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.

  • This seems pathological rather than admirable. 2 hours of sleep every night for a factory worker can’t possibly be a good thing. There’s no way there’s no jobs in fast food or something else closer to home.

  • planrb

    Rochester Hills and other opt-out communities should be ashamed!

  • C Monroe

    It is bad, because of the suburban bus system allows each suburb to opt in or out, you could have a job in one suburb that is 2 suburbs to the west. Sometimes you would have to travel East one suburb then south two then west three suburbs and finally north two suburbs to get to your destination. It could be a 20+mile trip if in a straight line is 5 or 6 miles.

  • LexS

    From reading other news sources about Mr. Robertson’s commute, he likes his job and where he works. It’s a respectable job with people he really enjoys working with. Additionally, he’s 56 years old, which makes it somewhat harder to get a new job, especially one in fast food, and even if he got that job, would he be guaranteed the 40 hours a week he gets today at his wage? They may even offer him good benefits that you can’t get from a fast food restaurant.

    While there may not be other people walking “21 miles a day”, I’m sure there are other people that have very long walks to their local transport service and very long transit commutes to get to jobs located in suburban areas with little to no direct transit available. There are many others out there working multiple jobs just to make ends meet where 8 hours of sleep is a luxury they can’t afford. At least with better transit, their lives could be easier, but their stories are ignored as “everyone in the suburbs is supposed to have a car and not need transit.”

  • totalitat

    One day a week, his coworkers couldn’t swing by and pick him up? I know they don’t live close by, but come on.

  • Joe Enoch

    I can’t help but think how much better this commute would be on a bicycle. I know there’s no bike infrastructure and this wouldn’t help on days of poor weather, but for most days, it would be so much better than the hell he currently goes through. Assuming he can maintain a very attainable 10 MPH in the insanely flat Detroit, that would cut his commute in half.

  • J

    We’ve designed our cities so it’s virtually impossible to get to work without a car, but our jobs often don’t pay enough for people to afford the car to get them there.

  • J

    This. The public response in Detroit, however, has been primarily to buy him a car.

  • Marc Dreyfuss

    I know this might be counter-intuitive for someone who can’t afford to own a car, but perhaps he should consider relocating. I understand why he may not want to – community, etc. – but it seems that maybe the problem here is less the lack of buses in an ultra-low-density suburb and more so a very illogical choice, especially considering that he’s working long hours probably 6 or 7 days a week. There are plenty of low-cost housing options in Pontiac, where supply far outweighs demand. It’s 6 miles from southeastern Pontiac to his work, and yes, there should be a bus along that route.

  • He lives 23 miles from his job, so it would still be far above average for a bike commute, but also far more do-able than 21 miles of walking, and probably much faster if you include all that time spent waiting for a bus. I think he enjoys the down-time on the bus, though.

  • #1. He might not be able to afford to live in the suburbs, which are largely segregated by both race and income. #2. It says in the Free Press article he and his girlfriend live in a Detroit home they received through inheritance, so that’s part of the reason he didn’t think moving made sense. Selling a home for a respectable price in Detroit is no slam dunk.

  • Gezellig

    “I’m sure there are other people that have very long walks to their local transport service and very long transit commutes to get to jobs located in suburban areas with little to no direct transit available.”

    And when there is technically (more or less) direct transit it can take hours to go distances that would be 25 minutes in a car. Attached are screenshots for car vs. transit for such a commute here in the Bay Area…from working-class/immigrant-heavy San Pablo in the East Bay to service jobs in affluent Mill Valley (Marin County).

    Good post on this kind of trip here:

    http://estecantor.blogspot.com/2007/07/commuting-to-promised-land.html

  • dr2chase

    Get him a Brompton. Not a money-pit like a car, portable onto a bus so he can still have that bus downtime if he likes that.

  • There should be adequate transit!!

  • Marc Dreyfuss

    Not to be crass, but generalizations aren’t evidence of anything. Pontiac is about a wealthy as Detroit and is overwhelmingly Black…and has very low household incomes. Not good things, but it sure is no less affordable than Detroit.

    As for your point about his house, that’s true. Though with no rent or mortgage or car, $20,000/year in Detroit isn’t nothing (although it’s close). If his gf has a job as well, that’s a substantial income without a car or set housing costs. He could find his house cannot be sold. Still, it seems absurd when there is a great deal of cheap housing MUCH closer to work.

  • The median home price in Rochester Hills is $268,000. http://www.zillow.com/rochester-hills-mi/home-values/ The median home price in Detroit was $43,000. http://www.trulia.com/real_estate/Detroit-Michigan/market-trends/

  • tom

    He could put a regular bike on the front of bus. I also live 23 miles from work. I bus 13 miles and bike 10. Takes about 75 minutes.

    My hats off to him for his perseverance.

  • J

    Bike + bus is what I had in mind. Also, it’s incredibly expensive to run frequent 24/7 bus service in low density places. Simply put, a solution that doesn’t increase density is unsustainble. Also, we need fewer highways, better bike infrastructure, and better urban design. We’ve created a problem so incredibly large, that we need to be addressing it with as many solutions as we possibly can.

  • Andy

    With so many options for getting places faster (bike, bus, longboard, rollerskates, carpool even partway) plus other life choices such as moving or finding a new job or moving closer to your current one, it seems like this guy just doesn’t care. That’s his deal of course, but I certainly don’t understand it or find it commendable given that nearly everyone else figures out solutions to this. It will be interesting to hear if there’s followup to what he’s going to do with the account that now has over a quarter million dollars. For someone working <$11/hr, he just got 10+ free years.

  • scottbchristopher

    Agreed. A related topic is that very good intentioned people saw this as a (lack of) car problem, NOT a transportation problem.

    He HAD a car previously. Cars are very expensive to insure, license, maintain and operate. It is usually the largest household expense after housing (in low-income families).

    Provide people with access to non-private vehicle transportation: Transit, safe bicycle and ped infrastructure.

  • Gezellig

    For those able to bike, the combo of bike + bus can be paradigm-changing. My own bus commute is only viable due to being able to bike the last mile.

    The only thing is you need adequate infrastructure to support bike + bus. When biking to the bus stop looks like this, a lot more people will do it:

    http://railzone.nl/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/IMG_6519.jpg

  • calwatch

    It is interesting, though, as when Cherokee Schill received attention for bicycling 18 miles one way no one offered to buy her a car. All I read in the comments were how she shouldn’t be biking in the road. Not to play the gender card but is there a double standard here?

  • Gezellig

    Probably some of that, and also anti-active-transport bias. A lot of (generally middle class and up) people in North America still see biking and maybe to a lesser extent even getting around on foot framed as something only to be done recreationally, not as utilitarian transportation.

    In some places even utilitarian walking is suspect:

    http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2015/01/16/maryland_parents_investigated_by_the_police_for_letting_their_kids_walk.html

    http://usa.streetsblog.org/2014/08/29/meet-the-mom-on-a-mission-to-bring-sidewalks-to-nashville/

  • Marc Dreyfuss

    And the Median home sale price in Pontiac – which is the neighboring suburb to which I referred, is $35K. Pontiac is 6 miles (give or take) from his job.

    Certainly there is a disconnect between bus service and job access, but the idea that buses can go all places for all people is financial unfeasible. It would be far more positive fiscally and environmentally and for quality of life to assist people to live closer to their jobs if affordable housing exist. I’m certainly not against transit, quite the opposite, but choosing to live far away when there ARE much closer affordable options does not demand public investment in ones commute.

    Should there be a bus from Pontiac to Rochester Hills? Certainly.

  • They might even find that wonder of wonders, their commute doesn’t even require a bus anymore.

  • murphstahoe

    Indeed. Crowd sourcing a new car for him just might break his bank.

  • Andy

    People walking on the sidewalk are much less “in the way” than people biking with traffic.

  • Catz

    Rochester Hills doesn’t participate in the SMART bus program. There is no other alternative.

  • Alicia

    There are a lot of other factors that were different in the two cases and could explain different reactions. 1 – Walking on the sidewalk or grass is not considered in the way while biking on the street is; 2 – Schill is an active and vocal champion for bike access; she doesn’t consider biking a hardship; 3 – This guy’s story came out in the middle of a Michigan winter, right after the Detroit area got hit with about a foot of snow. Schill’s story made headlines last spring, in warmer weather. 4 – Schill was cited by the police for biking, and some people automatically believe that anything law enforcement does is correct and proper.

  • Greg

    I would like to send James a free set of Nordic Walking poles. How would I go about doing this?

    Greg
    greg.bellamy@nordixx.com

  • Jim Norsworthy

    She was offered a car by several people that were also willing to pay the associated costs i.e. insurance.

  • C Monroe

    Uh the problem is the horrible bus service. Update is that a dealership gave him a brand new Taurus, he then went to the casino.
    I am serious. Now there are people who are upset that they donated to the guy and he took some of the money and gambled with it. Also he lived with his girlfriend and did not pay rent(she owned and paid the taxes).

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