Getting the Story Right: Acts of Leadership


Source: Detroit Free Press, 2015

For the past couple of weeks the news has been full of a Detroit man, James Robertson, who walked to work 33 kilometers each day to get to work. The public’s response was amazing.  Mr. Robertson received over $300,000 from a crowd funding campaign and a new car from Ford.  This is a nice story; but it is the wrong story.

Yes Mr. Robertson should be rewarded for perfect attendance at his job and for the effort that he put in to get to work everyday for 12 years. But he is one in thousands or tens of thousands in any city who can’t get to work using public transit. And for many, walking is not an option, due to health issues or the need for sleep (Mr. Robertson apparently only slept for two hours per night, due to the hours it took to walk to and from work).  And certainly any single parent would be unable to manage this feat, because of the need to get children to school or day care.

While fixing the immediate problem for Mr. Robertson, this outpouring of good will does nothing to solve the systemic problems of the working poor and those on welfare.  It is hard to get and keep a job if you can’t get there reliably. And while walking may be possible for some, it is not a realistic option for most of us.  Imagine walking 33 km each day.  At a reasonably brisk walk of 5 km per hour, you would be walking for more than 6.5 hours each day. Never mind the cold weather or blistering heat.  While it is easy for us to say “just walk”, I’m not sure how many middle-class suburbanites would actually walk themselves.

The real story here is that urban planning, municipal boundaries and public transit are not well-integrated.  When a new plant goes up in cheap suburban land, no one thinks about public transit.  And the coordination of transit across municipal boundaries is even worse.  Unfortunately the real story is not all that interesting to the media. So we get Mr. Robertson’s story.

Donating money to someone is an act of charity, it is an act of emotion, but, while admirable, it is not an act of leadership. Many people think that poverty is about laziness. Or lack of work ethic. But often there are real, systematic barriers to work, including poor public transit. So the next time you hear a story like Mr. Robertson’s, by all means, reach into your pocket.  And then commit an act of leadership. Pick up the phone and call your local politicians, transit commission or nonprofit organization.  Work with them to solve these systematic barriers to full participation in the labour force or in the community. Rather than help one individual, you can help thousands you have never heard about.


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