Important now: Create a strategic plan for your transportation system that clearly expresses your mission, commit to your chosen modes of transportation, develop solid infrastructure, maintain a state of good repair and never forget that the safety and security of frontline employees are a key component of success.
The clanking of bus doors, their groaning brakes, quivering seats, roaring engines are all mollifying sounds to C. Mikel Oglesby. As a young boy he journeyed bus routes throughout Boston with his father who was an operator for 34 years with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), an agency he too would join for much of his career.
Today, Oglesby is the executive director of Transit for the City of Detroit overseeing Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT), the office of mobility, People mover and the transit police department.
While his father was earning the highest seniority status as a bus operator back in Boston, Oglesby was rising through the ranks at the MBTA eventually ascending to assistant general manager of what became the fourth largest multi-modal transit system in the US.
The mutual admiration between father and son nurtured a career spanning over thirty years for the younger Oglesby. “It’s in my family’s blood and that’s what drove me to the transportation industry,” he says.
Oglesby is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and has management experience in several areas of transportation including fixed route, paratransit, light and heavy rail service and maintenance. He has also held directorships at the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority and the SunLine Transit Agency in Coachella Valley, CA.
In the following interview, Oglesby talks about the challenges posed by Covid, key components of a successful transportation system and how he plans to make Detroit’s transit system the finest in Michigan.
You assumed the helm of the department at a difficult time last May when Covid was surging. What were your biggest challenges?
Providing transportation with reduced capacity on each vehicle. A normal vehicle allows 40 people on a bus. When I arrived, it was reduced to 10 for safety reasons. Riders were required to board from the rear, they were riding in the back, and it was free. That created challenges.
There were times when a bus would pull up and it looked empty because of the reduced capacity requirements so people would complain. There were many people getting on the bus who did not have a destination. Unfortunately, you can’t say to someone, “You’ve been on the bus going in circles now you have to get off because this person is a first responder and has to go to work.” You couldn’t tell who was riding to get somewhere, you just had to provide the transportation. That was the biggest problem and continues to be.
I could go on and on about how ridership was affected during the pandemic, but the good news is, I was really focused on the safety of operators and riders and implemented barriers. I promised I would not charge a fare for transportation until it was safe for the rider and the operator.
We implemented a three-step approach. 1) Install barriers for the operators. 2) Provide masks for all operators and 3) Give them the opportunity to take the vaccine. With those safety measures in place, DDOT was able to charge fares again, board from the front of the bus and increase the number of riders to 20 passengers on a 40-foot vehicle and 26 passengers on the larger vehicles.
It has been a short period of time so it’s hard to say how it will all effect ridership, but I can say that based on information I have received over the past 15 days, overcrowding has been reduced by over 22%.
I have been in transit for 30 years or so and was always taught to put as many people on a bus as safely as possible; that’s a good thing and it’s what I’ve been trained to do. But because of the pandemic and the restrictions everything is different.
What accomplishments are you most proud of during the past 10 months?
We have safer service, [safety] barriers, and have been providing retraining to the operators. Customer service has also been key because tensions are so high and I’m very proud of how we were able to address those issues. We distributed two million masks to riders and were one of the first transit systems in the industry to do so.
We were also able to push forward a project for electric busses and by end of the year we will have four electric Proterra busses in service as well as a charging station. We had been pushing diligently for this during the pandemic and have been able to move forward with that project.
Also, the city worked on the development of part of the State Fair Grounds which included plans to add transit. We are working with the Detroit Building Authority now with $7 million in funding for a new transit center which be at the end of the transit line (read more about the State Fair site in an upcoming CityRevive article).
I read that for decades DDOT and other regional agencies such as SMART transit have not effectively worked together. How much headway have you made on this and can you provide examples?
A prime example of change is the reinstitution of fares. A lot of people were surprised that DDOT and SMART reinstituted fares simultaneously as a joint effort. We are also working together on a contactless fare system. From a marketing standpoint we have been in lockstep all the way.
I made a vow with Robert Cramer [deputy general manager for SMART] to work together because it is the only way people in Detroit and on the outskirts will get the right service.
Things have changed since I’ve been on board. My goal is to work together with everybody to make sure we have a premier transit system.
Yes. One of the reasons I’ve been hired as executive director is to oversee the People Mover and DDOT and we work hand in hand. I have been working in lockstep with Qline as they make decisions moving forward. Due to Covid they haven’t been running but we have had conversations on how we will work together when they relaunch and get up and moving. The M1 service is provided by a private company and we are all working together.
What is your overall vision and plans for making Detroit’s transportation system more efficient for riders?
My overall vision is to provide basic transportation safely using all of our strengths. We don’t know what things will look like post-pandemic, but I intend to develop a new strategic plan within the next 12 months.
I do know that we want to be looked at as a premier transit system in Michigan. We want to advance public transit to reduce traffic congestion and this can only be done with improved service. DDOT needs a comprehensive operational analysis that looks at the entire system and the services needed now.
We need to focus on our green footprint. It is great we have four pilot busses coming onboard but we need to take this to the next level, see how these vehicles perform and explore all avenues that will lead to vehicles that will perform the best for the future of Detroit. We are also working with the automotive industry to advance electric vehicles. We have the opportunity now to create the infrastructure needed for longevity and sustainability.
We need to take a hard look at the People mover infrastructure and improving and expanding the system to get more ridership beyond downtown.
Safety and security are a major focus. We are adding to our police programs as a preventive measure. We have a very small transportation police force with about 38 officers. For our service area, that is not enough. We are going to slowly increase their presence to be able to respond quicker to situations and give people a safe feeling when riding the bus.
One reason I’m focused on security on busses is because of our operators. I spoke with over 300 of them and they all said the same thing: “We want to feel safe while we provide transportation.” They want to be protected from any physical threat. Not everybody getting on a bus is a physical threat, but it is a major concern and I want to prove to them I care.
Importantly, I really want to get back to basics. Our transit system can do a lot better. I know once we get to the point where this pandemic slows down and we are able to increase capacity, we are going to have more people riding on the system and we need to make sure it’s reliable, solid and in a state of good repair. We want to be looking at potential future expansion and routes. But that can’t be done unless we make sure that what we currently have is working well.
In all of your decades of experience in transportation what is the most important aspects for cities to have as a foundation for an efficient transportation system?
For a solid foundation you must have a state of good repair and solid infrastructure. You have to make a decision on what mode of transportation you are going to provide and commit to it. All aspects of safety are key. Maintenance is important; you need vehicles that are reliable and can be maintained. You also need the employees who not only want to, but who are trained to operate and maintain those vehicles safely and efficiently.
One of the most important parts of any transit system are your frontline employees; you must have their buy-in. You need a strategic plan that any higher up whether they be a council person, a board member or a politician can look at and say, “Wow this is what DDOT is all about and what their mission is.” And you want the operators to read that exact same document and say, “This is why I come to work every day.” That is a very important key to success in a transit system.
In the short time you have been in Detroit what has impressed you most?
Detroit pride. That really stands out and its fantastic. I am from Boston and I thought nobody could top their pride, especially in sports. People here really care about Detroit and want the best for the city. I know the mayor wants the best transit for Detroit; that is the first thing he said to me. I see the incredible potential for the advancement that Detroiters want to see. I feel my experience can take what we have and bring transit to the next level and give the people of Detroit a system they deserve.
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