Stories About Marathon Walking Commuters Receiving Benevolent Donations of Cars Are Actually Terrible

These stories aren't heartwarming. They highlight systemic, persistent injustice that goes unaddressed.

We've heard this story before and we'll hear it again. Because the core problem is never solved. Photo: AL.com
We've heard this story before and we'll hear it again. Because the core problem is never solved. Photo: AL.com

Maybe you’ve noticed the new genre of feel-good viral story going around: Someone — usually a black man — is forced to walk an insane distance, at least a dozen miles, to get to work. But then someone else — his boss, GoFundMe — saves the day by buying him a car.

First there was James Robertson, Detroit’s “Walking Man,” whose 21-mile roundtrip walking commute to his factory job in suburban Detroit caught fire in 2016. This week, the man whose story people can’t stop sharing is Walter Carr of Birmingham. When his vehicle broke down and he had to walk 20 miles to his new job at a moving company, Carr’s boss gave him a Ford Escape.

Heartwarming, right? No. It’s really not.

The work ethic and determination of these men is stunning, but don’t paint their stories as triumphs of the American spirit. When we hear about desperate, exhausting commutes to jobs far away from home, we’re being confronted by the reality that in places like Birmingham and Detroit, employment is out of reach unless you have the means to own a car.

Birmingham ranks last — dead last — in transit access to jobs among the 50 largest regions in the country, according to a 2014 analysis by researchers at the University of Minnesota. For the average resident, only 3 percent of the region’s jobs are within reach of a one-way transit trip in under 60 minutes. If you don’t have a car in Birmingham, your options for gainful employment are vanishingly small.

Dig into the story a little bit and there are other red flags. For example, Carr was picked up by police because he was walking (while black), and the officers took him out for breakfast when “his story checked out,” reports Carol Robinson at the Birmingham News. What appears as a friendly interaction in the article began as an instance of racial profiling, where Carr had to prove his worth as a human being.

Most people probably wouldn’t have shown as much grit as Carr. Why should they? In a more humane world, people wouldn’t have to make impossible choices between risking your life on a marathon commute and holding down the job you need to survive.

  • calwatch

    On the other hand, walking down US 280 at 3 am, a six lane highway with no pedestrian accommodations at all (not even a shoulder), and probably not willing to risk injury by going on the grass at night, I would hope a police officer would stop and ask if they needed assistance, regardless of their race. https://www.google.com/maps/@33.4116007,-86.6649745,3a,75y,220.13h,77.83t/data=!3m7!1e1!3m5!1sD5wrZHz-k56AYFY3kkUzVQ!2e0!6s%2F%2Fgeo0.ggpht.com%2Fcbk%3Fpanoid%3DD5wrZHz-k56AYFY3kkUzVQ%26output%3Dthumbnail%26cb_client%3Dmaps_sv.tactile.gps%26thumb%3D2%26w%3D203%26h%3D100%26yaw%3D66.970276%26pitch%3D0%26thumbfov%3D100!7i13312!8i6656

  • Larry Reid

    The person walking down the road could have been any color/race and generally the police reaction, by training, would have been the same. The first narration of the story of human interest/kindness/sharing was appropriate. Angie Schmitt, your take is just sour grapes and accomplishes nothing, except you apparently espouse some aspect of the welfare state.

  • Please pack away the violins. If your ire is on crappy public transit options in major metropolitan areas then focus on that, but lay off on racial profiling and “digging into the story.” People of all races suffer horrific daily commutes. Your “article” merely whines about a terrible situation while offering zero suggestions or solutions.

  • disqus_1pvtRUVrlr

    Jesus the SJW stuff that keeps coming from this site is amazing. As a white male years ago I was stopped by police while walking home on a busy road late at night. And after things checked out, I got to keep walking and eventually caught a ride with someone willing to pick up a hitchhiker. No ride. No breakfast. Just a line of questioning from the po po. In fact, this article actually represents the white privilege that SJW’s love to complain about. Marginal guy gets reliable transportation and it’s bad because he doesn’t have the luxury of living close to his place of employment and being able to use public transit like the cool hipsters (that are ironically gentrifying neighborhoods). For many in the black community car ownership is seen as a sign of having arrived and being bus-dependent means one is poor. The fact that Angie displays a lack of awareness of that issue shows real tone-deafness.

    As for transit, most systems aren’t operating in the middle of the night due to low demand, so even if he had a reasonable commute, transit would likely have not been an option anyway. And there are plenty of situations where one’s job is going to be well away from one’s residence, whether the home is inaccessible to transit and the job is; vice versa, or neither. This is especially the case with young people that may change jobs frequently, or with households where multiple family members have jobs in totally different areas of the locality. The reality is, even where transit exists, it often isn’t a good option for people, especially families with kids that have to be in many different places on any given day. Other than the biggest, densest metro areas, transit is often not viable for many people. And I say that as for former transit planner.

  • Bob Dobinici

    At the root of our many problems is…US! We are so brainwashed we don’t think we just react. The “blame the victim” response is almost universal among us. We always take the side of the biggest and the strongest (when a truck plows over a cyclist 90 percent of folks blame the cyclist). When anybody eeks out the slightest protest about a corporate dystopia that steamrollers over everybody, people come out of the woodwork with myths about “boot straps” and “meritocracy”. In addition our media is obsessed with driving wedges into the many so that it is divided against itself (notice every comment left here is stuck on the fact that the story dares to mention that this guy was black). These responses are pre- programmed and are always based completely in emotion. The few who hold power having been doing this to us for a very, very, long time and they are very good at it. A perfect example of the effectiveness of these corporate propaganda campaigns was the invention of “jaywalking” by car manufacturers. Its incontrovertible that this system splinters off and exploits people as often as it can whether they be disabled, immigrants, chronically ill,female, black etc. To point out a marginalized American is being subjected to abuse simply because they are black seems to allow people to retreat into the false comfort of of their cable news lizard brain reflexive hysteria. Sadly WE are the cogs and gears of the machine. Until we realize this, “suggestions and solutions” are beyond our grasp. No evil dictator ever committed atrocities all by themselves. They had plenty of help. Of course once the monster is finished with “THEM” it will invariably come for YOU next.

    Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

  • Stephen Simac

    I enjoy Streetsblog and think Angie and team do a great job of curating national and international (less so) stories relating to cycling, pedestrians, transit, parking, motor vehicle bias, etc…She has opinions, but this is a specialty blog, so we know that going in. These knee jerk reactions to her assertions that there is a racial bias in policing share a blind denial of reality, although in this case police would probably have picked up pedestrians of any color for their safety beside this. Ironically he may use the Escape to drive to a better job.

  • Eric

    We could afford better and 24 hour transit systems if we taxed white people more.

  • TakeFive
  • Brad Aaron

    Angie, you gotta stop making white people feel bad.

    And for god’s sake don’t try prompting them to acknowledge, much less question, their privilege.

    Men especially.

  • Scott Voolker

    I have also been questioned by police before while walking along a busy highway, and I am a blond man of European ancestry (who gets sunburned all too easily).

  • TakeFive

    I don’t feel guilty. I can assure you neither do I feel particularly privileged; grateful perhaps. Just because I am a strong proponent of the 14th amendment doesn’t obligate me to either I wouldn’t think?

  • I cannot upvote this again…so here +1.

    Seriously though, SO fragile, even relatively progressive folks.

  • Michelle Pasternack

    Re the Birmingham college student who was given a car to drive to work
    This was a very cynical article which confused issues of basic humanity vs the need for more public transportation

  • Lauren Bertrand

    It’s a good thing that men like Robertson and Carr have someone like Angie Schmitt to advocate for them; otherwise, where would they be? Maybe she can adopt them and register them as her pets.

    What do the cops have to do to prove THEIR worth human beings? Buy a guy a breakfast?

  • Lauren Bertrand

    In 2018, progressives tend to be the most fragile. They are wilting before our eyes.

    It’s a real shame, because they are much, MUCH better people than I am. I hope they survive.

  • Jonathan Krall

    They need to let minority communities set priorities as to how minority communities are policed. If any police department anywhere is doing this, I have yet to hear about it.

  • Jonathan Krall

    Bikeshare is an example of a public transit system that works 24 hours, but only if the city is willing to allocate enough street space to make it safe to use. In this case, the dollar cost is pretty minimal. Everyone knows the major portion of the cost of bike lanes is political. Local leaders have to be willing to take heat from the “I love the freedom of my car” crowd (you know, the people mysteriously frustrated to the point of near-insanity by traffic gridlock).

    And if you think “near insanity” is over the top, keep in mind that “road rage” is a thing. There is no bicycle rage, transit rage, or walking rage. This is what we get when 50% of US citizens want to live in walkable neighborhoods but only 10% of neighborhoods are like that.

  • Lauren Bertrand

    If 51% of the members of a community decide they do not want any real policing because the police leave them in fear of their lives, should we let those communities go completely unpoliced? This is very confusing to a hick like me. It does sound like something that may play off well in Berkeley or Oakland though.

  • rogue

    So you’re saying her argument is effective? I agree

  • 1980Gardener

    This article is simply nasty and goes to show how far some people will dig to find something wrong with any gesture of goodwill.

  • Please. Love the statistics.

  • Jonathan Krall

    Communities will not request your crazy suggestion because communities are not crazy. Less crazy, please.

    The book Ghettoside, by Jill Leovy, illustrates what we might get if communities set priorities. Communities want important (to them) crimes solved, such as murder and robbery. They don’t want to be constantly search and harassed by police. What they actually get is pretty much the opposite. Plenty of federal money for the “war on drugs,” not enough local attention to murders and robberies, especially when the victims aren’t white.

    This is so bad that many activists from minority communities talk about abolishing the police, similar to calls to abolish ICE (immigration and customs enforcement) that we are hearing in the news lately. What both groups mean is that we should decide what we want (set priorities) and create new agencies and institutions that accomplish those priorities.

  • Isaac B

    When our cities are built so that you are trapped without a car, gifting one person with a car does not address the 999 people who are still trapped because they were not gifted with a car. It also overlooks the 9,999 people who cannot or should not drive.

  • Keith Bontrager

    With all do respect Jonathan, what do you do about minority neighborhoods where the residents will not cooperate with the police in
    solving serious crimes. This is a huge problem in low income black neighborhoods. You can’t blame the police if the residents will not cooperate. Their hands are tied.

    I think you were referencing Stop and Frisk when you mentioned harassing
    local residents instead of solving crimes. The police who patrol regular
    beats know who the trouble makers are in general. They are not pulling people over at random for nothing. They learn to use their intuition and play a hunch.
    If you want crime problems solved, the police need to be allowed to do their jobs. The local residents need to cooperate and work with the police. Other wise you will have out of chaos. I do think that most residents in minority neighborhoods want a police presence.

  • Scott Voolker

    Especially as a moderator, wouldn’t it be better if you set a good example as to how one can disagree with previously expressed opinions without being disagreeable?

  • Lauren Bertrand

    Depending on how you draw the boundaries of these communities (another nebulous standard for posing these solution-less problems), you could–and probably would–encounter a minority population that is averse to far more than just stop and frisk. In the most crime ridden precincts, a majority of the population would prefer not to be harrassed so that they can trade and consume opioids and barbituates freely in the streets.

    Clearly by having such tyrannical institutions as law enforcement, code enforcement, and business licensures, we are holding these minority communities to unrealistically high standards. It must stop. If only we weren’t pestering them so much, the astronomically high violent crime rates will cease.

  • Jonathan Krall

    Wow.

  • Lauren Bertrand

    I’m a pretty terrible person.

    Thankfully, we’re seeing a situation where tolerance prevails, particularly in the streets of San Francisco, where formerly deviant behavior has gone unpunished (regardless of race color or creed) and become mainstream, to the point that finding used syringes and human filth is now basically the status quo on a given block in that tarnished gem of a city.

    If only the rest of the country were so open-minded.

  • Jonathan Krall

    Two comments. First, where I live we work with the leadership of minority communities, generally letting them take the lead. In Grassroots Alexandria, my superpower is that I can show up at city hall with a bunch of white people and thereby change the conversation (my kryptonite is that I am surrounded by clueless white people, sometimes including me). Changing the way policing works is rather high on the priority list.

    Second, I find it hard to square your faith in the police with reports like this one. Police are still be used to extract money from residents, targeting poor and minority communities.
    https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/jul/05/missouri-driving-while-black-st-louis

    I get that some folks still have faith in the police. My experience is that people truly wish policing could work the way it is supposed to work–helping communities instead of constantly
    preying on them to extract money and to cull any young person who either experiments with drugs or is simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. If wealthy neighborhoods and universities were policed the way minority neighborhoods are, policing would have been reformed years ago.
    https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6792458-the-new-jim-crow

  • Disagree. What is nasty is that our cities are inhumane.

  • I think the article was clear. Those two people were given cars and many people felt very good about this, whereas the inhumanity persists for thousands.

  • The inhumanity of our cities is sour grapes.

  • Larry Reid

    You are the sour grapes…lousy attitude…..if govt. can’t come in and give everybody in need a car, or provide for other needs in one fell swoop, then no one should receive a benefit (car-bicycle-housing) from any source for any reason, unless they check with you! The wheels turn slowly, but public transportation (not free) and housing etc are all being addressed by govt at many levels and private industry to assist and help those not able to provide for themselves, until they are able to do so. Being so critical (inhumane), what are you personally doing to alleviate the problem besides being a”sour grape”? Or you got your hand out waiting for your car?

  • You don’t get it. The last thing I want, and the last thing StreetsBlog advocates for, is more cars.

  • Random Nobody

    The article hits on something. It’s like if we gave a bottle of whiskey to a man convulsing from alcohol withdrawal. Are we supposed to cheer for that? Maybe a better idea would be to get the man to the hospital. The bottle of whiskey doesn’t solve the underlying problem. The hospital could.

  • Random Nobody

    If you see a man convulsing from alcohol withdrawl, should we cheer when someone hands him a bottle of whiskey? Or should someone take the man to the hospital? Same thing here. Buying a man a car isn’t really fixing the situation.

  • 1980Gardener

    And you think this man should have been denied a car simply so that you feel better? I’m not sure how his pain is to anyone’s benefit.

  • Random Nobody

    Never mind

  • 1980Gardener

    ok

  • Bernard Finucane

    Don’t feed the trolls

  • Bernard Finucane

    The tragedy is that they don’t have the option of riding a bike or taking public transportation. Now these people are stuck with the horrific costs of a car.

    I live in Germany with my wife and have two adult children. I am the only one in of the four of us that drives, and we get by fine.

  • Lauren Bertrand

    Trolls = People who invade your echo chamber and offer just criticism to your solutions that are in desperate search of problems.

  • Lauren Bertrand

    Doesn’t this just reinforce the notion that, in low-cost, sprawling metros like Birmingham, a transit system is basically akin to public charity?

    I’m not necessarily arguing against transit, but you clearly can’t re-engineer a system to accommodate extreme outliers. In a medium sized metro, it’s not particularly realistic to expect transit lines to run 20 miles out at any frequent rate…if they even exist. Go 20 miles in any direction from downtown B’ham and you’re in the country.

  • Michelle Pasternack

    This lady is confusing issues and wants to punish the victim for her own agenda

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