A Detroit Free Press profile this week introduced the world to James Robertson, a Detroit-area factory worker who walks 21 miles a day commuting to and from work. He’s been making the trek, which leaves him with about two hours of sleep on weeknights, since his car broke down 10 years ago.
Public response to Robertson’s admirable yet heartbreaking story was overwhelming. In just three days, a Go Fund Me account established to buy him a car collected more than $275,000 from nearly 10,500 donors.
Unfortunately, this gesture will do nothing to help the other 60,000 Detroit households — 80 percent of whom are black — without access to automobiles. These families have few options in a metro area where just 22 percent of jobs can be reached by public transportation in 90 minutes or less.
Yesterday, in a follow-up column, the Detroit Free Press explained how metro Detroit’s public transportation system came to fail its residents so severely. Not only do two disconnected bus lines service the city and its suburbs separately, but the suburban system (SMART) allows communities to opt out of participation. Because of this policy, no buses travel to Robertson’s place of work in suburban Rochester Hills.
The column questioned, “How many of those willing to help Robertson have voted to opt their communities out of SMART? How many would support a new tax to create a coordinated, regional system that could get people all over the place from where they live to where they work?”
James Robertson’s commute is particularly horrific, but inefficient public transit is not unique to Detroit. Brookings found that in the typical US metro area, just 30 percent of jobs are accessible by public transit within 90 minutes — and it’s even lower for jobs in low- and middle-skill industries. In 2013, overall United States public transit earned a D from the American Society of Civil Engineers (infrastructure as a whole received a D+). According to their report, “45 percent of American households lack any access to transit, and millions more have inadequate service levels.”
Angela Glover Blackwell, founder and CEO of economic and social equity institute PolicyLink, saw this firsthand when she attempted to take Los Angeles public transit to a job interview years ago. As she recounted to Bill Moyers on Moyers & Company in 2012:
I called the bus station, and I figured out transit, and figured out how to take a bus. They gave me five buses that I would have to take. I gave myself an hour and a half, thinking it was way too much time … Four buses later, two-and-a-half hours after the time of the interview, I had to cross the street and get on one more bus. A tear rolled down my cheek. And I just got back on the bus and went home.
As bad as her situation was, Glover Blackwell points out that, with an employed husband, she was relatively fortunate:
If I had needed that job, if I’d had a baby I had to support, I’d have been on those five buses every morning. A good bus system, a good transportation system is a lifeline for communities, more so today than ever before … Too many people are being left behind because they’re in communities that don’t have the investments in transit that are needed.
President Obama’s newly released 2016 Budget calls for significant infrastructural improvements, including proposed public transit improvements in cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Denver, Minneapolis, Fort Worth and Baltimore. Funding would come from a new tax on American companies’ overseas earnings, a plan the GOP-controlled Congress is unlikely to support. The President’s Budget Message reads:
The Budget proposes to build a 21st Century infrastructure that creates jobs for thousands of construction workers and engineers, connects hardworking Americans to their jobs, and makes it easier for businesses to transport goods.
One thing is clear: A system that requires a dedicated employee to walk 21 miles a day to make $10.55 an hour is a failed system. As Robertson reminded the Free Press, “Even if my situation changes, you never forget there are so many other people that are in my situation.”
“I said this before — no one can say that I didn’t pay my dues in life. No one.”