February 4, 2015

The Daily Scot: An Analogy from Detroit

Scot, like many others, picked up on this:

Strangers raise $60,000 to buy car for Detroit man who walks 21 miles a day to work

The story of a Detroit man who has been walking 21 miles a day to get to and from work for over a decade inspired a Michigan college student to launch an online campaign to buy him a car. Thanks to the generosity of strangers, the campaign has raised more than $60,000 in a day.

Since buses don’t cover the entire 23-mile route, 56-year-old James Robertson spends nearly all of his free time during the week commuting to his $10.55 an hour factory job ….



But further in the Detroit News story is this:

A land of no buses

Robertson’s 23-mile commute from home takes four hours. It’s so time-consuming because he must traverse the no-bus land of rolling Rochester Hills. It’s one of scores of tri-county communities (nearly 40 in Oakland County alone) where voters opted not to pay the SMART transit millage. So it has no fixed-route bus service. …

“The last five years been really tough because the buses cut back,” Robertson says. Both SMART and DDOT have curtailed service over the last half decade, “and with SMART, it really affected service into Detroit,” said Megan Owens, executive director of Transportation Riders United.


 CityLab picked it up, though:

It’s Easy to See Why This Man’s Grueling Commute Went Viral

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.


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?”


Not relevant for us?

One of the least reported issues related to our referendum is the fact that there is no status quo: if the referendum fails, we start to cut back on the existing level of service (since the expansion of the past assumed an increased level of funding in the future.)  One estimate: Vancouver goes back to 2005 levels.

But it won’t be equally distributed across the region.  Though no doubt fraught with politics, some services may be cut to support areas where transit is more heavily used.  And some in Metro Vancouver could find themselves in an analgous position to James Robertson: unable to afford a car, unable to use transit.

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  1. The tragedy is many of the people screaming against the tax are the ones who stand to benefit from it the most. I plan to vote yes, and I am lobbying everyone I know to do the same, but even if it fails, I won’t really be affected by the cuts, as I live close to work and bike pretty much everywhere.

  2. The neat part is that this man James Robertson went on record saying he would prefer transportation for all people, not just himself in a car, in this area. This story is a solid example why Yes is the only way to vote on the referendum. Transit and accessibility for all, not just those with cars.

    1. Sandy,

      So, do you think Robertson is going to accept the car for himself, or reject it and divvy up the $60,000 to “all people”? By your reasoning, a Yes vote would imply that you think he will not accept the car for himself alone because he wants to solve transportation on a larger scale, for all even though he can’t; $60,000 will not solve the larger scale transportation problem of the city. A No vote would imply that you think he will accept the car for himself alone, immediately and definitively solving at least one person’s transportation nightmare — his own. So, Sandy do we vote Yes for certain and absolute defeat, or do we vote No for certain victory?

      1. Let’s say that there are 2,000 workers living in the Robertson’s general area where the anti-transit vote eliminated bus services. Spreading his $60,000 amongst all those people would amount to $30 per person. Do you really think that would solve their problems?

  3. I would not object to being in James Robertson’s position of having over $60,000 supplied to him for free to purchase a car. I had to work long and hard to afford mine. My point being that his transportation woe is unique to him, as was the solution. Indeed, as many of us just scrape by in our over-inflated societies that are growing faster than our ability to keep up with the costs, we may have to find our own individual solutions, be resourceful, like Robertson’s appeal through the media. His problem was solved not by increasing taxes with no accounting of where the money will go to address transportation improvements; his problem was solved by an advocate targeting a specific solution and a specific means to achieve that solution: (1) buying a car, and (2) obtaining by voluntary donation the amount of money needed to buy it. This was only one of many possible solutions, but by targeting specifics, the goal and method were clear and acceptable to those who donated. Our region’s proposed referendum proposes an extra tax as only one, insufficient method that does not generate enough money to fund our needed transportation improvements, and the referendum has no specific goals identified or guaranteed as solving our transportation woes. I would trade Robertson’s definitive resolution for our vague referendum in a heartbeat.

    1. Susan wrote: “I would not object to being in James Robertson’s position of having over $60,000 supplied to him for free to purchase a car. I had to work long and hard to afford mine.”

      The problem that Robertson and all the other people who live in neighborhoods that have been stripped of transit services have is that without transportation their ability to find a job that would allow them to earn that money is severely impaired. Do you really think he would walk 23 miles to and from work every day for years if he could afford a car or if he was able to get a job closer to home? Would you?

      You’re writing as if this is a Robertson’s problem in particular, but in fact it’s a problem for a whole class of people living in certain areas. The fact that Robertson has had a bit of a windfall doesn’t solve the problem for everyone else. If you give $60,000 (or even $5-10,000 to buy a used car) to everyone who needs one, you might as well just implement the tax to fund the buses. That would benefit not just those who work, but those who go to school, go grocery shopping (yes! on buses!), or just want to get out of the house.

      1. Sean,

        Unfortunately, you have missed my point completely. I am not criticizing Robertson but applauding his ingenuity at find a solution to his problem, which was very real. He now has more than enough money to solve his transportation problem, which is fantastic for him. Of course, this is not the solution for all; I never suggested that, in fact just the opposite. The point is that trying to solve the bigger problem seems impossible; we may have to individually try to solve our own transportation difficulties by being resourceful.

        1. Quite the opposite. If we work only on own transport solutions, there would be no buses, trains or roads. Just muddy footpaths. Everybody pays a bit so roads, buses and trains can be supplied for everybody to use. By working together we are better off. That’s why we pay taxes.

          Buying a car and using it to drive to work is not an individual solution. The roads are built and maintained by taxes. You pay for the car, but the bulk of the transportation cost is in the road network that everybody pays for, just like they pay for transit.

          1. Exactly. We all pay for transit, and that fact did not assist Robertson whatsoever; he was disenfranchised despite the transportation services paid for and delivered to the citizens. Clearly, regardless of the taxes paid by citizens, including Robertson (presumably), mismanagement and poor decision-making at the corporate level failed to deliver adequate services for all individuals. We have exactly the same problem in Vancouver. I applaud Robertson’s and his advocate’s initiative in solving one individual’s transportation problem when his city’s transportation departments failed him. They did not make the mistake of throwing good money after bad by donating the $60,000 to city coffers, where it would never be seen again, and where it would not solve Robertson’s transportation need. I hope we do not make that mistake either. I am more than willing to pay more for improved transportation services provided (1) I am shown an accounting that reveals the money is needed and not misallocated, (2) I am shown an accounting of exactly what my money will pay for, and (3) I am provided with dependable assurances that my money will not be spent, or misspent elsewhere. Otherwise, I will be attending to my own transportation needs independently, just as Robertson did successfully.

  4. Let’s not confuse a dense area like Vancouver with a sprawling area like Edmonton, Calgary, Fraser Valley, central SK, rural ON or Detroit, MI as in this example. A car is a necessity in many parts of North America. Only Vancouver and few other downtown areas are an exception. So what is working for Vancouver may not work so well for other areas.

    The lack of Park & Ride along high speed transit is a major oversight in the MetroVan transportation plan. It is a VERY WEAK PLAN. Much more is required, especially political will on the provincial and MetroVan political level to invest in RAPID transit to get people out of their cars. A bus won’t do.

    More wobbly buses, stuck in slow traffic like cars .. give me a break. This is the transportation plan for 3.5M+ people for 2030 or 2040 ? We can, we must do FAR BETTER than the current “vision” of a few more buses, a subway to nowhere along Broadway and one bridge with 4 lanes replacing an aging bridge ?

    1. While there is indeed a “fully funded base plan” from 2013 it contains these lines:

      “TransLink’s principal sources of revenue for a base plan are limited by statute (in the case of transit fares and property taxes) or projected to decline (in the case of fuel tax revenue)”

      (Beyond the Evergreen Line) “this Plan anticipates no further expansion in bus, SeaBus or West Coast Express services”

      “on the Major Road Network, the Base Plan concentrates on maintaining the safety
      and serviceability of current infrastructure”

      For capital expenses, “no major new service expenditures are contemplated” (there are some scheduled fleet replacements and electrical work on the Expo line)

      And all this is against a backdrop of:

      “population and inflation pressures are outstripping revenue increases, which has required special measures (including the sale of real estate assets) to stay within budget during the Base Plan and Outlook period”

      So yes, I agree, there is a base plan. It is funded for the 3 years of the base plan (ending in 2016) but not for the Outlook period (the next seven years). And to achieve that base plan, there are reduced revenues, no expansion of service, no new roads on the MRN, no service expenditures, and the sale of real estate assets to maintain operations. That doesn’t sound sustainable. And they’ll patch up the Patullo with seismic upgrades. Everything else depends on the referendum outcome.

      Given that the base plan only runs to 2016, I don’t think it is unreasonable, given the above, to expect actual reductions in service hours, and certainly a great reduction in per capita services given the region’s growth over the next few years, with no new funding.

      1. the 10 years base plan is funded as well, if not better than the 10 years mayor’s plan.

        Forecasts could prove inaccurate, but it doesn’t rely on new source of revenues so it is reputed “fully funded”. It doesn’t schedule transit service hour reduction either (see table 26).

        On the opposite, the Mayors plan is not “fully funded” – it is expected to run out of money before the term of the plan (see thislink ) – and a new source of revenue will be necessary (road pricing is inferred by the Mayors plan).

        regardind service per capita, below is what would happen under the base plan:


      2. Perhaps I am reading it wrong. The Base Plan is stated as only covering three years (2014-2016). The other seven years are called the Outlook. The base plan is funded, through next year. The plan makes it clear that the Outlook is not funded, and that is why there is a referendum.

        Where is the ten year funded base plan?

  5. What would happen in Mexico and places like that is he would take the money and buy a passenger van and start his own little mini-bus “Collectivo” business.

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