How Detroit's buses can make your city better

detroit michigan downtown

Taking public transportation in Detroit can mean a long wait for a rundown bus that doesn't come on time.

But that's changing thanks to a partnership between a startup and the Detroit Department of Transportation. Transit Labs, a company that uses data to make transportation systems more efficient, is in the middle of a one-year pilot program that's analyzing how people move around the city, and where public transit is failing them.

Detroit's transit system hasn't changed in over 50 years, but in that time the city has gone through a massive transformation -- its population has declined 63% since 1950. It's finally starting to rebound from economic disaster and is taking a new approach to improving infrastructure.

"You hear all the bad stories about Detroit, but the transit system has great drivers, great mechanics and a solid management team," said Dag Gogue, CEO of Transit Labs, which launched in 2012 and is based in Washington, D.C.

What the city doesn't have is a comprehensive view of the entire network. That means there's no way to look at community demand and match it with an appropriate schedule.

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Transit Labs is comparing where people work versus where they live and evaluating the location of the stops compared to vacant houses. (A recent report found that about 30% of the city's buildings are vacant.) The goal is to reposition existing bus routes to be more effective and efficient.

The partnership between Transit Labs and Detroit shows the value of entrepreneurs and city organizations working together. But it isn't always easy.

"Public officials sometimes face a lot of scrutiny, so they tend to be risk averse, and startups, by their nature, embrace risk," Gogue said.

These issues were highlighted in a report released Friday by 1776, a D.C. startup incubator, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The report surveyed 230 entrepreneurs in eight cities (Detroit, Austin, Boston, Chicago, New Orleans, New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.). The report found, among other things, that the strength of the local tech scene depended on people's commitment to collaboration. Teamwork is key and city involvement is crucial.

"The government needs to understand that every single industry is about to change [because of technology]," said Donna Harris, co-founder of 1776.

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The report identified ways to build those relationships and foster innovation, like making it easier for entrepreneurs to work with city officials to solve existing problems. The report also said it needs to be easier for startups to access capital.

Part of what helped get the Transit Labs partnership off the ground was the commitment of Detroit's mayor, Mike Duggan. It also helped that Gogue was willing to work for free instead of waiting for government funding.

As a new business, Gogue is betting on the idea that if he can show that his technology helped turn around Detroit, other cities will sign up too. He already has programs in place with several other cities, including Birmingham, Ala. and Flagstaff, Ariz.

For entrepreneurs looking to work closer with city governments, Gogue had one word of advice: "Perseverance."

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