Uphill Both Ways: Chronicling Metro Detroit’s Transit Mismatch

This is the first post in a new D3 blog series looking at employment and commuting patterns in Detroit and the surrounding region.

The recent Detroit Free Press feature on James Robertson, a Detroit resident who faces a four-hour commute to his job in Rochester that can involve twenty-one miles of walking, provides a new opportunity for a deep conversation about transportation in the metro region.  While the response to Robertson’s plight has been spectacular, the story also highlights the systemic failures of Southeast Michigan’s transit policy, as the Free Press’ Stephen Henderson notes.  With forty-nine communities having “opted-out” of the SMART bus system, thousands of lower-income Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park residents (for brevity, abbreviated as DHPH) face the same challenging choices as Robertson – use a personal vehicle to travel to work, or face a grueling commute in areas whose transit coverage is limited at best and nonexistent at worst.

In this blog post, we’ll use data from the Census Bureau’s Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics (LEHD) program to learn more about just how many DHPH residents work in communities that have opted out of SMART.  We’ll focus specifically on residents working for “lower-income” jobs, and where these jobs are located within transit-deficient areas.  Admittedly, this isn’t a fully ideal range to identify “lower-income”, since the obstacles faced by someone earning $20,000 per year are far different from someone earning twice that amount.  However, the LEHD dataset only provides three earning categories – under $15,000, $15,000 – $40,000, and above $40,000 per year.  Given the limitations of the data, and also considering the sizable distances involved in commuting from DHPH to many of the “opt-out” municipalities, the costs of car ownership and insurance in DHPH, and the Metro Detroit region’s median household income of $51,844, we determined that those earning less than $40,000 per year represent the population that would endure the greatest negative impact from the absence of public transportation services.

In addition, we’ll emphasize another important caveat:  Metro Detroit faces a number of well-chronicled regional transit issues, and we’ll only be taking a look at one part of a much larger story.  We won’t be focusing on the thousands of commuters who work in Detroit or suburban communities that do provide transit service, though these individuals also confront Metro Detroit’s challenged transit system on a daily basis.  Nor will we seek to examine other significant challenges such as limited nighttime service, very limited overlap in service areas, and the lack of coordinated scheduling between the systems.

As of 2011, over 10,000 DHPH residents working for lower-wage jobs commuted to cities and townships that have opted out of SMART.  Nearly 40% of these workers earned less than $1,250 per month, or under $15,000 in annual wages – meaning that their wages are close to, or potentially under, the federal poverty rate of roughly $11,000.  Some of these workers may be unconcerned by the lower wages (for example, a retiree who occasionally works as a substitute teacher, or a former stay-at-home dad now looking for a part-time job now that his children are in college).  Nevertheless, for other workers, such low earnings can cause long commutes and car ownership to be a significant financial burden even if residents have a vehicle available.  Given the potential for earners in this category to be particularly affected by a lack of access to transit, we’ve highlighted the proportion of lower-income DHPH workers who fell into the category of $15,000 or less in Table 1.


Figure 1

As shown in Figure 1, the greatest number of lower-wage DHPH residents working in transit deserts concentrated in an arc extending from western Wayne County north and east through central Oakland County.  Among the ten communities with the greatest number of lower-income workers from Detroit, Waterford Township had the highest proportion with earnings near or below the poverty level, at over 52%.  However, among all “opt-out” communities, Livonia accounted for the greatest number of DHPH residents earning less than $40,000 per year with over 4,300.  33% of these jobs provided earnings near or below the poverty level.

Admittedly, the transit situation in some of these communities is more complex than their “opt-out” status suggests.  Even in the areas that have opted out of SMART, there may be some small level access to transit, given that a bus stop that terminates right at a non-covered municipality’s border may still be accessible from a portion of that municipality.  Several opt-out communities in Metro Detroit fall into this category, including Livonia, Novi, and Waterford Township.  However, when we zoom in to examine the distribution of these jobs on a finer scale, the data reveal this access to be minimal at best.

Focusing in on eight communities that together account for two-thirds of all lower-income DHPH workers in “opt-out” communities, Figure 2 highlights this insufficient transit coverage.  Though the Detroit Department of Transportation extends a single route into Livonia, only 17.5% of lower-earning DHPH jobs in the city are located within a half-mile of a bus stop.  For Novi, the situation is even worse.  The termination of SMART service at the borders of neighboring communities has left virtually no job clusters that are within a reasonable walking distance of a transit stop.


Figure 2

Perhaps the largest takeaway from this deep dive, however, is that the lack of access to transit faced by lower-earning DHPH residents could be greatly alleviated had these communities not opted out of SMART.  The geographic distribution of workers forms distinct clusters and corridors, particularly in Livonia, Novi, Plymouth, Wixom, and Canton.  Many of these corridors would be logical extensions of existing transit routes if these communities were to opt into the SMART system.

Every day, tens of thousands of Detroit residents face tremendous pressures in terms of cost and time in commuting from the cities of Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park to jobs in the suburbs.  For more than 10,000 residents commuting to lower-paying jobs in areas that aren’t served by public transit, the pressures are particularly acute.  As emphasized by the situation faced by James Robertson, many of these residents may face extreme pressures on their time, health, and finances.  Though many challenges to improving transit in Detroit and the region persist, this blog provides an example of data that policymakers can use in developing strategies to address these issues.

Thank you for reading “Uphill Both Ways”!  In the next post in the series, we’ll take a broader look at the overall commuting patterns between Detroit and its suburbs.