buses year after year, whether they’re needed or not. A new project is in the works to barcode each bus part to track and predict what parts are actually needed to keep buses on the road.

Toliver took over as DDOT’s deputy director in 2013. He’s a consultant with MV Transportation, a firm that manages transit for municipalities, and he most recently oversaw Seattle’s 1,000-bus operation. Toliver is friendly and fairly open, but he also has that air of wariness that beleaguered civil servants can carry. When Mayor Duggan was publicly upset with DDOT’s performance soon after he took office in January, it was Toliver’s head that was temporarily on the chopping block. (His contract has since been renewed for two more years.)

Gogue says the advent of cheap, cloud-based data storage will help revolutionize the efficiency of public transportation, and he sees DDOT as an irresistible test case for Transit Labs’ technology. “We can take data from multiple sources and quickly and cheaply analyze it to identify patterns,” he explains. “All of these things weren’t possible or were too expensive 10 years ago.”

“The cloud is the future,” Toliver agrees. “We’re trying to figure out how to use that technology to help productivity. In Detroit, part of the problem is that they cut so much talent—nobody knew how to run transit, and [MV Transportation] is not the first company to try to come in and fix it.”

Toliver says he’s passionate about how technology can help spur the success and sustainability of transportation networks. “We have three key objectives: Getting more buses, getting more drivers, and making the environment safer for passengers and drivers. The role of technology is helping day-to-day operations, maintenance, and making sure we’re able to maintain those changes. We know it’s critical to have decisions based on data and not gut feelings or historical information.”

In addition to the 90 new buses coming to Detroit as part of the federal grant—including a “handful” of hybrid-electric vehicles and 10 60-foot rigs—DDOT has already begun to make changes. Once reliant on city police officers who were already stretched thin for protection, DDOT sought and won funding to establish its own police force and equip each bus with eight “smart” cameras that can detect when drivers brake too hard or otherwise drive unsafely. Toliver says DDOT has also begun talking to SMART about how they can coordinate services.

Gogue says that’s a good start, and Transit Labs’ goal is to help DDOT gain the ability to run analytics on the fly. “We had DDOT on our radar, but in talking to people in the industry, they said DDOT would be too hard to work with,” he says. “The challenge is that organizations like DDOT aren’t used to moving at a tech startup pace, but I’m very confident we can make it a world-class transit system. It’s run by very capable people with a desire to improve. The only thing we’re bringing is technical know-how.”

Trending on Xconomy