Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
The harder task is addressing the underlying issues that led James Robertson to walk 21 miles to and from work every day in the first place.
No question about it, James Robertson is exceptional. The 56-year-old Detroit area resident walks an average of 21 miles every day to get to and from his job at a nearby factory, where he makes $10.55 an hour. He’s been doing this for about 10 years, ever since his last car broke down. He is able to take a bus part of the way, but there’s no bus service along a good chunk of his commute. Residents there have voted against funding the local suburban transit system, SMART.
Robertson’s story, first reported by Bill Laitner in the Detroit Free Press, is surely an inspirational one, a tale of the triumph of individual will over enormous obstacles. As such, it has attracted a lot of attention. A GoFundMe page set up to raise funds that would allow him to buy a car quickly exceeded its initial goal of $5,000, soaring over $50,000 in just one day.
That is great news for James Robertson. It doesn’t do anything, however, to address the underlying inefficiencies and inadequacies that have led to him spending at least 20 hours each week getting to and from his job.
Just think about it for a moment: strangers are falling over themselves to help subsidize a personal vehicle for one individual (although insurance, gas, and maintenance are obviously on him going forward), but voters in dozens of suburban communities in the Detroit area have voted to “opt out” of the region's public transportation system. In so doing they have shut down job opportunities for thousands of area residents who are eager for employment, and denied employers access to untapped sources of labor.
“This region has been unable—and unwilling—to weave together a sensible public transit network,” writes Stephen Henderson, Free Press editorial page editor. “While Robertson's circumstances are extreme, he's but one victim of our collective neglect … [H]ow 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?”
This problem is hardly confined to the Detroit area. Across the United States, you can find communities that systematically underfund or defund their public transportation systems, leaving residents dependent on personal vehicles that are expensive to buy, maintain, insure, and fuel, creating an enormous financial burden for families already struggling with housing, food, medical, and education costs.
Take the example of Lorain County, Ohio, near Cleveland, where 13 percent of residents don’t own cars and one poll found that 42 percent of county residents would commute by public transportation if they could. There, voters have repeatedly rejected minuscule property tax levies to help fund basic bus service, most recently voting down (by a 58-42 margin) an annual transit tax of $2.28 per $100,000 of property value. As a result, many Lorain County residents find it difficult to get to work and to maintain employment when they do find a way.
In the Lorain County Chronicle-Telegram, you can find the story of another American who, like James Robertson, struggles to get to work without a car. Karena Williams is a 31-year-old mother of two and a veteran of the Ohio Army National Guard. Her car was repossessed in December, and she has been patching together rides from friends and family ever since to get to her job as a support care worker at a residential facility for homeless veterans. “I really think more people would go to work if there was a better form of public transportation,” Williams told the Chronicle-Telegram. “You could work one or two more jobs and fight to get yourself on your feet.”
Strong regional public transit systems help people to find employment and keep it, which is a good thing for everyone. But many regions shrink from making tax contributions to such systems because they like to think of themselves as being separate from those who need public transit. They don’t want to think about a scenario in which they or one of their family members or friends might not be able to drive because of medical or financial reasons.
Going into long-term debt to purchase a car is still the norm in many regions. Many low-income Americans are so dependent on personal vehicles they can hardly afford that subprime auto loans have emerged as an enticing way for investors to earn big returns, as the New York Times has been reporting.
The GoFundMe campaign for James Robertson will likely continue to take in cash from donors happy to provide relief to one worthy individual. But you shouldn't have to be some kind of hero and win a virtual lottery to have a decent commute.