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.
This week we’re joined by Bob Searns to talk about his new book and grand ideas for walking trails that circle whole regions and more local routes that make up a new mode of green infrastructure in cities.
“No one alive today is necessarily responsible for the origins of the [transportation] inequities that we inherited. But everybody who was alive today and in a position of responsibility, is accountable for what we do about it. That's why we're here.”