Racial Change is Shaking up the Transit Landscape in Detroit, Atlanta

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans at the end of a 2.5 hour bus commute. Photo: Warren Evans
Wayne County Executive Warren Evans at the end of a 2.5 hour bus commute. Photo: Warren Evans

Detroit and Atlanta are 1,000 miles apart, one city fighting back from the edge, the other an engine of the New South. But the metropolises are similar in one important respect: their suburbs long fought the expansion of transit — part of a segregation battle that dates back to the Civil Rights era. The suburbs of both cities are finally changing — growing more demographically diverse — and with those changes comes less resistance to better transportation options. Here’s Streetsblog’s look at the latest trends in both cities.

Rochester Hills, Michigan is a wealthy Detroit suburb that has, for a long time, pointedly rejected transit — and it’s making life difficult for pharmacy student named Corey Rowe and countless others like him.

In a recent Medium post, Rowe made an earnest plea for transit in the suburb — a transit desert made famous after the 21-mile round trip walking commute of Detroit resident James Robertson  went viral in 2015, and earned him the nickname “Detroit’s Walking Man.”

Rowe cited factory worker Robertson, plus his own experience as a student at Oakland University, as examples of how decades-old anti-transit policies crush the working class. Rochester Hills —one of nine Oakland County suburbs that “ops out” of metro Detroit’s suburban transit system,  SMART — doesn’t even have a simple bus line headed to Detroit or a community circulator students can use.

But Rochester Hills’s refusal to fund transit service of any kind can exert an especially brutal toll on low-income workers, like Robertson, who may need to commute into the suburb from other areas. He was taking two buses to reach his factory job in the suburb and then walking the extra eight miles to and 13 miles home (thanks to late-night bus service reductions) in the dark, when someone at the Detroit Free Press got wind of the story and held him up as an exemplar of work ethic.

In some of the wealthy, mostly white suburbs of Oakland County, north of Detroit, like Rochester Hills, refusing to allow transit service has a long, ugly history.

Historically, a lack of transit helped maintain racial segregation. The county’s powerful executive, Brooks Patterson, is a master of old-school dog-whistle segregationist policies. He got his start in politics in the 1970s opposing the integration of Pontiac Public Schools before becoming county exec in 1993.

He did support the region’s four-county transit expansion ballot proposal in 2016, but has since become the biggest barrier to better bus service across the region.

But wealthy Oakland County, population 1.25 million, is changing demographically, as you can see on the maps below. The population diversity is also affecting attitudes about transit.

Graphics: University of Cincinnati
Graphics: University of Cincinnati

2010 Detroit

The region is still very segregated. But since 1990, the hard wall between Detroit and Oakland and Macomb counties (there is an actual wall that remains along 8 Mile at the border from the days of more overt segregation) has softened. You can still see the county line — where it changes from green (black majority areas) to orange (white majority areas) on the map. But the black population has traveled north some, especially north-west, turning the dark orange areas into yellow and even light green. There’s also a larger Asian population (shown in red) in both Detroit and Oakland County.

Overall, the county has shed about 70,000 white residents over the last two decades. At the same time it gained about 50,000 black residents, 40,000 Asian residents and 20,000 Latino residents.

Meanwhile, Detroit, which is still 79 percent black, has become slightly whiter. The city added 14,000 white people between 2010 and 2014, the Detroit News reported, the most since the 1950s when the city’s population was more than double its current total.

The shifting populations will likely shift perceptions about transit. The 2016 ballot issue that would have built a relatively robust four-county transit system was defeated by only one percent. Even in Rochester Hills, 47 precent of voters backed the measure. But the trend is definitely towards transit.

“White suburbanites are more likely to go downtown these days than they were in the 1980s or ’90s. To some extent, that may make them more likely to support transit,” said Joel Batterman, a Ph.D. student in urban planning at University of Michigan. “I’m not sure people are changing their attitudes as much as having a more diverse population in the county has changed the political orientation.”

The main impediment now is Brooks Paterson, who won’t bring transit back to the ballot. Last year in his State of the County speech, he said he would not make any move on transit because cities like Rochester Hills have opted out of the transit system — a justification for the status quo.

“I will not betray them and slip some, or all of them, into a tax machine from which they can expect little or no return on their investment,” Patterson said of the nine opt-out cities.

But Patterson’s power to stop momentum for transit is in trouble. In March, the 80-year-old announced he has been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer, which could force him to step down.

Should he do so, his successor would be appointed by a newly elected Democratic majority (the county’s first since the 1970s) on the Oakland County Board of Commissioners. The transition to a Democratic County executive could lead to a new ballot initiative — and neighboring Macomb County might support the move. The executives of the two other counties — Wayne (Detroit) and Washtenaw (Ann Arbor) — are already supportive.

Stay tuned.


Meanwhile, a similar sea change has been happening in Atlanta, another majority black city whose suburbs for years resisted transit expansion.

The city’s heavy rail transit system, MARTA, has been relatively stagnant since the mid-1960s, when it was formed. That all goes back to two crucial votes in the late 1960s and ’70s.

“The failure to extend MARTA into the suburbs,” Doug Monroe wrote in Atlanta Magazine in a widely shared article in 2012, was “the mother of all mistakes.”

“It wasn’t just a one-time blunder,” Monroe continued, “it was the single worst mistake in a whole cluster bomb of missteps, errors, power plays, and just plain meanness that created the region’s transportation infrastructure.”

The event was called the transit compromise of 1971, says Monroe. It followed decisions in 1965 and 1971 by Atlanta’s (at the time mostly white) suburban counties — Cobb, Gwinnett and Clayton — to reject joining MARTA, votes Monroe called “referendums on race.”

“It was just the idea of the trains bringing the wrong people to town,” says King Williams, a writer for the local real estate site Saporta Report.

Because Atlanta never had the support of the suburbs, the heavy rail system was never north of the city — even as the region’s population ballooned.

MARTA has barely expanded heavy rail since the 1970s, and the system comprises just 48 miles. Compare that the Washington, D.C., meanwhile, which has steadily expanded its system since its opening around the same time. That system now stretches 118 miles and has major expansions in the works. As a result, in part, Washington, D.C. has about 6.5 times the transit ridership per capita as Atlanta.

But like Detroit, Atlanta’s suburbs are becoming more diverse — and the political landscape for transit is shifting as well.

atlanta 1990

2010 atlanta
Maps: University of Cincinnati

The changes in Atlanta’s northern suburbs are much more stark than in Detroit. Atlanta’s black population (green) has moved north and especially northeast. And the Hispanic population (purple) has exploded in Cobb and Gwinnett counties. Notice how north of Atlanta, there are hardly any areas that are solid orange (which shows homogenous white areas). Now most areas are yellow, which indicates some degree of diversity

This is really shaking up how transit support.

Clayton County, to Atlanta’s south, voted to join MARTA in 2014, with a 74-percent majority. That county is now 66 percent black and 19 percent white.

Gwinnett and Cobb county, which are shown on the map, have not done so yet, but each is moving in that direction, said Williams. Gwinnett County, now just 55 percent white, will likely be first.

Right now, Gwinnett County (population 900,000) is still controlled by Republicans, who helped kill a recent transit expansion measure by putting it on the ballot in a weird, low-turnout March election. Only about 90,000 votes were cast and it failed by about 9,000.

But most observers think transit expansion to Gwinnett County is inevitable.

MARTA is already buying up land to expand heavy rail into the south part of the county, said Williams.

Democrats are threatening to take the county. Seven Gwinnett County statehouse districts flipped to Democrats in the 2018 election. Stacy Abrams won the county by 14 points in her gubernatorial race.

Gwinnett County Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash (a moderate Republican) recently announced she wouldn’t seek reelection in 2020, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall that Democrats would soon take the majority.

Williams, the real estate writer, says the effort to sabotage transit by placing it in a low-turnout election that would draw more older white people who are more hostile to transit, will likely backfire for Gwinnett Republicans. If the county flips, Democratic leaders will probably pursue a much more aggressive transit expansion plan.

“I think they’re trying to hold off progress,” he said. “They don’t understand their future constituent they’re going to push it much further and farther than they even wanted to.”

Nearby Cobb County may be next as well.

“Cobb County is still majority white, but the Hispanic population is growing. African-Americans are getting priced out of the city of Atlanta,” said Williams. “It’s just a matter of time.”

9 thoughts on Racial Change is Shaking up the Transit Landscape in Detroit, Atlanta

  1. The chief demographic transit was originally meant for
    – the Poor
    – the Handicapped
    – the elderly
    – Children
    Attempts to revitalize transit in the 70’s and 80’s with high tech solutions like light rail and monorails and maglevs, futuristic utopian ideas…that panned basic common sense. The automobile grew to provide services to those mentioned above….So transit and their politically appointed lackey’s changed their strategy. The transit industry expanded it’s premise from trying to reshape transits image into something more civil as well as attracting high income earners out of their cars.

    Why is America Keeping Transit Alive…it’s simple, because it’s been turned into a political issue as any attempt to curtail or get rid of it is perceived as classist, racist, ageist, anti-child…..etc.

    Never the less the transit industry needed a new customer base beyond the poor teaming masses….When they did that, they shifted their focus from helping the ones mentioned above that actually needed transit to the people they thought they could squeeze money out of..middle and upper income people…by offering the splendor of them not having to commute anymore. So transit agencies expanded geographically into broad regional agencies to offer transportation solutions out to the neighboring suburbs…..to attract wealthier people out of their cars. Of course that required construction of transit infrastructure into neighboring suburbs….with a population density so low the systems fell into dis-repair and the few people that use it.

  2. Transit–also walking and bicycling–are more patriotic than driving. Why? Oil is sold on a world market–you can’t fill your car with purely US sourced oil, it ain’t like going to the grocery stored buying California lettuce or Washington apples. Gasoline is a mix of oil sourced worldwide including those lovely countries that financed, aided, and abetted 9/11 and continue to finance the killing of American military personnel in the Middle East. You can’t put your foot on a gas pedal with out tithing to the Crown Prince of Camelfuckistan. Be a better American–drive less!

  3. @LazyReader. The reason transit sucks in the US is because we design it for “other people” and not for everyone. Transit works when it is for everyone. In the cities with the highest ridership more types of people use it because it is an efficient and convenient way to travel. If we treat it as the option of last resort, it will stay broken.

    I take transit often because for some trips it is competitive time and cost wise with the alternatives. That is the kind of transit that works.

  4. People too stupid to appreciate transit should take a vacation to Seattle and leave your car home. You will start with a 30 minute train ride from Seatac airport to downtown–and it gets better from there! Take a bus ride–or a few dozen of them–inside the city. You will see more of a cross section of the city’s population on those Metro buses than probably anywhere else in the US. Seattle has a natural advantage in that like San Francisco geography is a dictator that tells them where there will be room for roads. The powers that be have been wise enough to listen!

  5. Great article! I can’t believe folks shot down MARTA transit in Gwinnett County. The car and truck volume on I-85 is ridiculous. It’s already 14 lanes wide in parts. Commute times in Atlanta are horrendous. People need to realize that rails are the future to vertical growth and prosperity.

    Cobb County, northwest of Atlanta is in similar need of mass transit. They just wasted a whole bunch of money for 2 elevated express lanes that change direction. What a joke! This does nothing to alleviate traffic on I-75. I-285 is the loop or perimeter that goes around Atlanta. The DOT knew when they first built the perimeter that Atlanta would need second one. Voters have rejected that possibility several times and now it’s too expensive to do.

    I guess folks won’t be driven to do something until growth completely stops and people move somewhere else.

  6. FYI Brooks Patterson never supported the 2016 ballot measure. He merely allowed it on the ballot then (and bad-mouthed it), and won’t let it back.

    Also, 48% of Rochester Hills voters approved the measure despite a weak campaign. Imagine how many would support it if we actually educated them on the benefits!

  7. We are Voting Yes on Prop 105 this August 27 th to Stop the light rail expansions. We don’t want years of construction to kill our family businesses and jobs. The light rail will displaced residents with expensive apartment complexes and condos that they cannot afford. It has happened here in Phoenix

  8. @Valerie Smith
    Don’t believe the disinformation that greedy automaker execs are putting out. No one is demolishing your house or business.
    The project will IMPROVE your businesses, not hurt them! How? By making it far easier for customers to get there.
    Also, big projects mean more jobs, not less – both temporary and permanent.
    These projects will significantly reduce greenhouse gases and pollution, reduce congestion, and significantly improve local businesses.

    Where I live there is a rumor of a new transit project. I will vigorously support this project, and campaign for it.

  9. One correction: the main article states that “the heavy rail system was never north of the city.” This is partially true but not completely. The north central suburbs are in DeKalb and Fulton County, which are in the MARTA service area. The Medical Center, Sandy Springs and North Springs heavy rail stops are in the north central suburb of Sandy Springs in Fulton County Also, four inner ring northeastern DeKalb suburbs (Brookhaven, Chamblee, Doraville and Dunwoody) have heavy rail.

    Having said that the main point of the article is correct: if Atlanta was less racially tense, the rail system would probably go further into suburbia than it does.

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