on detroit transit woes and james robertson

Will international attention to the James Robertson story accomplish any victories surrounding Detroit’s public transportation trouble?

//ryan felton

When the story of Detroiter James Robertson and his unbelievable work commute — a day that begins at 6:00 a.m., includes 21 miles of walking, and concludes at 4:00 a.m. — was delivered to the world last month by the Detroit Free Press, a collective shock emanated across the Metro Detroit region.

© 2015    Brach Goodman   ,   "Privilege"

© 2015 Brach Goodman"Privilege"

Robertson’s trip to his factory job in Rochester Hills, as it was described by the Freep, involved disjointed bus rides, quick cat naps, and an unpleasant nighttime stroll down Woodward Avenue from 1:00-4:00 a.m. It all began, in 2003, after his automobile, the machine the majority of Metro Detroit residents relies on most, took a dive. Still, for nearly 12 years, he maintained a perfect attendance record at his job — again, a rather unbelievable feat.

The tale drew worldwide attention and a local response that serves as a maddening indicator of where the region stands on public transportation: Upon reading the story, a 19-year-old Wayne State University student launched a crowdfunding campaign for Robertson, which has netted the 56-year-old over $350,000. That’s roughly 16 years’ worth of Robertson’s gross annual income. An auto dealer also donated him a brand new 2015 Ford Taurus.

Robertson toiled through a grueling routine, yet it was one he had adapted to. What he would seemingly prefer to see take place was suggested in a response he gave to a Freep reporter’s question about the possibility that a federal program could provide a small-bus service, through the Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT), that would deliver him to Rochester Hills on a temporary basis. “I’d rather they spend that money on a 24-hour bus system, not on some little bus for me,” he told the newspaper. “The city needs buses going 24/7. You can tell the city council and mayor I said that.”

From the start of the media hubbub surrounding Robertson, it was glaringly obvious this was the problem. The Wayne State student’s crowdfunding campaign, however heartening it may be, only emphasizes that point. For the estimated 100,000 riders on the DDOT system, and 35,000 on the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART) bus system, it’s a fact they’re well aware of. [1]

The DDOT bus system sticks its feelers into inner-ring suburbs, but for the most part it remains within city limits. SMART, which operates mostly in the suburbs, offers limited service into Detroit, therefore creating an atmosphere that demands painstaking transfers that can add an additional 30 minutes or an hour to one’s trip. In some instances, riders are packed like sardines, forcing bus drivers to bypass additional people at stops. After his election, Detroit’s mayor recalled one rider’s daily Kafkaesque routine: Buses along the route he takes are typically so full, he has to catch one heading in the wrong direction to make sure he has a seat. It makes a daily traffic jam look like a beautiful day on the beach.

It really shouldn’t have to be like this. The Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich once observed the average American devotes more than 1,600 hours per year to their car. “He sits in it while it goes and while it stands idling,” Illich wrote. “He parks it and searches for it. He earns the money to put down to meet the monthly installments. He works to pay for gasoline, tolls, insurance, taxes and tickets. He spends four of his sixteen waking hours on the road or gathering resources for it.”

If Robertson, or anyone, doesn’t want to put up with that life and would rather sit on a bus or a train — where they can read, sleep, relax, or whatever — they should be afforded the opportunity to do so.

What followed in the subsequent days and weeks after Robertson’s story only further illustrated that conundrum — the lack of a consistently running, efficient bus system. But Metro Detroit has, for years, been emotionally detached to the issue of poor public transit — a point reemphasized in a series of observations that shows we’re still years away, if not decades — if not an eternity — from resolving the problem.

First, consider the piece that was packaged in the Freep next to Robertson’s story on February 1: It revealed that, since 2005, the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) has spent $1.1 million annually to rent trains for commuter rail lines between Ann Arbor and Detroit, as well as Ann Arbor to Howell. The problem? The commuter rail lines, proposals discussed since the mid-2000s, don’t exist, and they remain years from coming online thanks to a lack of funding. A state audit followed soon after, criticizing the costs.

The response from conservative legislators, on cue, was one of profuse outrage. It’s just another example of a bloated government wasting our precious tax dollars, they howled.

During a hearing the following week, MDOT director Kirk Stuedle had to listen to lawmakers groan about the expenditure. “As a former executive, if I went to my board of directors to say we’re going to sink $12 million into something we don’t know whether it’s going to happen or not, I’d be fired,” state Rep. Jeff Farrington, a Republican of suburban Utica, told Steudle.

Of course, Farrington’s Macomb County community won’t garner much use of either proposed rail line, but his remarks miss the point entirely: The conversation shouldn’t be directed at cutting costs; it must be about what needs to be done to get the trains up and running. It’s a service that would be provided for the region, not a fiefdom.

And if you ask anyone in the know, part of the answer is obvious: There’s never enough money in the pot to invest. The gas tax is one of the main drivers of transportation funding in the state (about one-third of MDOT’s budget) for not just roads, but for rail, too. The federal gas tax was last raised in 1993; in Michigan, 1997. [2] Federal funding for Michigan’s transit infrastructure has dropped nearly 10 percent over the last five years alone. Locally, the SMART bus system levies a 1-mill property tax on residents to fund its operations, one of the lowest in the state.

Though much attention has been paid to a convoluted May ballot proposal that, if passed, would raise about $100 million for public transit over the next three years (and $1.2 billion for road repairs), it’s no surefire thing. With additional attention given to MDOT’s handling of the rail cars, that could turn off additional voters. This makes sense: Metro Detroit historically has eschewed public transit.

Robertson’s story, though, has brought about a number of thoughtful and well deserved analyses of Detroit’s transit problem. It has created an atmosphere that, one assumes, was the intent of the Freep’s reporting in the first place. What better way to show how godawful Detroit’s bus system is than a guy whose work commute in one month alone entails the equivalent of walking from Detroit to Louisville, Kentucky?

But data-crunching and a call for action won’t resolve the underlying problem here: the region’s emotional detachment to the issue. For decades, elected officials have proffered the same conversation. They exclaim they would love to have solid public transit, but, for a litany of social and political reasons, nothing has ever happened.

As one former transit official explained to me, this can be attributed to the lack of any one of those leaders ever putting forth the effort to explain to their constituents what the benefits of transit can be. That has hurt the region. Proposals for a subway running underneath Woodward Avenue as part of a massive transit plan for the region, commuter rail lines between Ann Arbor and Detroit that would feed into the People Mover, merging SMART and DDOT — all of this has been on the table, never going any further.

Yes, SMART has, for example, garnered enough support for a millage to fund its operations, but would the outcome be the same if it asked voters for an amount two, three times higher? Would those who supported James Robertson’s crowdfunding campaign also chip in to fund improvements for the region’s entire transit system — similar to the idea pitched by a Boston resident’s GoFundMe effort to raise $300 million to overhaul that city’s system (only $1,585 has been raised so far)?

Probably not. Much of this, to be clear, is due to the fact that so many in the region disparage the idea of public transit. Of course, there is an abundance of support behind investing more from a strong, vocal contingent. But there certainly remains an equally present cohort that’s opposed to transit expansion, calling to mind sentiments of the past. (Consider some comments from a 1980 edition of the Pontiac-based Oakland Press on the proposed Detroit subway: e.g., “I would never have any use for a subway. Why? Because I never travel past Eight Mile.”)

And that prevailing mentality would seem to explain a boilerplate conservative rant offered by columnist Dan Calabrese on Robertson’s saga in The Detroit News. The point of Calabrese’s piece was to respond to efforts of transit advocates who have demanded lawmakers take action to expand the region’s transit system. [3] Expectedly, he pooh-poohed the suggestion with effortless sanctimony.

Robertson appears to be an earnest man, Calabrese wrote, but, “What he is not, however, is what a lot of people seem determined to turn him into — a poster boy for massive new public expenditures in mass transit.”

“The superfans of mass transit say it’s the solution for people who can’t afford cars, or choose to not have one for whatever reason, but still need a way to get around,” he chortled.

Of course, that just is the point of having transit options besides an automobile. You don’t need to be a superfan to realize it. Calabrese continues apace, suggesting Robertson should just move closer to Rochester Hills. Calabrese says he doesn’t know Robertson’s full story, but, considering he admits to paying little rent, couldn’t he just pay for a new car?

Nevermind that this neglects the fact that a majority of Detroiters who are employed have jobs in the suburbs. [4] Or that 25 percent of the city’s households live without access to an automobile. [5] Or that buying auto insurance in Detroit is an enormous expense, estimated at $5,000 annually. [6] Or that 40 percent of the city’s residents lives in poverty. [7]

With little left of his porous counterargument, Calabrese turns to a tried and true conservative narrative: “The imperative here is to bring sanity and competent management both to the structure and to the operation of mass transit, so that it can start mastering reasonable Point-A-to-Point-B propositions.”

Simply axe the obvious incompetent management, restructure how SMART and DDOT operates, and cut-cut-cut the fat. If SMART and DDOT just pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, why — presto chango — public transit!

But a transit agency can’t pull itself up by the bootstraps when it can’t even afford a new pair of boots. However, it is a fitting narrative for the Very Serious People of the local commentariat, some of whom still decry the use of public money to fund bus systems. It’s the common Magical Myth of the Farebox, in which it’s believed that fares can solely cover a transit system’s operating expenses, something a total of zero have ever done.

It’s as if Robertson is the only Detroiter Calabrese has ever heard of having issues with public transit. Considering he offers no indication that he appreciates the idea of having an effective bus system, Calabrese’s actual point boils down to a subjective view of public transit he delivers in his final breath: “If you’re going to live as far from work as James Robertson does (or did), you need a car.” And move closer to Rochester Hills. 

That’s the mentality here. But that’s the remarkable thing about this entire spectacle. After Robertson’s Kickstarter campaign wrapped up, that became his plan. The reason? Nearby residents started hitting him up for a spare buck, before he even saw a dime.

© 2015  Megan LaCroix   ,   "Untitled"

© 2015 Megan LaCroix"Untitled"

So he got some help. From superstar reporter Charlie LeDuff. (A friend put it best: If Detroit residents want to get something done, they’re best off just giving Charlie a shout.) After it became obvious Robertson’s new ride would be stolen in due time, LeDuff wrote last month that he put a call into the local police captain. “The captain let Robertson park the car at the station house, and then he called a landlord in the city who had an empty apartment to use while [Robertson and a friend] figure out what to do with the money,” LeDuff says.

Now, Robertson plans to move somewhere closer to his job.

There is certainly positive news of Robertson’s story making international news. SMART has raised awareness of the need for every city in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties to be included in its system. And Detroit’s mayor appears well aware that DDOT needs to properly function in order for the city to thrive. He promises buses will run on time this year, and it remains to be seen if that goal is too lofty.

But, for now, this is the result of using a crowdfunding campaign to address Robertson’s commute: He lands $350,000, an automobile, and a new place to call home. Meanwhile, Detroit loses a resident, still has an inadequate transit system, and remains disconnected with service into the suburbs, an area that 70 percent of the city’s residents have to commute to for work. At the core of the feel-good story here is the reality that Robertson’s chance at relief exists outside of Detroit. No matter how much the resurgence of the city’s Greater Downtown area draws attention, this is still a reality for the majority of the city.

It’s unquestionably difficult to prioritize the issues of poor city services when all remain intertwined. That remains true with transit: Students need a good bus system in order to get to school; residents need it to access jobs, which, if they can’t find work, likely means they can’t afford an automobile; and without a vehicle, they’re stuck using a broken bus system. Round and round we go.  

While, again, the result of this is a happy ending for Robertson, it mistakenly, perhaps inadvertently, neglects the fact that Metro Detroit does need a massive investment in public transit, despite Calabrese’s argument and anyone who agrees with him.

But the issue in Metro Detroit isn’t an issue of explaining facts and numbers to illustrate how a disjointed public system disproportionately impacts poor residents; it’s simply an issue of emotion. The region, as a whole, has severed emotional ties with the issue. Until it comes to grips with that and accepts that public transit should be a service that’s provided in an efficient manner for everyone, regardless if every resident uses it or not, the examination of Robertson’s story, and every other resident who waits hours for buses that never come, will be futile.

//Ryan Felton is 24 years old and lives in Detroit. He’s currently an investigative reporter at Metro Times, Detroit’s alt-weekly, and previously worked as a staff writer at The Oakland Press in Pontiac, Michigan. His writing and reporting have appeared in FiveThirtyEightReuters, In These TimesJalopnikPacific StandardThe Denver Post, and Crain’s Detroit BusinessHe drinks coffee. 

[1] http://www.metrotimes.com/detroit/how-detroit-ended-up-with-the-worst-public-transit/Content?oid=2143889
[2] http://semcog.org/Blog.aspx?blogmonth=11&blogyear=2014&blogid=87637
Most recent numbers available from 2011: 28.3 percent of Detroit jobs are held by city residents; 71.7 percent are held by suburbanites. This is based off a Data Driven Detroit analysis, based off of U.S. Census Longitudinal Employer Household Dynamics, On The Map tool: http://www.datadrivendetroit.org/web_ftp/Presentations/Website_/CouncilDistrictConversation_Tubman.pdf
 About 61,000 households out of roughly 349,000 in the city: U.S. Census Bureau ACS Survey 5-year estimates 2009-2013
[6] Top 3 cities, according to the survey: Detroit ($5,000 per year), 2) New York City ($3,900 per year), and 3) Philadelphia ($2,800 per year): http://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/detroit/2015/01/31/commuting-costs-detroit/22666135
About 275,000 of the city’s estimated 688,000 residents: 



<<back to issue xii                                                                        POST A COMMENT >>