Calling the suburban conscience: to help people like James Robertson, get your city into SMART

robertson-bus livermore-1995 SMART parade

The extraordinary story of Detroit’s James Robertson and his 21-mile post-bus trek to work in Rochester Hills has ricocheted around the world and inspired an outpouring of donations to help Robertson buy a car. But as Stephen Henderson of the Free Press and our allies at Transportation Riders United have noted, there are thousands of other people who undergo similar – if somewhat less lengthy – endurance tests in consequence of our failure to invest in transit.

Robertson’s story points up several different issues in metro Detroit’s transit tangle. At the end of the day, though, there’s one key action that can help to make things right: Residents of suburbs that “opt out” of SMART need to get their elected officials to bring buses back to their communities. Want to be part of the solution? Read on.

Robertson’s commute is so killer for a number of reasons. First, there’s the fact that SMART no longer runs buses into the city of Detroit after 6 pm. Once, Robertson could take the SMART bus all the way home to Detroit’s North End, but now he’s forced to get off just over Eight Mile at the State Fairgrounds, where the SMART bus turns around. (There’s a terrible sadness in the fact that Rosa Parks’s grave is located directly across from the bus turnaround, which now demarcates the boundary between our region’s separate transit systems.)

Second, there’s the fact that Detroit city bus service now ends just after 1 am, so Robertson can’t even catch a DDOT bus home after arriving at the State Fairgrounds. Instead, he’s forced to walk the remaining 5 miles down Woodward from Eight Mile in the middle of the night. He was once mugged making that trek.

However, both those issues stem from the same root: the atrocious under-funding of our region’s bus systems. We can work to make some improvements under the current budget, but if we really want to expand transit, we need to invest more. That’s why the first step we need to take to help people like James Robertson is to get all of our communities to participate in SMART, and stop “opting out” of our obligations to our neighbors throughout our region. No city is an island, and it’s time we stopped acting like it.

Asked why his city doesn’t participate in SMART, Rochester Hills Mayor Bryan Barnett said he didn’t think his constituents would support it.

Now, we understand that most people in Rochester Hills have cars. Yet even in Rochester Hills, there are plenty of people who can’t drive – children and the elderly, for example. We figure there are also plenty of people who would like the ability to get around without a car. And we know there are also Rochester Hills residents who might not see themselves ever using public transit on a regular basis, but who would agree that everyone in our metropolitan community deserves the right to transportation, and don’t think of the suburb as an island.

We need these people to come together and bring their cities into the bus system. It’s happened before. In 1995, suburban residents like Phyllis Livermore of Birmingham, at right in the 1995 photo above, mobilized to get their cities into SMART for the agency’s first property tax millage. Since then, they’ve kept it up to make sure the millage is renewed.

We already have contacts in Livonia and Novi who are working to get their cities back into the system. But they need help, and we need people to take up the effort in other cities, too. Want to help redeem our region’s commitment to transportation for everyone? Contact us at, or just leave a comment on this post.

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