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Working without Wheels

It took more than two weeks, but I finally got my beloved Saturn Vue back. It may be a White Elephant, but it's my White Elephant.

You may recall that I got into a car accident in early March, a mild fender-bender that my son still talks about on a daily basis. The bump shop did a great job putting the Old Vue back into service. But while we waited, I did a lot of walking and a little contemplating.

Living in the Motor Car Capital of the World without a motor car is miserable. This region needs more public transportation. And people need to be a little kinder to one another.

This is about Living in the D and trying to survive by bumming rides, borrowing vehicles, relying on a struggling bus system, walking to work, carrying groceries in a stroller basket and generally wishing Detroit was a more pedestrian friendly city.

Now, I'm not complaining. My family is a two-vehicle household, so I could still run errands and sneak in trips  downtown by borrowing my husband's car when he got home from work. So my suffering was pretty minimal. The worst thing I suffered was some embarrassment when the other Grosse Pointe Moms mocked my stroller-pushing self once or twice.

But when you think about the number of people going without...If in this city you cannot afford a car and its upkeep, you're a have-not. It's a dividing line. In other cities, you can survive without a vehicle. I don't want to be overly dramatic, but it's something like being illiterate: It puts a wall between you and everyone else. It's one more layer of humiliation in an already demoralizing situation.

We travel to Chicago on a regular basis because we have family there, and you can use the buses, taxis and trains to go pretty much everywhere. Yeah, Detroit has buses. We have some taxis cruising around the downtown area. We do have something called the People Mover, but that strange circular system is pretty limited. It gets you from one area of nightlife to another. For most people, it doesn't get to from work to home to stores and back again. Most of us who live outside of Detroit rely on a car – and that is how it has always been during my lifetime, and probably how it will stay during my kids' lives here.

During my two-week motor-vehicle hiatus, we got everywhere we needed to go in our old two-seater stroller: school, grocery store, friends' houses. Imagine if I had to go to an actual job – the hours it would have taken to get somewhere either by walking, taking the bus or paying a taxi would have been impossible. I would have lost any job or lost all of my wages for those two weeks because of the costs involved.

Mayor Dave Bing recently highlighted the city's commitment to new transportation options for city residents, including the M-1 rail that is slated to start later this year.

When I imagine Detroit's future, I see a city with vibrant neighborhoods, with retail and grocery stores, a city that's home to thriving small businesses, better mass transit and community parks and green space. But it will take all of us to make that happen and it's a process that will not happen overnight.

In the meantime, we'll continue to read and hear stories like mine and that of Oneita Jackson, whose blog is among my must reads in The Detroit Free Press. She too is going without a vehicle – but for much longer than I have, I'm sure. And I now understand her pleas to Bing for a working bus system more than ever before:

Instead of waiting for the next bus, I walked to work. It took 75 minutes. I thought about the people riding the bus. They are weary. We are weary.

I was hoping the mayor would say something about us, or about buses, rather, in his speech. When he said light-rail was coming soon, I wrote in my notebook, “Buses, Brother!”

He didn't talk about buses. The mayor said: “This administration is committed to working for you.”

Well, could you please, Mr. Mayor, make sure the buses work for us, too? I'm on the bus because my 317,000-mile car is sick, and I can't afford to get it repaired right now. But I've been enjoying my rides.

Now that's a good attitude.

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  • 1

    Bravo Karen and welcome back to the plush seat cushions!

    You are absolutely right about the Busses.

    All the money that will be thrown at that useless light rail will be utterly wasted if anyone bothers to look at the statistical data.

    Carol Goss tried to get us to be rational with DDD (Data Driven Detroit) but we remain not.

    Yet hey, with that sexy and deceitful, 3 car animated rendering it looks like we live in Shangai with 18,000,000 people rushing to get to the airport.

    Jane Jacobs clearly points out in her "Dark Age Ahead" that light rail systems have not worked out and that transportation engineers are at the bottom of the keg when it comes to rational, logical and integrous engineering disciplines.

    Here is a quote from her very intelligent book: "Perhaps to cheer or placate me (Talking about Mr. Paul Martin), he told me that he intended to announce a program of federal grants enabling municipalities to install light-rail public transit. Now it was my turn to demur. I told him that unfortunate experiences already showed that fixed transit routes were expensive failures when they were not preceeded by evidence of of sufficient demand.... pp ,120,121.

    No one bothered to ask DDD about the demand.

    So Bing and a bunch of others have been snookered by my guess, some stupid white men on the money grab.

    And I'd be willing to bet that Dave is not bold enough, strong enough, wise enough to say, "Wait a minute! Let's check some numbers!"

    Yup we do need a great bus system. That money should go to improving what we have.

    And Ole Al Sloan really screwed thing up in his mad dash to place automobiles in quantity in front of every house.

    In a sense, more dirty, more impactful, more meretricious than Enron and all the other recent dirty ploys by stupid white men trying to snooker society for their personal gain.

    Bing got the courage to set things right?
    Does Bing rely on Beckham for that kind of thinking.

    Anybody on the grab again?


  • 2

    You betcha!


  • 3

    I have seldom, if ever, considered the hardship that those without a car or other means of transportation must face. It's not that I don't care, it's just that I have taken my good fortune for granted.

    I can't help comparing the attitude that I have formed, (I have a car, doesn't everybody?) with the current bitter resistance of the conservative right against health care for those who can't afford it. When you enjoy good health and healthcare, you tend to take that enormous blessing for granted.

    There is a very strong correlation between mass transportation and the well being of a population, especially true here in Detroit. If you lack the means to get to a job, you are jobless. If you are without work, you are without money. Like a snowball down hill, the rest of the hardships build on one another.

    Sorry to belabor the point, (it has been said that I have a deep insight into the obvious). Thanks for the article Karen. I think you have illuminated a fundamental problem, perhaps the foundation for all of Detroit's problems.

  • 4

    The need for a car says more about one's activities and lifestyle choices than anything else.

    The automakers constantly get pushed to increase mpg and when they do piggy Americans merely burn up the fuel savings with the choices they make.

  • 5

    A very honest essay about the practical problems of getting around the city without a car. A light rail system sounds great, and perhaps if it is built it will attract development and people will come, but right now (without mostly federal dollars) it sounds prohibitively expensive and a risky option to boot. Further, it does not get people out to the suburbs where most of the jobs are located. A related problem? It would be nice if those folks with cars had an easier time holding on to them! My daughter's car parked on a residential street was first whacked by some kids pushing a stolen SUV. The kids scattered, probably reassembling at their neighborhood chop shop. No big deal, her car had a few scratches, but it took a big tow truck to move the vehicles off each other, like trying to pull apart a couple of dogs in heat. She should have learned her lesson. A few months later some suburban guys driving about sixty on the same street (drunk? joy riding?; fleeing a debt collector? collecting a debt? fleeing police?) didn't look when crossing an intersection and crashed into a car. totaling it. Still moving, it then veered off and rammed the rear end of my daughter's car, parked in the very same place, totalling it. Two for one I guess. I wish those with cars the best of luck in holding onto them.

  • 6

    Jane Jacobs was usually right, but wrong if she said that! Transportation systems create demand. For proof, look at the suburban growth created by new, or expanded highways, or the urban growth of Toronto around its subways after they were built (or the historic growth of Chicago & NY). The question for Detroit is will it continue it's anti-urban reliance on auto transportation, or start to build a "real" city with transit? &, a related issue, will it continue to rely on the auto industry?

    • 6.1

      Where did the growth occur in Toronto? Chicago? NY? At the ends of the newly built lines, exacerbating sprawl? That's not what metro Detroit needs!! Public transportation is NOT a silver bullet - it's more often a financial boondoggle!

  • 7

    Do you not know TO,Chicago & NY? The high density growth occured all along the subway & "L" lines. The cost of building an mile of expressways in metro areas now is much higher than fixed rail, per mile. It IS a vital part of the mix that a city needs.

    • 7.1

      I DO know those cities and you did not address the crux of my question. Rail transportation will not provide the infill Detroit needs. At best it will maintain the status quo while sucking up funds better spent elsewhere.

      And how well used are the current buses systems? How about that Amtrak commuter that used to run at least twice a day?

      What will make your masturbatory dream of rail any more successful?

  • 8

    "Living in the Motor Car Capital of the World without a motor car is miserable."

    I'd have read the rest of the article, but that bit of ignorance (even a qualifying '...for me' would have opened up the conversation) stopped me in my tracks.

    Thanks for insulting the lives of countless (sometimes because they don't own a 'car' they aren't counted or legitimized, and you think about that right now for just a second) people who live car free in the birthplace of the automobile.

    I've not owned a car since I moved to Detroit and my life has actually been quite fulfilling. And for your 'why-do-you-matter' Dept., I'm one of those young professional talented desirable types I hear talked about so often yet am very rarely asked about my experience moving here (and that's fine, the community I live in has guided my employment track far more than efforts by folks in suits whose job it is to do so).

    But as a writer, Karen, you should note that the term 'automobile' in contemporary times is a lie. An un-truth, a misuse of a word. If you call a knife a spoon, when you eat off of it as you would a spoon, it cuts your mouth.

    If you call a car an 'automobile' you pretend it runs on its own, and then when you've screwed the world, wrecked a region, and warped the psyche of young people everywhere into thinking that driving tanks without guns is adult behavior, well...i'll take the 'alternative' (Detroit is responsible for the terms 'alternative' and 'non-motorized' here, because as you've shown, the car has crashed itself into our brains and we've though

    There's nothing self-moving about a car. You engage in some sort of pornographic act with a gas pump and your vehicle to get fuel into its hindquarters, you have to turn keys and pull levers to open it and THEN you lock yourself inside, only to make the thing go forward by literally SITTING DOWN AND STOMPING YOUR FEET (if you're lucky enough to drive a stick).

    Anounceofaction hit it on the head: What happens to technology is more reflective of our choices for usage than anything else. Im sorry not having a car made things so tough for you. Maybe if you wrote an article that read "I didn't have a car for two weeks and instead of whining I took responsibility for my own propulsion needs, scheduled things earlier, and lived in a community where 'bumming rides' wasn't stigmatized and in fact was made easier because of the way single-occupancy vehicles on the road are willfully wasteful as hell and a slap in the face of us 'too poor' to own a car."

    (I don't own a car because I can't afford it, right? )

    Well maybe then I'd have read all the way through it, is all I'm saying.

  • 9

    Karen, while you never knew a time in Detroit when a car was not among life's essentials, there was such a time, sort of. There was, of course, the DSR (Detroit Street Railway), and my old man, long time general counsel of Parke Davis & Company, Joseph Campau at the river, went to work from Birmingham every day on the Grand Trunk Western Railroad. One benefit of taking the train was one could not stay late at work unless willing to stay all night; the last train home left at something like 6:02 PM. I'm not very familiar with this Time Magazine thing and only got here courtesy of an Elmore Leonard link. Thanks for loads of interesting stuff.

  • 10

    Name calling & small thinking will not help Detroit. Burnahm said of Chicago, "Make no little plans", & Chicago has succeeded. Nay saying & ignoring what works in other cities will continue to harm Detroit.

    • 10.1

      Don't confuse small thinking with forward thinking. Honest forward thinking examines the entire process and all outcomes, not merely fanciful pipe dream scenarios.

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