Gabby Ceritano/Daily. Buy this photo.

Every winter morning before the glow of dawn, Dennis Wells, a custodian working in North Quad Residence Hall, waits on East Huron Street for TheRide Route 4 to take him home to Ypsilanti. According to Google Maps, the estimated commuting time, including waiting, is around an hour.

“There are several working-class people that I see on a daily basis,” Wells said. “We are all very dependent on (public transit).” 

Wells said he lives in Ypsilanti due to the high cost of living in Ann Arbor. He said he commutes to Ann Arbor every day, and he’s not alone in his situation. 

University spokesperson Kim Broekhuizen told The Michigan Daily in an email that 3,925 permanent and 515 temporary U-M employees currently live in Ypsilanti. According to Census data (2019), there are 38,447 workers who commute into Ann Arbor regularly compared to 7,587 who travel within the city day in and day out.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, TheRide had implemented a temporary service plan that aimed to minimize crowding on buses through simplifying bus routes and reducing routes. The first plan — which was introduced in March 2020 — included significantly reduced service to Ypsilanti, leaving many commuters at a loss for transportation.

In January 2021, TheRide brought back most of the routes to Ypsilanti, which Wells said was a huge relief. While he also pointed out that the service capacity and ridership haven’t completely returned to the pre-pandemic level, especially in the direction of Ypsilanti, he is confident it can bounce back in time.

“If everything gets straightened out in time, the (bus) timing will improve back to normal,” Well said. “Once more people get back to work, it will adjust back with the working-class people.”

Rackham student Anthony Balistreri said he commutes on Route 25 from southern Ann Arbor to campus on a daily basis. He told The Daily that the waiting time for a bus to campus has been longer since one route stopped covering his apartment after the pandemic hit. 

“I was very satisfied with (TheRide) before. I am still satisfied with the crowd level, (but) there are less routes that go the way I’d like to take, so I am less satisfied now,” Balistreri said. 

The declining ridership, which are likely due to either rising remote work or fear of catching viruses, has taken a toll on TheRide’s financial metrics. According to its Q3 financial statement, in 2021, the fare and contracts revenue was 22% lower than budgeted, accompanied by the 39% decline in ridership From the same period in 2019. 

Samantha Potter, Marketing and Communications Coordinator of TheRide, said the bus service is hoping to see a 70% return to its pre-pandemic ridership in 2022. 

“We are seeing about an 80% increase in ridership from July-September 2021 in comparison to the same months in 2020,” Potter wrote in an email to The Daily. “TheRide hopes to gain 50% of their pre-pandemic ridership levels as 2021 ends. We predict that we’ll gain 70% of pre-pandemic ridership levels in 2022.”

In spite of the pandemic challenges, TheRide is eyeing long-term plans to improve residents’ mobility in the Ann Arbor area. In April 2021, the company resumed public engagement for its long-range plan, “TheRide 2045”, after it was halted last year due to the pandemic. 

TheRide 2045 details several improvement scenarios, including minor enhancements with express routes along transportation corridors and a 12% faster commute on average. These improvements are designed to ensure that the vast majority of the city is covered by high frequency services while new infrastructure design is adopted to accommodate rapid transit services between key centers.

The plan is still receiving online public comments and is scheduled to be finalized by March 2022.

Forest Yang, Deputy CEO of TheRide, added further details on how the express and local buses will work together to better serve workers and students who depend on the service.

“The express buses will operate in parallel with the local buses,” Yang wrote in an email to The Daily. “For example, Route 4 along Washtenaw will continue to operate to serve all stops and the express route will connect the Ypsilanti Transit Center and the Blake Transit Center with no or limited stops in between. Most riders including workers and students will benefit from this service.”

Multiple regular commuters told The Daily they were not aware of TheRide 2045 plan. However, they identified some potential aspects for improvement that were also identified in the “What We Heard” report by TheRide based on input from the public. 

Nicholas Gies, an employee at Jerusalem Garden, said his home is on Dexter Avenue. Gies said he used to work in a restaurant bar and suggested that TheRide could consider increasing weekend routes for service workers’ convenience.

“On weekends, more people go out to dinner, drinks and social events so then I have to get home later,” Gies said. “It would be nicer if (TheRide) runs a little bit later.” 

The report also listed “personal” and “accessibility” as high-frequency comments. Bobby Motley, who currently organizes tents to accommodate homeless individuals near the University of Michigan Hospital, suggested that small adjustments could go a long way in enhancing accessibility for marginalized communities.

“Currently, TheRide provides free senior pass for people over 65 years old,” Motley said. “However, people at my age (62) might also need support. I have chronic pain and one of my eyes is blind, and COVID also takes a toll. People at my age with chronic mental problems, physical handicaps or homelessness should also be considered senior citizens.”

Yang added that TheRide regards transportation as an integral part of city planning, and its improvement and advocacy efforts extend beyond transportation. Yang told The Daily that TheRide is also working with the city in its affordable housing development.

“TheRide always encourages higher-density residential developments and service/employment centers to be located along or close to a transit corridor, so transit service to these locations are available or can be provided efficiently,” Yang wrote. “We have been working with the Housing Commission on some of their new projects and will continue working with them to ensure ongoing collaboration and efficient use of our resources.”

Daily Staff Reporter Chen Lyu can be reached at lyuch@umich.edu.