Freshwater: Using Enthusiasm to Source Startup Talent for Public Transit

“Scheduling? The word is music to my ears. Who else thinks “fun” when they hear “scheduling”? Raise your hands!” Neil Greenberg squints into the standing-room only audience of the Elizabeth Theater on the second floor of Park Bar, the venue for the first CONNECTION meeting of Freshwater Transit. Indeed a few cautious hands go up, outing their owners’ passion for scheduling and fellow transit-nerdiness. Greenberg launches into another salvo on the nitty-gritty of transit planning and operations and the crowd begins to relax. He’s gregarious, jokey, the avatar of that overzealous high-school math teacher who doesn’t just want you to learn that algebra, but wants you to really believe in it. In Neil Greenberg, founder of Freshwater Railways (now re-branded as Freshwater Transit) the audience has found a speaker so unapologetically geeked out on transportation that even the most mundane detail leaves his mouth packing an oratorical punch. And tonight, Neil has not asked people to come out to merely sit as his audience. Instead, he is asking them to be his business partners…

Freshwater began as one of those crazy ideas that makes perfect TED-talk fodder. Indeed, attendees at this year’s TEDxDetroit may recall Greenberg’s presentation, pitching quality design concepts as a vehicle for re-imagining the City’s deeply dysfunctional public transit. That’s Freshwater’s big-picture idea; since transit policy is an awkwardly uninteresting topic for many people, Greenberg set out to re-brand the idea of Detroit’s public transit itself.

It wasn’t easy to figure out a hook. Most people rarely pause to consider the back-end of transit; scheduling, operations, funding sources (except when they have to vote for a millage) and are not particularly literate in the vocabulary of transit policy. Hence, though many Detroiters are legitimate stakeholders in improved public transit, they often fail to recognize that transportation systems are fundamentally a political issue that can be influence through their participation. This is particularly troubling given that fuel has become the second highest household expense after rent, and those costs have made cars increasingly unaffordable. That means that for many Detroiters, the ability to seek employment, gain access to healthcare or make use of public institutions is geographically restricted to the ever-shrinking routes of a notoriously unreliable bus service.

But how do you get people to start caring, and more importantly, how do you get them involved? Greenberg’s solution was simple; make the vision for Detroit’s future transit system specific and concrete. Though perhaps unfamiliar with the devilish details, most people know how to read a bus map, and maps inform the way they imagine the importance of transit in their daily commute. Drawing on his professional experience making transit maps for other cities, Greenberg laid out a sweeping vision for a metropolitan and regional transit system in Southeast Michigan consisting of light rail lines and expanded bus service that could connect key economic hubs and expand commute opportunities for millions. He posted these maps on his website and low and behold, people started to take note.

Proposed route for Relay Bus - visit Freshwater for full schedules.
It wasn’t long before Greenberg and Stephen Maiseloff, Freshwater’s organizational partner, started dreaming bigger. They printed posters of the visionary route maps and began hanging them in public places. They made Freshwater fare tickets and handed them out to people. Some people were confused, then elated. Can I really take the bus to work? The psychological effect of these relatively minor acts is hard to overstate. People began thinking about transit in a different way, and functional public transportation in the Motor City moved from the scrap heap of pipe-dreams to become part of the conversation.

But now it seems that many of these questions about the future of transit are coming to a head. It’s no secret that Detroit has a budget problem, and but now there are rumbling about the City’s public transit systems being put out for private bidding early next year. Mayor Dave Bing had already proposed transit privatization during previous bankruptcy threats, and many on the City Council have come around to his thinking. In part, this is in response to legitimate pressure from state and federal officials that governments take the lead on regionalizing transit systems. Greenberg speculates that city manager’s are operating under the illusion that by privatizing the service, especially the economically vital bus service, they can achieve the same benefits through a private operator without having to fund it with public dollars. “That’s ridiculous,” says Neil. “There’s an 87% budget gap once you’ve factored in fare revenues. There’s no privatized Metro transit system in the country that pays for itself. Public transit is a public good, and it requires public investment.”

Based on over a decade of professional experience in the transit industry, Greenberg believes that privatization could prove disastrous for Detroit if executed with opportunistic haste. Standing on the stage at CONNECTION, Greenberg turns turns towards his audience with an expression turned suddenly serious. “We are going to face a choice in this city about what happens to the future of our transit system. I don’t believe in the leadership of the lowest bidder. I believe in leadership by people who have a vested interest in the future of this city.” The crowd’s applause is heartfelt, yet cautious. What exactly was being asked of them?

The Freshwater Transit approach has now moved from dreaming big to a much more tangible form of audacity. “Our plan is to form a public, not-for-profit corporation,” Greenberg said, measuring the incredulity in his audience’s eyes, “And then, bid on the contract to run the bus system. With your help, we can do it. I’ve worked in transit for the past decade, I have the experience, but we need the team. So tonight I’m asking you to join me. Are you in?”

Entrepreneurs know the problem of sourcing talented collaborators for start-ups. You are asking people to work harder than they’ve maybe ever worked before, with a significant likelihood that nothing will come of it. You are asking them to bet on you, and bet with their time, money and yes, their future hopes. That was what Neil Greenberg asked the crowd above Park Bar that night, to bet on him, his passion and experience, to tell their friends and family about Freshwater. But not just that, he asked them to literally join him — not in some abstracted social media “Like” or “Follow” sense — to join him and Stephen and others as partners in running Detroit’s transit Freshwater is awarded the City’s bus contract. To a crowd of relative strangers, it’s a pretty amazing ask.

*The author would like to thank Hannah Kelley and Detroit’s TRU, as well as everyone who participated in the Freshwater event. If you’re interested in learning more about Freshwater (@fwtransit), regular CONNECTION meetings will be held starting the Monday after Thanksgiving at 7:00 PM at Park Bar in Detroit.

  • I was downstairs at open city event. Never heard about your event upstairs. Now I know, see you next Monday…Now for Minneapolis transit for a few days…

  • Yay, a Midtown People Mover. This is a bad call, Edmund. This is a bus system for the affluent. Additionally, people in these neighborhoods don’t take the bus. We have a bus system that is worthy of fixing that goes into neighborhoods that are far better served by having this option.

    • Craig — thanks for the input. The graphic chosen for this article only represents -part- of our effort. We ABSOLUTELY intend to improve transit across the city — not just in Midtown. Right now, we’re working on a series of reimagined bus routes that hook ALL neighborhoods into the network. In the coming weeks, we’ll roll out snapshots of the services we propose. They represent an evolution from today’s outdated bus system… into a stronger system that can better respond to current and emerging travel trends. Stay tuned!

      • Thanks for the reply. Don’t be the “Detroit Bus Company.” Make REAL transit solutions for ALL classes.