Skip to Content
Streetsblog USA home
Streetsblog USA home
Log In
Detroit

Man Walks 21 Miles to Commute Each Day Because of Detroit’s Awful Transit

A piece in the Detroit Free Press about 56-year-old factory worker James Robertson and his 21-mile round-trip walking commute to the Detroit suburbs is going viral this week. It is both an amazing story of individual perseverance and a scathing indictment of a failing transportation system.

Robertson's total commute is actually a 46-mile round-trip, split between different buses and a marathon walk. He has been taking this route to reach his job in Rochester Hills from his home in Detroit since his Honda Accord died 10 years ago, he told the Detroit Free Press. Baldwin can't afford a new car on the wages from his $10-an-hour job.

Despite this formidable obstacle, Robertson has never missed a day of work. "I can't imagine not working," he told the paper.

Readers from around the country who were inspired by Robertson's story have raised $72,000 for him (at the time we published), more than enough to get a car. But a crowdfunded car can't help everyone who's in a similar situation in Detroit.

CeCe Grant, executive director of Americans for Transit, says Robertson's situation is "partially by cruel design." Detroit's suburban bus system, SMART, allows municipalities to "opt-out." That "has always sported a sharp cultural edge, because it nudges up against the notion that some communities don't want 'those people,' be they Detroiters or blacks or bus riders, coming through their locales," she said. "Because Rochester Hills doesn't participate in SMART, Robertson must walk the last seven miles of his journey to work -- after taking a SMART bus as far as it can reach into Oakland County."

Detroit is in the bottom tier of major American metros when it comes to job accessibility via transit, according to the University of Minnesota's Access Across America study, rating below sprawling Sunbelt cities like Atlanta and Tampa.

That could change with the passage of legislation to fund a new regional transit agency for Detroit, which will be on the ballot later this year. But the long campaign for a stable regional transit system will have to overcome some unfortunate timing. Writing for U.S. News and World Report, The Century Foundation's Jacob Anbinder notes that Governor Rick Snyder will appeal to voters in May to raise $1.2 billion in taxes for the state's infrastructure -- mostly roads. Will metro Detroit residents have the appetite for another transportation tax increase when they vote on Detroit's RTA in November?

They'll have to, or else other people like Robertson will remain cut off from jobs by a car-centric transportation system.

"Even if my situation changes, I'll never forget, there are so many other people who are in my situation," Robertson told the Detroit Free Press.

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter

More from Streetsblog USA

Friday’s Headlines Go Back to the Future

If you liked the first Trump administration's transportation policies, you're going to love the second Trump administration's transportation policies.

July 19, 2024

Advocates Share What It Takes to Fight Highway Expansions in Court 

What does it take to sue your state DOT? Time, money, the right partners, and a little creativity, a recent survey of activists found.

July 19, 2024

Friday Video: Paris Does it Again

Come for the bike-friendly streets, but stay for adopt-a-tree program and all the car-free school roadways.

July 19, 2024

Talking Headways Podcast: IrrePLACEable

Kevin Kelley on his book Irreplaceable: How to Create Extraordinary Places that Bring People Together, and the future of downtowns.

July 18, 2024

This Heat Wave is a Car Dependency Problem

Our quickly warming planet has a unique impact on people who don't or can't drive — and we need policy action to protect their health.

July 18, 2024
See all posts