Story of Detroiter who walks 21 miles a day to work gets people moving

·Managing Editor
Photo: AP, Carlos Osorio
Photo: AP, Carlos Osorio

Did you have a rough commute to work this morning? Whatever it was, and however long it took, it likely pales in comparison to the Detroit man who walks 21 miles every day to and from his $10-an-hour manufacturing job — although thanks to the generosity of strangers, he may get off his feet soon.

As detailed in the Detroit Free Press, James Robertson, 56, has been making the four-hour trek from his Detroit home to work at a injection molding shop in Rochester Hills, some 23 miles away. For a shift that begins at 2 p.m., Robertson leaves home at 8 a.m., catching some buses between 7-mile walking stints. At 10 p.m., he faces a minimum 12-mile walk to and from buses, a trek that due to the lack of transit means he usually gets home around 4 a.m., for two hours of sleep.

His attendance record? Almost perfect.

Robertson's plight may be most stunning for illustrating one of those odd secrets about Detroit: The Motor City has a problem with moving people. At 26 percent, Detroit ranks seventh among large U.S. cities for its share of households without a vehicle — just behind Chicago and Baltimore. While those cities have trains and subways, Detroit lacks a true mass-transit system, relying instead of a threadbare network of buses that rarely reach into the deep suburbs where many jobs have gone. (And it's true: the city sold off its streetcars in the '50s at the urging of automotive companies.) As a result, Detroiters use public transit about as often as people in Indianapolis or Kansas City — places where cars are essential. 

Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics

And if you're wondering why someone would walk 21 miles a day to a job that pays $10 an hour, here's the chart for you. This data reflects the change in manufacturing jobs in Detroit and its suburbs since 1990. Yes, some jobs have come back since the great collapse of 2008-09 to rougly 390,000 in 2014, but those new jobs have not been numerous enough to reverse the long-term trend. Blame more efficient factories, or the shifting of auto parts production to Mexico and China, but whatever the reason, work like Robertson has isn't easily replaceable.

Robertson's story moved hundreds of people to pledge money and solutions for cutting down his commuting burden; as of this morning, an online charity page has raised almost $50,000 for him, and a local car dealership has offered him the free use of a Chevy Cruze or Sonic. That money will come in handy; it's not just that Robertson couldn't afford or find the time to fix the old Honda that broke on him a decade ago, it's that even if he got it running he couldn't afford car insurance in Detroit, where the average policy costs $5,000 a year, the highest in the nation. While Robertson may soon have wheels, the problems facing thousands of others who need cars for jobs and jobs for cars will take longer to solve. Maybe this one commuter's trek will be a real first step.

 

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