Biden Buses Good…But Won’t Get Where the Jobs Are

For Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden’s recent visit to the Detroit Department of Transportation’s main bus garage was a triumphant finale to his effort to secure more new buses from the feds.

For DDOT’s riders, the 80 new buses are a welcome sight on city streets. Yet sadly, they still won’t get us into the suburbs, where the great majority of the jobs are, because DDOT service is still confined to the city of Detroit.

In his speech, Vice-President Biden alluded to the disconnect between Detroiters and jobs. “100,000 Detroiters don’t have automobiles,” he said, “and jobs are places where people who need them the most aren’t. What’s the use of having a job if you can’t get there?” Metro Detroit, he noted, has the worst “job sprawl” in the nation,  with more than 77% of jobs located more than 10 miles from downtown.

It’s not clear whether Biden realized the implications of this fact. But in effect, since that 10-mile radius includes most of the DDOT service area, it means that the new bus he stood by won’t be getting to those jobs, except by transferring to suburban SMART bus service – where it exists.

As Biden mentioned, suburbs often block transit service as a form of racial and economic exclusion. When he was an elected official in Wilmington, Delaware, he said, he tried to expand public transit into the suburbs, but met opposition. “I thought I was doing a good thing for my suburban neighbors,” he said. “They said, ‘oh, no, we don’t want that, because inner-city folks are going to come out to our neighborhoods.”

“Let’s be honest about that,” Biden said.

Mayor Duggan is no stranger to the racial politics of public transit. He helped broker the deal that created the SMART bus system – a decade before his own suburb of Livonia voted to quit SMART. Now that DDOT is headed in the right direction, we need the Mayor to lead the way in removing the barriers to transit across the region, not just within Detroit.

We’re still seeking a meeting with Mayor Duggan, but DDOT Director Dan Dirks says the Mayor is “very skeptical” of the new Regional Transit Authority, where Detroit has just one vote on a nine-member board. “The mayor’s going to have a hard time supporting anything without some kind of equality,” Dirks said, noting that most of the riders who rely on DDOT are Detroit residents.

Moreover, Dirks said, the Duggan administration is doubtful about the prospects for the regional transit tax the RTA is considering for 2016. To aid SMART’s initial 1995 tax campaign, he said, Duggan secured the use of Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara’s polling apparatus to test the support of voters. “Quite honestly,” he said, “you’re going to have a hard time getting white males.”

We don’t underestimate the work that needs to be done to mobilize pro-transit voters. Yet we also believe that without the support of the region’s most transit-friendly leader, the chances for better regional transit are slim. As the repeated success of the SMART millage has shown, when politicians give people a chance to actually support transit, the people of metro Detroit can and will step up to the plate.

“All Detroiters need is a fair shot,” said Vice-President Biden. The new buses are a step towards that. But when they only reach a fraction of the jobs, we have a long way to go – and we need the Mayor to take the lead in getting us there.

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