The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, Calif., once described efforts toward equitable transportation for communities of color as “fighting an uphill battle against entrenched interests in transportation decision-making that have yielded socially and racially unjust outcomes for the past century in the Bay Area.”
That summation about the need for an inclusive transportation in the Bay Area, in many ways describes the renewed battle around regional transit in the metro Detroit area. In the region, the battle has contributed to the longstanding economic gap between the haves in the suburbs and the have-nots in Detroit.
That is why the push to put funding for a comprehensive mass transit on the November ballot, is also about justice and equity for many low-income Detroiters, who often times are taking two and three bus routes to low-wage jobs in the suburbs.
Detroiter Deanne Austin knows because she commutes to work every day by bus as a lab technician at Acorn Industries in Livonia, where she works the night shift. After graduating with a journalism degree at Michigan State University in 2009, she couldn’t find a permanent writing position, she decided to go in a different direction and landed in her current role.
She has been taking three buses to work since 2011. She catches the 32 McNichols bus from her home on the city’s west side and then connects to the 53 Woodward bus, which in turn connects to the 38 Plymouth bus to Livonia. After getting off the Plymouth bus, Austin takes a seven-minute Uber or Lyft ride to her final destination, which is about two to three miles away from where the bus drops her.
Austin, 32, who travels two and a half hours to work may not be invited to the high-profile regional transit forums, but she represents an important constituency that needs to be heard but largely missing in the debate.
“It is very stressful especially if the buses don’t make it on time. I use the majority of my day traveling to work,” Austin told me. “We need a system that is larger and more effective. Not only is the transportation system physically fragmented, it is structurally fragmented.”
Austin sees the debate around transit as squarely an economic imperative.
“Transit is essential for developing cities economically,” Austin said. “If people have a better transportation system then they will have better jobs and education. It is all tied together. The transportation issue is a social justice issue.”
She added, “For a lot of us majority black Detroiters, we are being bused out for lower paying wages in the suburbs. It’s almost like a bitter taste in my mouth,” Austin said. “I ride three buses and still have to get an Uber or Lyft to get to my job which cost $25 and the price can be higher if there is a surge.”
The challenges of commuting to work that Austin faces are similar to what Larry Verse, 73, another Detroiter faced when he worked in Troy as a telemarketer three years ago.
“I was taking three buses and I had to leave very early to get to work. My work actually started at 9 a.m. but I would get there at 8:30 a.m.,” Verse said. “When I got off work, I had a two-hour wait to catch the bus back to Detroit. The only alternative for me was to walk miles to catch another bus which was not so good in the winter.”
The age difference between Austin and Verse shows the broad and uniform impact that lack of mass transit has on many Detroiters, who are on the lower scale of the economic ladder.
Like Austin, Verse too believes now is the time to make the dream of regional transit a reality.
“There should be no opt-out community. All communities should benefit,” Verse said. “That would facilitate more understanding among the races and communities because it would allow more people to get to visit the suburbs and Detroit. We can understand each other better.”
Verse is correct. The push for a transformative mass transit system has a moral imperative because it could unite the region and enhance its overall economic index.
That is why voters should decide this issue in November.
Granted, the recalcitrant opposition has spoken.
Let the people decide on the need for transportation justice.
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