Building a SMARTer Regional Transit System

By Dwight Ferrell | 11/17/2023

General Manager
Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART)
Detroit, MI

Serving and recruiting a diverse population

On August 11, 1980, I got behind the wheel of a bus for the first time. That’s the day I started training for Dallas Transit, where I was an operator for 10 years. Much has changed since then. Unfortunately, many of the work rules that were roadblocks to a healthy work-life balance 43 years ago have not. If we are going to solve the acute driver shortage plaguing transit operations nationwide, that must change.

As the southeast Michigan regional transit system, SMART serves three counties and an incredibly diverse population. The population of the city of Detroit is 78 percent Black, and our region is home to the largest Arab American population in the country. The Asian American and Hispanic populations are the two fastest-growing demographics in metro Detroit. Our service area is home to eight of Michigan’s 10 wealthiest zip codes, while one county we serve has the state’s third highest poverty rate.

That economic, racial, ethnic and cultural diversity translates to vastly different transit needs and viewpoints about the value and role of transit in our community. We must understand and embrace this fact when we engage with the public we serve and the people we want to employ.

And, like every other public transit operation, we need to know how to reach a new generation of riders and prospective employees. Millennials and Gen Z have different priorities and habits than their parents and grandparents. We can’t expect to serve a digital generation with analog technology or attract a new generation of talent by holding to a past generation’s priorities.

This demands that we update communications, systems and services to meet the diverse needs of the people we serve. If we want our workforce to reflect our community, this also demands that we think smarter and meet people where they are. We need to speak their language, and we need work rules and incentives that encourage a healthier work-life balance than I experienced in 1980.

SMARTer mobility

SMART’s service area covers more than 2,000 square miles, and we have an annual ridership of 11 million.

Thanks to voter support for a triune of Detroit Metro transit millages in November 2022, SMART is innovating, closing service gaps and building a more flexible and comprehensive regional transit system.

Earlier this year, we brought on global transit consultant, Michael Baker International, to lead our SMARTer Mobility Program planning. We are evaluating our fixed route/ADA, connector general service, and microtransit pilot program. This analysis will guide our service enhancement and expansion plans going forward.

The process is collaborative, engaging diverse voices and interests throughout the region through a community-based project steering committee, onboard and online surveys, online forums and public meetings.

These diverse voices and interests will help shape how we:

  • Establish permanent microtransit service, fully integrated with fixed-route service;
  • Improve technology-related services, including a user-friendly app for all area transportation services;
  • Expand transit within new service areas in a responsible, efficient and sustainable manner; and
  • Create a data-driven and community-supported program.

While planning is in the early stages, we launched a significant service expansion on September 11, adding 68 stops and enhancing transit options for passengers in three Oakland County cities, with expanded routes slated for two more cities in spring of 2024.

A SMARTer and more caring approach

At the same time, SMART continues to face a shortage of qualified drivers, which has forced us to reduce service on some routes. That has had a real impact on the people we serve. This is not acceptable, and we’re working to fix the problem.

But the solution is neither simple nor singular. We’re taking a multi-faceted, strategic approach to overcome a decades-long and complex set of challenges plaguing our system. “We’ve always done it that way” is no longer the criteria for what we do and why we do it. We’re thinking smarter on the recruitment front. We’ve launched innovative strategies to break down barriers to employment and to attract and retain a diverse pool of drivers reflective of our community.

For instance, we hosted the Drive a Bus With Us career fair at M1 Concourse in June. There, job applicants and media could test drive a bus and other SMART vehicles, learn about SMART careers and apply for a job onsite. We partnered with Oakland County Michigan Works! to help clear roadblocks to employment. They provided information on CDL licensing, free legal assistance programs for people eligible for conviction expungement and support services for veterans, immigrants, refugees and other job seekers. We’re planning similar events in Wayne and Macomb counties.

We’ve met with editorial boards at multicultural media outlets and launched multilingual recruitment campaigns designed to reach deep into Black, Arab American, Hispanic, Latinx, Asian Pacific American and Jewish communities that may not have previously considered a SMART job.

And we’re looking at ways to engage online influencers and grassroots community groups to help us reach new and relevant audiences.

On the retention front, increasing wages is an important step. Our aim is to be the highest paying transit organization in Michigan. As our contract negotiations continue, we have that goal in mind.

However, to fully address the driver shortage, we’re also prioritizing quality of life.

We’re taking aim at split shifts and inconsistent schedules. We’re looking, instead, at healthy, predictable schedules that will allow people to more easily plan childcare, time with their families and time off.

Additionally, we’re investing in employees’ upward mobility with tuition reimbursement, assistance in paying off student loans and a retention bonus. We chose an insurance plan with strong behavioral health benefits, and we’re considering a wellness program. We’re also helping people plan for retirement with a pension plan, an optional 401A and retirement planning seminars.

As we aim to become an employer of choice in southeast Michigan, we’re taking a more caring, human and modern approach, empowering employees to be their best at work and enjoy a healthy work-life balance.