Behind James Robertson’s now famous daily 21-mile walk to work is a systematic underfunding of bus services that serve the multi-racial working class in Michigan and across the country.
James Robertson’s morning commute will hopefully become a little easier once he taps into his $200K GoFundMe account to pay for a car, gas, and maintenance, but what about the millions of others across the country who are still in desperate need of affordable and reliable mass transit?
Five days a week for nearly a decade, James Robertson has endured an astounding 21-mile walk to reach his job at a factory because public transit only partially gets him there and back. According to census data, the average travel time to work in Michigan is 24 minutes, so Robertson’s whopping four-and-a-half-hour commute should represent an atypical case, right? Wrong.
Tragically in a city of nearly 10 million people, of which an estimated 17% live well below the poverty level, a grueling commute is much more likely to be the norm. The question then is why, and how we fix it.
Transit Woes: Let’s start in Michigan. Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART) is the public transit system in Robertson’s part of town. See his route map below. This regional bus system services about 40,000 riders daily and forms a major source of transportation for seniors, the handicapped, and the poor. However, at a time when reliable public transit is desperately needed by underserved communities, services such as SMART are becoming increasingly underfunded throughout the state.
Even though SMART is supported through bus fares, state and federal funding, and local contributions through transit property tax millage, it has lost nearly $50 million in revenue within the past five years. To keep buses rolling, a proposal was approved last year to increase the millage rate across several counties. The funding hike has kept the transportation system running for now but 80% of SMART’s buses currently fail to meet federal safety guidelines and need to be replaced.
When it comes to providing comprehensive public transportation, any ballot measure that aims to repair instead of expand and rebuild is a band-aid.
Takeaway: While Robertson’s story has prompted empathetic readers across the country to address his personal dilemma and raise important awareness to the lack of reliable mass transit options in Michigan, there are undoubtedly many others facing similar struggles. We should view James Robertson and his story as the match needed to spark a much-needed national dialogue on improving the current state of public transportation for all.
Robertson’s plight holds many policy implications for the transportation sector as it highlights just one of many predominantly multiracial communities in Michigan and across the country without reliable access to fixed-route bus services. Even in larger cities such as Detroit where limited bus services are available, schedules in this auto-centric region remain unreliable. And to add insult to injury, car ownership is priced beyond the reach of many. Bottom line, this tale should serve as an earnest reminder that the interests of the disadvantaged will not be made a priority unless we collectively demand better policy from our nation’s top leadership.