Millions of people around the world have heard the story of James Robertson, the 56-year-old Detroit man who walked 21 miles to work and back every day, in combination with multiple bus trips, for more than a decade. Robertson’s story is, on one level, a story about the metro Detroit region’s abominable lack of investment in a public transportation system. Yet it also brings out a much broader story about America’s broken social contract in an era of brutal inequality.
Robertson’s marathon commute to work in the Detroit suburb of Rochester Hills was a consequence of that city’s decision not to pay taxes for the metro region’s suburban bus system, SMART. Across the tri-county metro area, 51 municipalities make the choice to “opt out” of public transit. A few of these are rural townships with more cornfields than commercial centers, but many, like Rochester Hills, are highly populated, heavily built-up areas which contain major shopping malls, factories, and educational institutions.
The “opt-out” areas also share some distinctive common denominators. Almost without exception, they are relatively wealthy and majority-white. Detroit could hardly present a starker contrast.
92% of the Motor City’s residents are people of color. 39% live below the poverty line, including more than half of all children under 18. Robertson’s neighborhood in Detroit’s North End is 97% African American, and less than half its residents are employed.
At its heart, then, the Robertson story is about the modern-day systems of regional segregation that keep Americans separate and unequal. These systems operate with remarkable subtlety. They do not require any virulent racists to sustain them, only our continued reluctance to challenge our accustomed status quo.
Asked about Robertson, Rochester Hills Mayor Bryan Barnett said the Detroiter “sets a wonderful example” by walking 21 miles to work. However, he didn’t think his city’s people would be willing to pay for SMART bus service.
“That would be an underdog to pass in our community,” he told the Detroit Free Press.
Another suburb that doesn’t pay taxes for bus service is Bloomfield Hills, the wealthiest city in Michigan. Bloomfield Hills is surrounded by SMART participants on all sides, so the Woodward Avenue bus, one of SMART’s busiest, runs through the city without stopping.
“When you have a community that has a high value and doesn’t have that many riders, you’re paying virtually millions of dollars,” explained Bloomfield Hills city manager Jay Cravens. His residents were “very giving people,” he said, but given their higher home values, he said, they should be able to pay a lower millage rate than other cities to participate in SMART.
The argument that elite suburbs should be entitled to lower tax rates than their neighbors for regional services may strike some people as bizarre. However, in Michigan and many other states, the principle that local governments get to hoard their resources is already well entrenched. In fact, it literally dictated the city boundaries of Detroit. Henry Ford incorporated his factory towns of Highland Park and Dearborn as separate cities in order to protect against annexation by Detroit and the higher tax rates that would result.
The ensuing fragmentation of the Detroit region into hundreds of autonomous local governments has created a remarkably regressive system of taxation for city services. In Michigan, property taxes are the main source of revenue for local government. As wealthier residents moved outward, poor cities like Detroit have had to raise property tax rates repeatedly to squeeze the same amount of revenue from residents. Rates in Detroit and poorer suburbs are more than twice as high as that of wealthy suburbs. Detroiters are also saddled with income and utility taxes that don’t exist elsewhere. Yet even that doesn’t make up the difference. The services Detroiters receive are, as numerous articles have documented, incredibly sub-par.
Detroit’s bankruptcy has been portrayed by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder as a consequence of poor management, of the city failing to live within its means. No one can dispute the existence of corruption and mismanagement in city government. Yet that’s not the fundamental reason for Detroit’s financial state. After decades of subsidies for suburban development, from interstate highways to mortgage assistance, there was no way the city could meet the mounting needs of its increasingly impoverished residents with a rapidly shrinking tax base.
Despite this fact, many suburban leaders still believe they’ve earned every advantage they have, and Detroit’s problems are wholly of its own making, a message exemplified in Oakland County Executive Brooks Patterson’s manifesto “Sprawl, Schmall: Give Me More Development.” Disregarding the context of their own communities’ success, they don’t believe they have corresponding responsibilities towards the central city or the metropolitan area as a whole.
“Sprawl did not cause the decline of the cities,” Patterson argues. “Cities declined because they squandered their assets.”
There may be an element of truth in that, but it disregards the reality that suburban development was heavily subsidized.
A 1980 cartoon in the Oakland Press depicted Detroit Mayor Coleman Young tying a white woman labeled “Oakland County taxpayers” to the tracks of a proposed metro Detroit subway. It might have been more appropriate to depict how Detroiters were literally run over by freeway construction, which carved neighborhoods apart and primarily stimulated suburban development at the expense of the city.
Thankfully, we still have an opportunity to renew metropolitan America’s social contract for the good of everyone in our regions. Despite the reluctance of an older generation of leadership, an increasing number of people around the region are recognizing that the go-it-alone mentality is both morally wrong and economically suicidal.
Ten years ago, the suburb of Livonia “opted out” of the SMART bus system. Mayor Jack Kirksey, 86, describes the buses as a needless expense.
“Nobody’s been disadvantaged,” he told the Free Press last week.
“That’s a bold statement,” says Michael Seunagal, a visually impaired resident of the City of Highland Park within Detroit.
When Livonia quit SMART, Seunagal, who does not drive, was working on a business degree at Livonia’s Madonna University. The end of bus service left Seunagal without any way to reach his classes, and forced him to drop out of the program, something that still rankles.
“I like to finish what I start,” Seunagal says.
Seunagal is now working with the Motor City Freedom Riders, an organization of bus riders and allies across the metro region, in an effort to improve public transit around the metro region. A number of Livonia residents have joined the effort, too, working to get their city to opt back in to SMART and participate in the new Regional Transit Authority.
“Opting out is effectively putting up a wall,” says Lynda Franklin, a longtime Livonia resident and dental hygienist. “I frankly hate the disconnect, am embarrassed by it, and I believe that opting back in is a positive, crucial step in improving real regional transit. Livonia has numerous places offering opportunity for many people, and improved regional public transportation would increase the number of potential employees, students, patients and customers available to all of them.”
Economist Robert Reich has called the withdrawal of affluent Americans from the social contract the “secession of the successful.” Yet these days, more and more people are having trouble getting ahead, even if we don’t have to walk 21 miles to work. Poverty touches cities and suburbs alike. An entire generation of young people faces a dim future. Even the most privileged struggle with a sense of meaninglessness in a world where individualist values have been carried to their illogical extreme.
Let’s hope this is our moment to remember that the true meaning of democracy entails responsibilities to one another, not just freedoms from one another.
In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
It’s time to begin mending our tattered social fabric, and the buses that connect our communities are a worthy place to start.
Content posted to MyMPN open blogs is the opinion of the author alone, and should not be attributed to MintPress News.