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.