Taking the 'In' Out of Transportation Inequity

Local social justice scholars think Detroit has a long way to go

DETROIT—The issue of transportation inequity hits close to home for Marygrove College Social Justice Program colleagues, Brenda Bryant, Ph.D. and Elena Herrada, for a number of reasons – not just because transportation equity is a social issue.

“... living in dignity is a human right. That means access to good quality food, a roof over your head, meaningful employment. ... transportation is the medium that helps enhance these things, so that you can access them." ~Brenda Bryant, Ph.D.

Herrada has raised her family in Detroit, been personally affected by transportation challenges, and witnessed the struggles of fellow residents. Also, both Herrada and Bryant were frustrated by the obstacles one of their students recently faced upon graduating from their program.

The alumna landed a new job, but it took her three hours by bus to get from her home on Detroit’s east side to her new job on the west side. According to Herrada, “She arrived in tears, frustrated on the first day.” Armed with a master’s degree and offered a job with more responsibility and pay, she still faced a huge obstacle to getting ahead without having a car.

“How do you hold down job when you can’t get there? You can try, but if it takes three hours, you’re not going to keep it for long,” says Bryant.

Bryant is dean of Community Based Learning and executive director of the Center for Social Justice and Community Engagement. Herrada is coordinator of the Masters of Social Justice Program. In Bryant’s view, transportation equity means access for all to affordable, convenient transportation.

This is the first of two pieces that will convey their thoughts on transportation equity in southeast Michigan. But brace yourself. These women have strong opinions, and most of them are disheartening.

Here’s what they have to say …

… on why metro Detroiters should care about transportation issues when they can’t afford to buy food.

Bryant: First of all, living in dignity is a human right as defined by the United Nations. That means access to good quality food, a roof over your head, meaningful employment. So transportation, from my point of view, is the medium that helps enhance these things, so that you can access them. It enhances a community so that people then can go get the food they need with relative ease.

… on the current state of transportation equity in Detroit.

Herrada: It’s a rabid problem of Detroit life. You can’t get around inside the city, and you can’t get from inside the city to outside the city because of transportation. Because of the incredible, incredible difference in the amount of car insurance that Detroiters pay, most people are not able to afford to buy a car.

Look at the statistics for the people of Detroit that are affected by the Driver Responsibility Act, which is basically a tax on poor people for not having insurance. You are looking at a group of people who simply don’t have access to personal transportation and there is no public transportation. If this isn’t an issue of equity, I don’t know what is.

Bryant: Transportation is really a struggle. People in Detroit are incredibility resourceful for being able to navigate with nothing, with absolutely nothing.

… on what we are doing right to put transportation on more equal ground.

Bryant: My experience in the city is that stuff is not happening.

Herrada: There are bike lanes.

Bryant: They are in Ferndale, but I don’t see anyone using them.

Herrada: Bike lanes appeared in Detroit. It was the strangest thing. But there are new, freshly painted bike lanes. We kind of joke about them being shopping cart lanes.

… on disconnections between leaders and residents.

Bryant: I think it’s important that the people at the top, at the top of the hierarchy, be in touch with the reality of the situation. Have any of those people ever tried to ride the bus in the city? Have they talked to anybody who has tried to get around? Hierarchal groups are driving around in Lincolns. How can you speak to an issue if you haven’t experienced it? Why not include those with the experiences to speak to the issue and/or attempt it yourself. That’s what I would suggest.

… on the biking movement in a town that values cars.

Herrada: Biking is an important movement, but it’s going to take a long time to take hold. It’s going to take a long time for the culture of the City of Detroit to really feel like we’re a pedestrian and bicycle friendly city because it’s the Motor City. People are riding in the bike lanes and they get hit by car doors because the bike lanes are right next to the parking lane.

In a city that actually does bicycles, you wouldn’t put the bike lane next to the parking lane. Because everyone that parks opens their doors and knocks cyclists off their bikes when they’re riding by. There’s not priority given to bikes and pedestrians over motorists like there is, say, in Ann Arbor, where pedestrians reign supreme over cars.

It’s a very different culture in Detroit with regard to the Motor City, with regard to the incredibly stratified class and race.  Here, the people who are on bicycles, especially if they have bicycles and bicycle gear like helmets, look like people who have money. So there’s a lot of that. That’s the reality of it.

Bicycling, I can’t imagine any time soon is going to be the preferred method of transportation in Detroit. It is an important movement, but I don’t think that it’s going to be the preferred mode of transportation. Everyone wants a car here. It’s very hard to get around without a car here, because 1) lack of transportation and 2) the danger of our streets.

The danger is very real. Every one of my girls has been robbed at gunpoint. It’s really a serious problem, so you can’t just walk around like you’re in Mayberry.


Do you believe access to public transportation is a human right? Tell us why or why not in the comments below.

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