Commentary: "Heart and Sole" and a Larger Problem in America

The story of James Robertson and his car-less commute has been circulated on many news outlets by now. It is a story of determination of a single man to ensure his commitment to employment in a place where one must go to where the jobs are by any way possible.

Bill Laitner of the Detroit Free Press introduced us to Robertson on Super Bowl Sunday, after the 56-year-old gentleman was walking from his home in Detroit to meet a SMART bus up into Oakland County. The response from the story yielded multiple online donation campaigns, including one from a close contact at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. A Wayne State University student began the first campaign, which yielded about $230,000 in pledges to help Robertson gain reliable transportation to his job in suburban Rochester Hills. Other people – dealerships, OEMs and other individuals – offered automobiles to help Robertson, as well.

Robertson is a grateful, humble man who is the embodiment of hard work. His boss has been grateful that Robertson comes in every day and put in a full week's worth of employment without fail. What the donors on these online campaigns have done is to make things a little easier for Robertson – to replace his broken down 1988 Honda Accord with something that will help him prolong his work life.

The story is one of many told in Southeastern Michigan. The result is a public transport system that has failed its citizens for decades. The combined bus system of SMART and the City of Detroit's Department of Transportation had seen service cut in increments not just in schedules, routes and regional coverage. The quality of service has fallen to levels unacceptable for tourists to even take any bus within Southeastern Michigan. The perception of transit in Detroit is that it belongs to lower income riders and they deserve what they will pay for it.

Where Robertson comes in is a trend that has exacerbated these transport issues – suburban job development. In Southeastern Michigan, jobs are being created not in the neighborhoods where the unemployment rates are extremely high. They are in the suburbs where transit service is not readily available. Maybe a decade ago, Robertson's job site might be serviced by a bus or dial-a-ride option. Instead, transit service is maintained by more popular employment centers and so-called popular destinations. Other communities would rather not have SMART operate reliable transit to them at all due to a form of NIMBY-ism to keep lower income people away from even even employment opportunities.

The state of public transportation described above is not exclusive to Southeastern Michigan. How many places do you know that have similar transport problems – each of them as similar to Detroit, but with its own unique problems.

For example, right here in the Twin Cities. Let me explain this from personal experience.

As a non-car owner by choice (and by income at various times in my life), I had to rely on Metro Transit and agencies governed by the Metropolitan Council to get to my job sites. When I was a temporary worker, I had jobs pitched to me where it was determined that I could not get there by public transport. These were great paying jobs that offered greater opportunities in suburbs where "reverse commutes" were not offered. These areas include suburbs, such as Lakeville, Chanhassen, Maple Grove and White Bear Lake. One could use a dial-a-ride service, but it would be very tricky since they would rely on long distance bus services to connect at certain stops and times to ensure on-time attendance.

Many times I have done what Robertson had done for various jobs in my lifespan. Granted, I did not have a 21-mile walk, but it was long enough to maintain the same determination for me to keep my job. At my last permanent position – a box plant in the Camden Industrial section of Minneapolis – I had to take a bus as close as the foot of the Camden Bridge on the west bank of the Mississippi River. I crossed the bridge and walk another mile or so to get the office. During the winter, the walk was brutal without relying on the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation department to plow the bridge and park walk to make my foot commute safe.

Years ago, there was a bus line that serviced the box plant along Marshall Ave NE and East River Road south of Interstate 694. That route was cut long before I was hired there. This is just one of various stories that make up the several communities I endured across the country.

Between Robertson and my own experience is a story of two mindsets. If job creation is happening where you force people to drive who are struggling to make ends meet – or, find "reliable transportation" to make it on time – then, there has to be an effort to open up options for potential workers to show they are reliable and good enough to work at these jobs to fulfill attendance expectations.

But, to tackle the perception of classism when introducing public transportation to communities that do not want "that kind" is to encourage the potential of job growth on the local economy. It goes back to the first point – how will you staff that open position if there are no options for potential workers to get there by using public transport?

What if you live in a place where public transportation is unreliable in the most densest locations – Chicago and San Francisco are two good examples of this. Unreliable, how? How many times have you read on social media of a friend who waited 20 minutes for a bus on their street only to see two or three of them show up at once? I am sure there are explanations for this, but if you make a good employee late for work, the system is not working to the benefit of satisfaction for your riders.

Robertson's story exposes all of these issues. As much as everyone talks about long-term transit improvements, there needs to be some immediate relief and planning on both transit agencies, communities and employers to ensure access to jobs – even in "right to work" states. Yes, I think its great that Detroit is building a streetcar down Woodward Avenue. I am also glad that the Met Council and Metro Transit are implementing a short term plan to improve transit routing, headways and overall service to work with new rail and BRT projects. These are simply drops in the bucket compared to what really needs to be done now to ensure service availability, reliability, affordability, safety and security.

As an automotive writer, I advocate a fair, safe and reliable public transport system. When I am not working with these automobiles, I must rely on a transport system that offers the safety and security my tax dollars pay for and demand. When that has failed, even when I have to go through some of the toughest neighborhoods in the area to accomplish what I need to do, then I would hesitate to use it even on a regular basis.

It is heartening to see the outpouring of support for Mr. Robertson. I hope he does get a wonderful vehicle and can leverage the rest of the money towards the high insurance costs Detroiters are faced with, along with fuel and maintenance. Maybe, he should move somewhere closer to work?

For the rest of us who are living like Mr. Robertson – keep the fight up for better access to jobs and better transportation options towards that end.

Photo by Randy Stern

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