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The Motor (less) City

A US-2 working in Detroit shares how it is difficult to be without a car in the “Car Capital of the world.”

NOAH Project

The Motor City: Henry Ford, factories, manufacture. It’s hard to talk about Detroit without mentioning its influential role in revolutionizing transportation in the U.S. More than simply being home to the Ford and GM factories, Detroiters paved the nation’s first highways and interstates. However, Detroit has one little known secret. The Motor City operates one of the worst public transportation systems in the U.S. among metropolitan cities. The city that once changed how Americans travel now struggles to innovate their own transportation system.

In September, my US-2 cohort held a webinar to discuss the first month in our placement sites. Through our discussions, a common theme began to emerge: not having a vehicle is difficult in 2016. So far, I had been getting around the city by bike, asking for rides, or using our community car (which was generally available to me on the weekends). After the meeting, I decided to take the advice of my cohorts and take a look into the public transit in Detroit, the DDOT (Detroit Department of Transportation).

I quickly began utilizing the DDOT as often as I could. As I explored the bus system in Detroit, I learned a few things. I realized that having a smartphone with access to Google Maps made the task of figuring out bus line schedules much easier. I also learned that riding my bike to bus stops gave me a huge advantage. A 10 minute walk to the bus stop becomes a three minute bike ride, which saved me on a number of occasions. I learned that the DDOT does not give change back, so when the only cash you have is a $5 for a $1.50 ride, you better make sure to get a transfer ticket and use it fast. However, the biggest discovery I made in this process was how important transportation is in our lives.

Now for many, public transit doesn’t scream social justice. Yet, as I rode the West Vernor bus line from my house in Southwest Detroit to Downtown Detroit, a 30 minute bus ride, I encountered people who relied on public transit for a number of reasons. I met a grandmother who took her four grandchildren to an elementary school a few miles down the road. Another young man rode the bus to get to his job at the Greyhound bus station. Several teenagers would get on the bus, listening to music as they traveled to school. Some families hauled their groceries in small carts while they rode the bus home. Through this process, I realized that riding the bus was a choice for me, yet many people depend on the transit to get them to all of the places they needed to go to.

I recently spoke with one of the volunteers at my work, who used to be a bus driver. Our discussion ended in the conclusion that transportation is linked to opportunity. Distance, and our ability to traverse those distances, governs the number and quality of the opportunities available to us. For those of you with access to a car, think for a few moments about what your weekly schedule would look like if you had to rely on public transit in your area. How long would your commute be to work or school? What activities, groups, or programs would continue to be feasible if you had to rely on bus schedules?

In my context, here are some comparisons between using a car and taking the bus:

Work: 15 minutes by car; 30 minutes by bus
Church: 30 minutes by car; 90 minutes by bus
Grocery store: 20 minutes by car; 70 minutes by bus
Community Choir: 20 minutes by car; 60 minutes by bus

I commute to these places weekly. By car, they’re all reachable in 30 minutes or less. However, by public transit, only one of the four places can be reached in under an hour. According to a recent survey conducted by the Michigan Department of Transportation, only 8 percent of commuters can reach their place of work in under an hour when riding public transit. The reason for this is that there are four separate bus systems operating in the Detroit metro area. As you can imagine, having four different transportation organizations in a metro area creates differences in a scope of services, including scheduling, policy, fares, and funding. The divide between these organizations has much to do with the division between urban and suburban areas. An article published by the Detroit Free Press in May 2015 states that the main causes of the transportation woes in the Motor City are both greed and a refusal to share with the larger community. When wealthier communities decide to opt out of transportation services, they, in effect, hoard their resources from going to aid the larger community. The article ends by stating that to fix this issue, citizens need to recognize “that the true meaning of democracy entails responsibilities to one another, not just freedoms from one another.”

Christ’s community is called to act in a similar way. The New Testament repeatedly reminds us that what we have acquired is not to be hoarded, but to be shared with the larger community. In Hebrews 13:16 we are told to “not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased” (NIV). Philippians 2:4 challenges us to see the needs of others, saying “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (NIV). As Christians, we are called to look out for the needs of others, especially those who do not have access to the same mobility as we do. When we are able to see our contributions as a gift to the community we are a part of, God can do great things. When we refuse to do so, our community becomes divisive, being separated by the “haves” and the “have-nots.” I believe that when we share with each other, we create a holy community like the one described in Acts 4:32-35, a community where people are unafraid to share, and rejoice in the blessings of a strong, healthy community.

Click here to link to Article about Detroit Public Transit.

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