Interview with Joel Batterman: The Organizer of The Motor City Freedom Riders

photo by Alexander Rentsch

photo by Alexander Rentsch

Interviewer: Carolyn Lusch, Master of Urban Planning, UM

Could you tell me about your history as a regional transit advocate?

Although I’m from Ann Arbor originally, I went to school in Portland, Oregon. Out there, I was really impressed by what an extensive public transit system they had, and I started to wonder about why Portland had this system while metro Detroit had very little public transit. I ended up doing research on that and found that the lack of an extensive regional transit system in metro Detroit was in large part the result of the region’s contested racial politics. There was a plan for regional transit back in the 70s, but it was defeated largely by suburban opposition. A lot of suburban political officials and the public didn’t want to pay for transit, which they perceived as largely benefitting Detroiters, and they also didn’t want Detroiters going out to their communities. So that transit plan went down, and as a result, we were left with a fairly fragmented bus system. So it was really an eye opener for me to learn about that.

photo by Alexander Rentsch

photo by Alexander Rentsch

I originally got into transit through a personal interest, since I was kind of an environmentalist and wasn’t interested in owning a car, originally for environmental reasons. But learning about this really brought home for me how much transit is a social justice issue as well. I came back to Michigan with the idea of working for a stronger transit system in metro Detroit. And I guess I’ve kind of continued to do that these past five or so years, working with a variety of different organizations – now I’m back in school again. But I definitely see expanded transit as a really important priority for metro Detroit, both in terms of helping to redevelop the city of Detroit and linking people to jobs and employment, making sure people can get around. I mean, certainly the environmental benefits are there too, but for me, just the human cost of people essentially being locked into places where they can’t find a job, can’t get around, or really be fully participating citizens—in life, the economy, society—needs to be changed.

Tell me about some of the places you’ve worked.

For a couple years I worked for an organization called the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, an organization of inner ring suburbs of metro Detroit which believed that transit was important not only to the revitalization of the city of Detroit itself but also to the inner ring suburbs, which were starting to experience many of the same challenges as the city. While I was there, I worked to help build support for the Regional Transit Authority legislation, then being considered in Lansing, to create a new four-county agency to supervise and expand transit in the metro area. We were successful, and the legislation was passed towards the end of 2012. And then we were building support to really get that new Regional Transit Authority (or RTA) rolling, as it were, really getting the region’s politicians to, if I may, get on board. Sorry, transit is just a laugh a minute!

So, the route to doing that was a kind of tortuous one. When the Regional Transit Authority was first created, it didn’t have a lot of funding, and it was a while before it actually got an Executive Director. By this time, I was working for MOSES, Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength, which is a multiracial coalition of congregations in Detroit and the suburbs working to build strength in the metropolitan region. So with MOSES I worked with leaders in different congregations around the city and suburbs to put pressure on the region’s political leaders to get the RTA going. They did eventually hire a director and things got started. Right now the RTA is still in the planning phase. They’re expected to put a tax measure on the ballot for the fall of this year, November 2016, for transit expansion. I really felt like we couldn’t leave that to chance, we had to really build grassroots power to make sure we had a strong transit plan and that the transit plan passed.

by Charles Dodds

by Charles Dodds

I worked for a bit for a housing organization and did some other transit-related work as well, but one of my main projects these past couple years has been the Motor City Freedom Riders. I really felt like there needed to be an organization that represented bus riders themselves, that would be a kind of bus riders’ union such as exists in LA and a few other US cities, that would really mobilize bus riders themselves to speak up and fight for a better transit system. One of our early victories there was getting DDOT on Mayor Duggan’s Detroit Dashboard. Mayor Duggan took office promising that improving the bus system in Detroit would be one of his top priorities, but on his Dashboard, which is where he measures progress towards a number of different goals, he didn’t have anything about the bus system. So we started a petition and gathered more than 500 signatures asking the mayor to put DDOT on the Dashboard so we could see whether bus service really was improving, based on the data. After 500 signatures and about 6 months, the city actually did respond and put DDOT on the Dashboard. So that was great to see.

And DDOT service has been much improved over the past couple years. We met regularly with the director, Dan Dirks. We’re really glad to see that happening, but now we really need to take it to the next level—the regional level—and secure more funding for transit across the region. Right now metro Detroit puts half or possibly less than half of the amount that our peer regions do into funding public transit. That’s per capita—less than half the national average per capita for metro regions. We can really tell in our bus systems: not only do we not have much in the way of rapid transit, like Bus Rapid Transit or rail, but our bus systems are severely underfunded. Many bus routes only run every hour or so, and they also don’t go everywhere in the region. There are a lot of suburbs that don’t participate in the SMART bus system, something that was dramatized with the case of James Robertson last year, who had to walk 20 miles to work because Rochester Hills, where his work was located, did not and continues not to participate in the bus system.

The Freedom Riders are gearing up with a new petition campaign now, asking the RTA to put forward a strong regional transit plan and asking the Big Four politicians (Mayor Duggan, Oakland County Executive Brooks Patterson, Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, and Wayne County Executive Warren Evans) to get behind a strong regional transit plan that doubles existing funding for transit—that would be about $130 million additionally per year—that creates new regional rapid transit lines on major corridors like Woodward and Gratiot, and also reserves half of new funding for expanded local bus service through the existing transit agencies. Because without expanding that local bus network, there’s not a way for a lot of folks to get to the regional rapid transit lines. So we think that bolstering the local bus systems is very important as well.

What’s the biggest challenge right now to creating the ideal regional transit situation?

I think it’s really apathy among the region’s elected leaders. So far, none of the Big Four have actually come out in favor of a regional transit ballot proposal. And a regional transit plan has not been released yet, but none of the Big Four, including Mayor Duggan—who in many ways ought to have the most to gain in terms of Detroit—have yet really voiced an opinion on the RTA proposal. And we think it’s very important that they come out and really be champions for a strong regional transit plan. So, there’s a need for people across the region—Detroit, the suburbs, and all four counties—to start speaking up and telling their elected leaders that this is something that needs to be a priority for the region, that we can’t wait another half century to get behind this. And that’s essentially what we’re doing with the petition.

Could you tell me about the intersection of bicycling and transit?

I’ve been getting around mostly by bike for a while, and I think a strong bicycle system and a strong transit system ought to go hand-in-hand. Not everyone is going to be biking, not everyone’s going to be taking the bus, not everyone’s going to be doing both. But I think it’s all about providing more transit options that are more affordable and more flexible and more sustainable than just the private automobile. When I was working at the Suburbs Alliance, based in Ferndale, I would often bike up there in the morning and then take the bus back to my place in Detroit after work, and just throw my bike on the bus.

The metro area has a long ways to go in both respects. There have been some improvements in terms of bike lanes recently, especially in Detroit, but compared to a lot of metro areas, we’re really behind. This metro area is so vast, too—it’s one thing in a place like Ann Arbor, but metro Detroit is huge, so we’ve got to have transit because very few people are going to be biking 10 or 20 miles to work. So we really need a strong transit system and we need to improve our bikeway networks as well, and create them, in many cases. And I think there’s still not a sense in metro Detroit that biking isn’t just recreational. We have a number of more recreational trails, like the Paint Creek trail, the River Walk, and the Dequindre Cut, which I know people use for both recreation and transportation in terms of getting to work. But right now we only have a very fragmented trail network, and I think we need to get more bike lanes on the street and just make it a lot safer and more comfortable for people to bike. The more people biking, the safer it becomes. But we need the right infrastructure.

Is there anything else you want to say?

A lot of people are under the impression that there is no transit in metro Detroit, and a lot of folks also wouldn’t necessarily give biking a second thought. And obviously, for many people, transit just isn’t a convenient option right now if you have the choice to drive. But we do have some transit service on major corridors like Woodward, Gratiot, Grand River, and Michigan. So I would encourage people to at least, especially if they’re only going a few miles on one of those major corridors, consider the option of transit. Try it out. It might not suit your needs all the time, but it could still be a convenient option worth considering.

And definitely check out motorcityfreedomriders.org. We’re always pushing and we really need everyone’s help to make this happen in our region, and we’ve got to unite and bring our region back together in so many ways. Transit isn’t the only way to do that, but I do believe it is a very important means to that goal of regional equity and prosperity that is shared among everyone.