In the wake of the James Robertson story, there’s been considerable hand-wringing about the Detroit suburbs that “opt out” of the SMART bus system. Oftentimes, the “opt-out” communities are portrayed as bastions of prejudice, one more example of the metro region’s seemingly unbridgeable racial and economic divides. Undeniably, the fragmented transit system is a sad testament to our region’s history of segregation. Yet as the story of Lathrup Village shows, the opt-outs often owe as much to political inertia as continuing opposition to transit, and concerted action by citizens can reverse decades of neglect.
When the SMART bus system had its first millage back in 1995, the small Oakland County city of Lathrup Village chose not to take part. First developed as an exclusive bedroom community in the 1920s, Lathrup Village is located entirely inside the City of Southfield, which did choose to participate in SMART. For 19 years, then, says Lathrup Village assistant city manager Martha Potere, “the  bus actually went up Southfield Road and didn’t stop in Lathrup.” But times change – and with a little effort, city policy can change with it.
As Potere recalls, Lathrup’s discussion about joining SMART got started with a new board member on the Lathrup Village Downtown Development Authority. A vendor at the city’s farmers market, she relied on the bus for transportation, but Lathrup’s non-participation in SMART was a significant inconvenience. “She would have to get off at Lincoln Street and walk all the way up here,” Potere says, “and she was pregnant at the time.”
In 2014, Lathrup Village officials started talking to SMART about joining the system by joining the Oakland County Public Transportation Authority, the pass-through entity that collects the property tax millage for SMART’s Oakland County cities. Lathrup Village City Council unanimously voted to join the Authority, and in August 2014, fully 73% of Lathrup Village voters said “yes” to the SMART millage – one of the highest levels of support in Oakland County.
Despite the additional tax, Potere says, “to my knowledge, we never received any negative feedback” from residents.”The millage passed,” she says, “and a few weeks later there were poles in the ground with SMART bus stops.” Now, “people are getting on and off at the stops; they’re using them.”
Potere says there’s still work to be done: since there are drainage ditches along either side of Southfield Road, some of the new bus stops don’t have proper access to the sidewalk. However, talking to other Oakland County members of the Motor City Freedom Riders this morning, she describes the decision to join SMART as a no-brainer for the city’s leaders.
“I think they were like, ‘Oh, buses. Yeah. This is probably time.’ It kind of left us scratching our heads thinking, ‘Why haven’t we done this before?'”
Potere herself is a native of the opt-out city of Rochester Hills, now known the world over as the destination of James Robertson’s marathon commute. Although she now lives in Detroit, she’s hopeful that her hometown will eventually embrace public transit. The economic case is a compelling one, she says; transit would be a stimulus to the city’s economy, including the retail district along Rochester Road. At some point, says Potere, cities need to recognize “the leakages that they’re experiencing by excluding people.”