There is a story that has gone viral this week – the story of James Robertson’s 21-mile-a-day walk to work in Detroit. Already a role model for his co-workers, Robertson has become an inspiration to many others since the story first appeared in the Detroit Free Press over the weekend. Concern for his ordeal has prompted others around the country to contribute well over $200,000 to buy him a car and change his circumstances. It is a good thing to see this sort of generosity from strangers; clearly people have hearts to help others. But is this is only response? This morning, I read a Facebook post from one of our own, Zachary Baker from St Luke’s in Ferndale, who admitted this may be a bit of a “rant” but he raises some important questions:
Ever since this story broke in Sunday’s paper it has become an international headline. A man walks 21 miles to his work that pays him $2 more than the minimum wage. He is an inspiration, a model for which all Americans should look to for a strong work ethic and determination. And because of his plight, we’re going to give him a car!
You know what? Bravo! Yes indeed. His commute is laborious and strenuous. No one should have to commute with that much difficulty, for what seems like so little. I don’t know the man. But it seems to me he might not want the attention he’s getting. He didn’t want a free car. He just wanted to work. But people felt sorry for him and decided to chip in to help him buy a car. But that wasn’t the point. And I would imagine most people outside of the Metro Detroit area didn’t know that. So they gave some money. What was the point of the story?
One – it was public transit. Something I am very passionate about and knew instantly to read between the lines. Metro Detroit has the worst mass transit of any major metropolitan area. And this is no accident. It was a carefully planned and executed design to go from a dense city and sprawling streetcar/interurban system in the early 20th century to a hollowed out city and sprawling road and freeway network today. This is much to the detriment to the city and its reputation and has led to city-suburban infighting that has caused economic and population stagnation. We are still heavily dependent on the auto industry and manufacturing and our 3-5 county metro area (depending on what you decide is the metro area) has remained at around 4-4.5 million since the 1970s while most areas, like Chicago, have doubled and tripled in size since 1970. And for nearly a century every mass transit plan – in the 20s and 30s it was a subway, in the 70s it was light rail, in the 80s it was Mayor Coleman’s subway – has come and gone seemingly vanquished by auto industry infiltration or regional bickering.
“We don’t want those people in our community” has been the subtle cry of not only mass transit blocking but also the infamous “opt-out communities” of SMART, the suburban bus system which allows municipalities to choose not to have bus service and thus not share the expense. Rochester Hills, the city where this man works, is such a community, part of the reason he must walk some of the way. Without public transportation, most Metro Detroiters are forced into their car, to drive on awful roads and sit in traffic because this region decided long ago that this was the future. Well it is not.
Two – it the astronomical expense of owning a car in the city of Detroit. While I’m not as versed in insurance as perhaps I should be, car insurance due to the high crime rates is not only high in Detroit but, in fact, Michigan has the highest average car insurance premium in the country. While working at an insurance agency, it was sad to hear a prospective customer express that he thought the high rates were due to “red-lining” (the process of blocking out certain neighborhoods to “undesirables” which was propagated by the Federal Housing Administration in the 1930s). What’s worse is that my co-worker didn’t even know what that was. Mr. Robertson says that he can’t afford a car because, not only can he not afford the purchase price, he can’t afford all the baggage it comes with: insurance, tags, maintenance, etc. I love driving, but as far as work in concerned, I would much rather take public transit. But alas, even I can’t because the routes between my home and work are too discombobulated and schedules too irregular making it damn near impossible.
My point is that the most important message of the story was missed. He may need a new car, yes, but the bigger picture is the complete failure of this metro to bring about a comprehensive and effective transit system. Now we have a sprawling metro area with suspicious suburbanites and urbanites that view public transit with distrust and subtle racial and anti-tax undertones and sheer ignorance. I can only hope that the good that might come out of this might be good for ALL commuters and residents. Not just Mr. Robertson. So I wonder how many Metro Detroiters, if they are willing to give money to a total stranger, would be willing to tax themselves in order to give countless others out there and themselves a decent public transportation system and build one that all of us can use?
(Edited and used with permission)
I think there is at least one other point that this post may have omitted: the difficulty of living with low wages. Mr. Robertson’s $10.55/hr job is not enough to carry the costs of owning a car without assistance.
“How did this get to be an issue for the Nuts and Bolts Blog?” you might be wondering. I think the points that Zachary raises tie in well with our Five Marks of Mission and our Baptismal Covenant. As a reminder, here are the Five Marks of Mission –
• To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
• To teach, baptize and nurture new believers
• To respond to human need by loving service
• To seek to transform unjust structures of society
• To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth
To be sure, those who contributed to James Robertson’s fund are responding to human need – and that is a wonderful thing. But there are so many “James Robertson’s” out there. Here’s where we need to seriously work at transforming “the unjust structures of society” so that safe and dependable public transportation is available for all. And, as a bonus, good, energy-efficient public transportation will also help in reducing the number of cars on the roads thereby benefiting the sustainability of our beautiful planet.
Zachary’s post mentioned the communities that decided to “opt-out” of the SMART transit system. The Detroit Free Press published the phone numbers of each of these communities this week so that residents could call their local governing boards and register complaints. Here’s the list:
In Wayne County:
Brownstown Twp.: 734-675-0910
Flat Rock: 734-782-2455
Grosse Ile: 734-676-4422
Huron Twp.: 734-753-4466
Northville Twp.: 248-348-5800
Plymouth Twp.: 734-453-3840
Sumpter Twp.: 734-461-6201
Van Buren Twp.: 734-699-8900
In Oakland County:
Addison Twp.: 248-628-5409
Bloomfield Hills: 248-644-1520
Brandon Twp.: 248-627-2851
Commerce Twp.: 248-624-0110
Groveland Twp.: 248-634-4152
Highland Twp.: 248-887-3791
Holly Twp.: 248-634-9331
Independence Twp.: 248-625-5111
Keego Harbor: 248-682-1930
Lake Angelus: 248-332-3916
Lake Orion: 248-693-8391
Lyon Twp.: 248-437-2240
Milford Twp.: 248-685-8731
Milford Village: 248-684-1515
Oakland Twp.: 248-651-4440
Orion Twp.: 248-391-0304
Oxford Twp.: 248-628-9787
Oxford Village: 248-628-2543
Rochester Hills: 248-656-4600
Rose Twp.: 248-634-7551
South Lyon: 248-437-1735
Springfield Twp.: 248-846-6500
Sylvan Lake: 248-682-1440
White Lake Twp.: 248-698-3300
Wolverine Lake: 248-624-1710
NOTE: All communities in Macomb County use SMART.
Speak out, Household! Let our voices be heard for all those who need the benefit of higher wages, public transportation, and reasonable insurance rates. We can begin with this transportation issue. MoveOn.org has created a petition to be delivered to Bryan Barnett, Rochester Hills Mayor; Michael Ford, Regional Transit Authority CEO; Dan Dirks, DDOT Bus System Director; and John Hertel, SMART Bus General Manager. You can find the link to the petition here – http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/demand-a-transit-solution-1?source=c.em&r_by=534305
Proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom isn’t just about telling Bible stories or preaching on street corners. We also proclaim the Good News when we live as followers of Jesus, taking his words to heart: “And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’” (Matthew 25:40).
Let us pray:
Heavenly Father, in your Word you have given us a vision of that holy City to which the nations of the world bring their glory: Behold and visit, we pray, the cities of the earth especially Metro Detroit and surrounding communities. Renew the ties of mutual regard which form our civic life. Send us honest and able leaders. Enable us to eliminate poverty, prejudice, and oppression that peace may prevail with righteousness, and justice with order, and that men and women from different cultures and with differing talents may find with one another the fulfillment of their humanity; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
~ Judith Schellhammer, chair, Resolution Review Committee, Diocesan Council