The 21-Mile Walk to Work

James Robertson's commute is a personal triumph, but it also illustrates all the ways America fails the working poor.

Steven Senne/AP

America needs more people like James Robertson. Every place needs more people like James Robertson. But that doesn't mean his story isn't disturbing.

The 56-year-old Detroiter was the subject of a profile in the Free Press over the weekend. He walks 21 miles every day, part of a 23-mile commute from his home in the city to his factory job in Rochester Hills, a suburb. He's been doing it five days every week, ever since his old Honda bit the dust. His route takes him through rough neighborhoods and he leaves work well in the middle of the night. This being Detroit, he also reckons with snow drifts and sub-freezing temperatures regularly during the winter.

But Robertson is impressively upbeat about it:

"I sleep a lot on the weekend, yes I do," he says, sounding a little amazed at his schedule. He also catches zzz's on his bus rides. Whatever it takes to get to his job, Robertson does it.

"I can't imagine not working," he says.

There are some fringe benefits. Robertson's boss' wife feeds him delicious home-cooked Southern meals. Still: pretty grueling.

The reaction has been appropriately positive. Robertson was already something of a role model for his co-workers, and readers responded to the story generously, donating $70,000 and counting to help him get a new car. That's great for Robertson. But this isn't a feel-good story—it's a story about policy failures, structural economic obstacles, and about what it takes to keep working despite those challenges. Robertson is no doubt deserving, but it'll take larger changes to help other people who face similar struggles.


Let's start with the obvious problem here: lack of mass-transit options. Robertson used to drive to his job, but his 1988 Accord gave out 10 years ago. In car-obsessed Motor City, that's bad news. Robertson's $10.55 per hour pay is more than a buck-fifty higher than the living wage in Wayne County, but it's still not enough for him to get a new car and insure and maintain it. The Freep's Bill Laitner reports:

Robertson's 23-mile commute from home takes four hours. It's so time-consuming because he must traverse the no-bus land of rolling Rochester Hills. It's one of scores of tri-county communities (nearly 40 in Oakland County alone) where voters opted not to pay the SMART transit millage. So it has no fixed-route bus service.

Once he gets to Troy and Detroit, Robertson is back in bus country. But even there, the bus schedules are thin in a region that is relentlessly auto-centric.

Detroit has never been big on mass transit—car companies helped hasten the demise of streetcars—but it's gotten worse over the last five years. Even as the city shrinks and people struggle, there are fewer options for transportation. But with unemployment rates inside the city at nearly 25 percent, workers have to leave the city limits for work. The Detroit area overall has a much rosier 7 percent unemployment rate. (A transportation official told the paper that Robertson might qualify for a special service for low-income workers.)


That, in turn, points to one of the big problems in the economic recovery: While there were often jobs available in the United States, they weren't where workers needed them. It's all well and good to say that people should move, but of course it's not that easy. People are tethered by underwater mortgages, family ties, and the high costs of relocations. The Detroit metropolitan area is a microcosm of geographic inequality. Even as the city suffers a shrinking population, limited services, water shutoffs, and high crime, adjoining Oakland County, where Robertson works, is booming.

The county has been run for more than two decades by L. Brooks Patterson, a flamboyant and effective executive. As The New Yorker chronicled, Patterson has gone out of his way to cut the county off from Detroit, stopping regional infrastructure projects and generally bashing the city. Oakland County is pricey to live in, but it's where the jobs are, so workers like Robertson have to go through heroic measures to get to them. The alternative is essentially not working.


And what of the dangers Robertson encounters? "I have to go through Highland Park, and you never know what you're going to run into," he said. "It's pretty dangerous. Really, it is (dangerous) from 8 Mile on down. They're not the type of people you want to run into. But I've never had any trouble." That's not actually true—the stoic Robertson didn't want to discuss it, but his boss told the reporter he'd been mugged. It's especially dodgy since Robertson gets there after 1 a.m. Detroit has the highest murder and violent-crime rates of any major city.


Robertson's trek is saintly, but like many saints who practiced bodily mortification, it can't be good for him. "He comes in here looking real tired—his legs, his knees," a coworker said. He also doesn't get enough sleep, for which he compensates by drinking 2-liter bottles of Mountain Dew or cans of Coca-Cola, filled with unhealthy sugar—although given his walk, the calories maybe aren't a big factor. What happens if Robertson's knees or some other part of his body give out prematurely? Presumably he'd end up relying on disability benefits.

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Detroit's citizens have fallen victim to an impressive nexus of forces, and no single agenda can fix all of the problems they face. But Robertson's travails offer a good window into the sorts of pressures someone faces if they want to maintain employment doing an honest day's work. Workforce participation in the United States has seen a steep, consistent downward drop over the last few years.

Workforce Participation, Ages 16 and Older

This chart isn't as simple as it looks—people aging out of the workforce are a major factor. Still, one of the things that makes Robertson's story so stunning is the context of fewer Americans going to work.

This isn't just a threat to poor Americans or poor Detroiters. It's a threat to the American economy. The more workers there are, the better off the nation is. But not everyone can do what James Robertson does every day; he's clearly a rare breed. The problem isn't just that people who don't work aren't contributing to that; it's that there's also the cost of more and more people drawing federal disability benefits. Some are skeptical that the ballooning number of recipients are really disabled. Setting that question aside, however, it's a drag on the nation to have a huge number of Americans who might be able to work but are unable to find employment nearby, drawing assistance instead.

It's no surprise that James Robertson has become a viral story. But the amount of effort required to punch a clock shouldn't be so unbelievable it earns national headlines.