Detroit Bus Strike Slows City, Wins Safety Promises from Mayor

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A Detroit bus stop. (By Flickr user JSmith Photo)

About 100 Detroit city bus drivers refused to work this morning to demand safer working conditions after a driver was beaten by a group of teens on Thursday afternoon at the city's main transit terminal.

Riders were stranded across the city until after lunch--more than 100,000 people use the transit system daily. Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, who has been criticized for not paying enough attention to transit, reacted quickly by promising new measures to improve safety for drivers and riders alike. Buses were rolling again by 1:30pm, according to Mayor Bing.

WDET reporter Quinn Klinefelter tells Transportation Nation the strike comes after months of mounting frustration. For the past six months the city and the union representing bus mechanics have been sparring, resulting in what the city calls a slowdown. "So there should be 300 or so buses on the road but there have been only 200 buses," Klinefelter says. That's led to hour-long delays and an increasingly dissatisfied ridership, some of whom have been taking it out on drivers.

Kleinfelter says that on Thursday, "a driver got off and got beaten up by teenagers" at the Rosa Parks Transit Station in downtown Detroit. The number of teens and exact circumstances are still unclear. The Detroit Free Press reports the teenagers were angered that the driver refused to wait for their friend. It took police 30 minutes to arrive even though headquarters is only blocks away.

In response to the attack and slow police response, this morning 100 drivers showed up to work but refused to get on the buses and drive, saying they didn't feel safe behind the wheel.

Mayor Bing, finding himself confronted by a second transit union, scrambled to react and get buses rolling again. He told a press gathering this afternoon that he had met with drivers, DDOT officials and Detroit Police about driver safety today. He said they reached "an understanding."

"The city is committed to providing security to both bus drivers and passengers alike," Bing said. "There will be zero tolerance for unacceptable behavior toward our bus drivers." He said the Detroit Police Department will institute random stops of buses to inspect them for safety and additional officers will be stationed at the Rosa Parks Transit Station. He also announced a $1,000 reward for tips leading to arrests of the attackers.

WDET's Klinefelter said Henry Gaffney, the head of Amalgamated Transit Workers' Union Local 26 representing the drivers, told WDET the city has agreed to put in bullet proof partitions around drivers. The city, however, denied any knowledge of the promise to Klinefelter.

Speaking to WDET earlier in the day, Megan Owens, the Executive Director of Transportation Riders United, explained why this strike was a long time coming. "For a lot of DDOT drivers [the attack] was the straw that broke the camel's back. They've been bearing the brunt of the bus problems for a long time with passengers verbally assaulting drivers pretty frequently, and they say if they can't feel safe going out on the roads, they're not going to drive."

The full conversation with WDET covers systemic needs and root causes behind today's strike in more detail. She argues the full DDOT system has been ignored and underfunded for years and calls for a regional transit authority to be created.

For a sense of the inconvenience the unannounced work action caused, see this video by the Detroit Free Press with stranded riders from earlier this morning.