Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Transit buses and the City of Detroit

I think everybody in Michigan wants to see Detroit peel herself off the mat and regain something of her past glory.

Public transit is a topic with high "leverage". Conservatives support it, within reason, because it helps people get to jobs and training. Liberals like it on principle.

Public transit has a critical mass feature. It stops being viable when the buses don't run often enough, or early/late enough or reliably enough, or if the routes are too far apart.

Unfortunately, too many resources have been squandered on monuments like light, commuter rail rather than the common, plebeian, diesel-powered, transit bus.

Avoidance vs. Evasion
There are several perverse incentives that make it difficult for cities like Detroit to bootstrap their way out of the wrong side of the critical mass.

For one thing, the Feds subsidize new buses when 12 year old buses are retired. That sabotages the possibility of simply hanging onto their buses for an additional six years, thereby increasing the size of the fleet by 50%.

It is good economics to let maintenance slide the last couple of years when the 12 year cycle is cast in stone. For the record, a new, 40', conventional Diesel transit bus runs about $300k
Transit buses, the ones you see on city streets, are refurbished every eight years or 8000 hours of operation.

One possibility would be to SELL the powertrain of new units to a private company like AIS or Michigan CAT and then they lease-back and handle maintenance.

The private company gets the tax benefits of depreciating the equipment and can do the total powertrain/drivetrain rebuild for 60% of the $100k it costs the city to do it. That cost would be captured in the lease-back payments.

Run the business with the expectation that the buses will be kept in service for 18 years instead of 12.

When the bus turns 12, sell the rest of the bus to the private company for refurb. Retire it for a month and then put back into service in Detroit as a rental.

That should result in a 50% increase in the fleet of buses. There might also be an immediate gain if the outside service business can push the fleet availability above 95%.

Detroit residents trying to get a bus to their jobs get a bus every 20 minutes instead of one every 30 minutes, maybe. The City of Detroit gets some money back up-front. ATU Local 26 gets more jobs as drivers because there are more buses to drive. Michigan CAT or whoever gets jobs and sets up a bay dedicated to rebuilding transit bus powertrain/drivetrains.


  1. Nice call. I wonder if the legislation requires the older buses to be destroyed?

    1. Old buses are sold to private operators. They are relatively cheap, in part, because they come with much deferred maintenance AND because they are so abundant.

  2. Makes too much sense, it'll never fly!

  3. Your article makes sense, that is why it will never be implemented. Cities with a overwhelming blue cast to them doesn't make decisions based on logic and what's best, feelings are paramount... Oh look! A shiny new bus we is getting!

  4. I’ve noticed a “class attitude”about bus riding. It’s just something our sort doesn't do. Growing up in Detroit in the 50’s and 60’s use of the bus was common. There weren’t many if any school busses so I rode the bus to High School ( Catholic school) and rode the bus to work. Getting home from work after the busses had stopped running for the night could be problematic. The system has gotten a lot a lot worse since then.

    1. I rode a bus across Lansing to get to Lansing Community College and later MSU. I would not have been able to afford college (quaint idea, that) if I had to pay for room-and-board.

  5. Here in Phoenix TPTB really, really wanted light rail. In their attempt to sell it to the public, they used as their shining example the light rail system of Portland, OR which had always been a money loser.

    The people did not want it, so the city commissioners went and did it anyway. They really wanted their toy train. They spent close hundreds of millions of dollars on it. It only goes a few places. That money could have bought literally a thousand new buses, enabling a great expansion of routes and longer operating hours. But no - they wanted their shiny choo choo train.

  6. Does that plan include an entire steam cleaning, power, washing, de-lousing of the interior?


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