By Dennis Archambault
It’s difficult coming from the privilege of employment and automotive transportation to understand what it is like to walk and bus five hours a day for work, much less two part-time jobs paying minimum wage and probably not very rewarding. Yet Detroiters like Ashley Williams need to do that every day (see article in Crain’s Detroit Business http://www.crainsdetroit.com/print/653251).
A few years ago, James Robertson (a.k.a. “Walking Man”) enjoyed his moment of fame after the Detroit Free Press documented his ordeal of walking and busing 21 miles daily from his home in Detroit to a factor job in the suburbs.
It’s a coincidence that both destinations are in Oakland County, a county that stubbornly refuses to help create a regional transportation system that help establish a more equitable system of mobility for lower income populations. These two cases help illustrate, in dramatic detail, the way that access to transportation impacts health.
The Free Press, in a recent update https://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/detroit/2018/02/24/walking-james-robertson-transit-driving/357047002/ added an element to the transportation issue that, ironically, factors into Robertson’s story. While Oakland County won’t help him get to work through a transit system, a crowd-funding campaign raised money to buy him a new car. This raises another dilemma between the prerogatives of philanthropic solutions to social problems and societal solutions for the “greater good.” But that’s another issue.
Robertson’s story was repeated at a presentation in Dallas, Texas, titled, “The Road to Economic Mobility.” A solution raised at that presentation may not follow the narrative of those who have fought the good fight to bring regional transition to the Motor City: an affordable car for the masses.
The spirit of Henry Ford I must have been present for that discussion. Ford, of course, designed the Model T and produced it as an affordable vehicle that would given transit independence to average people; not those in deep poverty, but those who were suddenly part of the employment explosion fueled by mass production of automobiles. “The nation’s urban poor people need affordable passenger vehicles, in addition to mass transit, if they’re to share in the American dream,” noted a Free Press reporter summarizing the Dallas presentation by Rolf Pendalla, senior fellow of the Urban Institute.
“It’s easy to picture a rail line or a bus route. What’s harder is to analyze just how people get to their destinations on chains of transportation methods,” Pendalla said. In fact, even if a form of mass transit were to be approved in Southeast Michigan region, its sprawling, decentralized development will still require connections and lost time, not to mention inconvenience in foul weather. This sprawl was encouraged by automotive transportation and will likely require an automotive solution, unless traveling five hours by bus or some form of light rail/bus connector is created.
What about creating an affordable car, subsidized in some way through grants to auto companies, tax credits for consumers, low cost insurance rates, and low interest loans? Despite an era of reduced commitment to funding social programs, surely sufficient wealth and innovative thinking exists among urban planners and automotive industry executives.
Henry Ford did it, and he wasn’t a socialist.
Dennis Archambault is vice president, Public Affairs, at Authority Health