Transportation Policy

Why Does This Detroit Man Have to Walk 21 Miles to Get Back and Forth from Work Every Day? Because the Government Runs the Buses.

A blockbuster story in the Detroit Free Press highlights the failures of government transportation policy.


You've got to admire James Robertson's grit. This 56-year-old Detroit resident walks 21 miles every day to and from his job at a suburban car parts factory. His commute takes so much time that it leaves him just two hours to sleep before he has to get up and do it again. 

James Robertson walks 21-miles to and from work everyday ||| Detroit Free Press
Detroit Free Press

Robertson is the subject of a recent blockbuster article in the Detroit Free Press, which is both an inspirational story of one man's determination to overcome the miles of pavement between him and an honest day's work, and a troubling reflection on Detroit's disgraceful transit system. Robertson voices no complaints about his monster commute in the article; on the subject of his work ethic, he told the Free Press, "I just get it from my family. It's a lot of walking, I know."

The story prompted an outpouring of support from readers, including a Wayne State University student who set up a charitable campaign that so far has raised $350,000. Robertson has also been gifted a brand new Ford Taurus that's already alleviating his daily grind. Since the original story appeared, the Free Press has published a series of follow-ups looking at the implications of Robertson's story, which provides the perfect hook to explore some high-concept public policy issues. Lefty labor economists often attribute high rates of inner-city joblessness (Detroit's unemployment rate is about 12%, or roughly double the state average) on the "spatial mismatch" theory, which holds that after the manufacturing industry fled cities, poor urban residents were left with no way to get to work.

The real cause of Robertson's plight is more straightforward: The government does a terrible job of getting federal transit dollars to those who need them most, while at the same time constraining private initiatives that could make Detroit far more commutable without costing taxpayers a dime.

Robertson used to own a car, but after it broke down he didn't replace it primarily because he couldn't afford insurance. That's no surprise, given that Detroit's car insurance premiums are 165 percent the U.S. average, or the highest in the nation.

Why is basic liability coverage so costly? Michigan is the only state that doesn't cap personal injury claims related to car accidents, and its no-fault insurance law means that drivers are responsible for their passengers' medical costs whether they're to blame for an accident or not.

In 2014, House Republicans introduced a bill that would cap payouts and create an office to investigate fraud, but state Democrats, with the backing of personal injury lawyers and health care professionals, lined up in opposition.

So why isn't there a network of buses that can take Robertson to work? The Detroit metropolitan area is home to one of the nation's worst bus networks, providing limited service to the suburbs, and plagued by constant breakdowns and long wait times.

Last year, the federal Department of Transportation (DOT) gave Detroit a $25 million grant to buy 50 new motorcoaches, but it simultaneously committed roughly double that amount to help build a $137 million (and counting) light-rail boondoggle, which will service one 3.3-mile stretch along the city's main thoroughfare. The system may please the sensibilities of upper middle class professionals who drive from the suburbs to downtown Detroit (I'm doubtful they'll actually ride the damn thing), but it won't improve the mobility options for the vast majority of Motor City residents, including Robertson, who depend on buses.

The private sector could do a much better job of providing cheap and convenient transit, but the city of Detroit has outlawed the independent dollar vans and jitney operators that help so many low-income workers get to their jobs in New York City—again limiting Robertson's choices.

While reporting Robertson's story, Free Press reporter Bill Laitner discovered that the DOT's Job Access and Reverse Commute Program has granted the city funds to pay for door-to-door transportation for low-income workers," but Robertson "was not aware of the program."

No wonder. A follow-up investigation by the Free Press found that the $17.4 million in federal funds provided since 2004 were never spent. That is until six months ago, when the program finally got going. It currently serves 1,660 people, or about 0.2 percent of Detroit residents.

Robertson himself best summed up the wastefulness of this initiative. "I'd rather they spent that money on a 24-hour bus system, not on some little bus for me," he told the Free Press. "This city needs buses going 24/7. You can tell the city council and mayor I said that."

Back in 2010, Nick Gillespie and I looked at Detroit's dreadful bus service and light-rail follies for Reason TV:

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    1. It’s more of a Shelbyville idea.

  1. Okay, first of all good on the charitable people that decided to help him. Second, bullshit on making that commute every day. You can’t function on two hours of sleep a night. If they told me he only made the commute on the weekends I might believe it. I could see sleeping on a bench on weekdays and heading home only rarely, but this guy would be borderline dead if he only got two hours of rest everyday.

    1. Yeah I call bullshit on the two hours of sleep a night as well. There’s no way you can function on that amount of sleep on a daily basis.

      1. Whelp, I think we just demonstrated that libertarians aren’t nearly as prone to confirmation bias as the AGW guys like to believe. Here is a perfect article supporting our views and we all zero in on the obvious fantastical details calling it out as bullshit. Progs have already demonstrated that they can’t and won’t do this.

  2. I read this a few days ago and my bullshit detector went off immediately, it was hard to find any real solid facts about his daily commute but I did finally get to some story that admitted he had a 21 mile trek by both bus and shoe leather. Public transportation may be horrendously wasteful and need to be privatized but using bogus anecdotes to push that doesn’t do the cause any good.

  3. I can walk a mile in about 20 minutes at a regular pace, so it would take me 7 hours to walk 21 miles. I have a hard time believing this guys is walking for 14 hours a day to work 8 (or whatever). It smelled like bullshit from the beginning.

    1. I presumed 21 miles was round trip.

      Hyperbole’s comment above suggest it’s mixed walking and transit.

      1. That’s what the NPR story said he did.

  4. Also even if entirely true, who spends 22 hrs to for 8 hrs pay, unless he’s making good cash, and then why not just buy a car, he’d be better of working two full time jobs close to home, alot of things don’t add up here.

  5. Clearly, the answer is to extend the Detroit People Mover? to this guy’s workplace.

    If it helps even ONE person…

  6. Man, and I thought I had it bad.

    Back in 2008 I lived on the edge of Elizabethtown, PA and had to commute to Harrisburg, PA without a car. This meant getting up before dawn to walk to the Amtrak station, riding that and taking a bus and walking the final mile or so.

    This was due to the fact my wife left me while my license was suspended. I was SOL at that point and just chugged along. The worst part was discovering–after weeks of walking– that there was a bus that ran a little less than once an hour (only in the morning) that would have cut out several miles of walking. Il

    The job was a good one, and I ended up moving into the city after a few months when my lease ended.

  7. He’ll have to sell the car to pay the taxes on it.

    1. Nah, the fund they raised for him will cover the taxes on the car.

  8. In 1992 I worked in a factory in the Detroit suburbs. There were a lot of folks coming out from downtown to work there. You know what they did? They carpooled. 6 guys would pile in to somebody’s beater and they’d drive out to the burbs. Detroit’s bus system is terrible by any measure and I won’t defend it, but Detroit is a tough nut to crack with regards to any form of mass transit. The metro area is really spread out.

  9. Fuck, this guy is a wuss. Back in my day, we had to walk that far to school each day, barefoot, in the snow, uphill both ways. And if we complained about our chores in the fields after arriving home, we were beaten and sent to our room in the root cellar, without our daily ration of gruel!

    1. old rich guy: You were lucky to have a room! We used to have to live in a corridor!

      another old rich guy: Oh we used to dream of living in a corridor! Woulda’ been a palace to us. We used to live in an old water tank on a rubbish tip. We got woken up every morning by having a load of rotting fish dumped all over us! House!?

      1. You were wealthy enough to afford a house with halls?

    2. That’s just about what Brian Williams has been saying about his childhood too.

    3. You had snow? We had to freeze our own water, and pound oxygen and hydrogen atoms together to make the water in the first place!

  10. I’m really skeptical of his story. 2 hours of sleep a day, after all that walking? I don’t see how that’s possible.

    1. There is a whiff of the Blarney in that statement, yes.

    2. I can only imagine that he would get rides fairly often. Is hitch hiking not a thing anymore?

  11. When I was a teenager, my dad walked a similar distance home from work on a couple of occasions when his car broke down. (I’m guessing the distance was around 19 miles by the regular roads, but since he followed the railroad tracks, the distance was actually a few miles less, but I can’t be certain precisely how far it actually was.)

    Anyway, I’m absolutely sure there’s no way he could’ve done it both ways every day.

  12. The most unbelievable part of the story is that Detroit bureaucrats left 17 mill in other people’s money unspent for a decade. That’s some major incompetency for public servants.

  13. “You ate *sand*?!”

  14. And remember, criticizing this is called “Racism”.

  15. That’s no surprise, given that Detroit’s car insurance premiums are 165 percent the U.S. average, or the highest in the nation.

    From “Donations Roll In For Detroit Man Who Walks 21 Miles To Work”:

    One of Robertson’s new costs will be car insurance. Detroit has some of the highest insurance costs in the country. Pollack says they got quotes from insurance companies for a 2015 Ford Taurus. They come in at $933 a month.

    Damn. That’s more than twice what my car payment was.

    1. Another way of saying that is that the average car insurance payment in the country for a new car is $6800 a year. Which I do not believe.

      1. Bearing in mind that I’m paying 10% of that for a car worth more than a new Taurus.

    2. Wait. Wait, wait, wait.

      Kelly Blue Book says a 2010 Taurus in excellent condition is worth, cash, $12k plus change.

      Then carry liability-only insurance. Pay for an entire year of it. Even if the difference is only 10%, that’s $10,080 to pay for a year in advance.

      There’s still enough left over for taxes and $100 a week for gas every week for a year.

      Why is everyone so stupid with money?

    3. Im in the Insurance industry, (im sorry, i know) i underwrite policies for Motorcycles, boats and cars, in almost all 50 states. The 933 is a high quote, the drivers quoted must have DUI, tickets, Accidents, etc.
      Detroit is high, and the obvious reason is this: Math. Odds are great (surprisingly so) that the veh will suffer a loss, if not total, in the first year, whether thru fire, theft, vandalism or collision with uninsured drivers. Insurance companies dont even want that risk, or even some of those customers, but they ae obligated to thru legislation, thats why the rates are so high, the Ins companies are being forced to take risks they would never dream of taking without pressure, basically, buying a loss.

  16. Setting aside the ludicrous claim that he’s walking the whole distance . . .

    A major issue is that the City of Detroit preciously clutches to control of its own bus system, refusing to cooperate with the bus system in the suburbs (SMART).

    1. Free press article on that a few weeks ago was great. 20 paragraphs of bitching that SMART doesn’t pick up peple in the city, before you get to the line that there is a Detroit ordinance against doing so.

    1. Yeah, it’s odd that he never thought of a bike, or a small motorcycle. Or carpooling, as mentioned above.

      Hitchhiking pretty much died in the ’70’s. I did it in the early ’70s, but it was already getting sketchy. I’d say a middle-aged black guy has little to no chance getting a ride today, except maybe from somebody who wanted to rob him.

      1. I have had occasion to hitch hike recently and it worked. I suppose it depends a lot on where you are and what you look like.

  17. Even riding an old beater bike 11 mph shaves 5 hours off your commute.

  18. I do not think damage caps is a libertarian policy.

    1. It’s a sensible one, though. Without them costs can skyrocket (as we see in Michigan), which just feeds trial lawyers and the Democratic Party, which are almost always anti-libertarian. Sometimes a little non-libertarianism can actually produce more libertarianism in the end.

      Never let ideology blind you to real-world effects. The map is not the territory, and ideologies aren’t reality.

      1. You don’t understand what ‘ideology’ is and your epistemology is terrible. I don’t see evidence that damage caps are reducing costs and even if they were I don’t think that justifies it. The other regulation of forcing passenger costs onto drivers probably has just a little more to do with it.

      2. Boy, this argument is going to go far when talking with an open borders fanatic.

  19. my best friend’s ex-wife makes $65 an hour on the computer . She has been without a job for seven months but last month her check was $13740 just working on the computer for a few hours. try this…………..


  20. I managed to (barely) function on 3 hours of sleep a night when I had insomnia, but sleep 2 hours and walk 21 miles a day to then work at a car parts manufacturer?

    I smell a rat.

  21. There’s a job map ( ) with 1,000,000+ USA jobs where you can definitely find real jobs just a few miles near you

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