BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Given that the days around Thanksgiving are among the biggest travel days of the year, we devote this episode to an examination of some of transportation's most cherished media tropes. And because it is Thanksgiving we're beginning with the story of good Samaritans and gratitude.
[CLIP] -- MONTAGE
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Some people drive, some people ride bicycles, I happen to walk.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: I had to walk 12 miles from his home in Plano to his job in Mackay.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Seem like I walk a mile and god will carry me of the rest of the way.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: News of a friendly encounter with the McKinney officer offering a ride spread quickly.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: And he just inspired us all. He's helped us see our better name itself.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Jim Smith helped put it all together. Pat Lobe of the Toyota McKinney.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Now you have the opportunity to give god a ride.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Yeah and I won't be riding alone either. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: These stories roll out of local news outlets like Camry's off a Kentucky assembly line.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: He didn't set out to be a role model on Saturday. Kevin Finley just set out on the 18 mile trek to work.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: One of their fellow co-workers had been walking over two hours to work every day.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: He walks six miles in the Texas heat to get back and forth to work.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: He walks a staggering 35 miles to work to support his wife Renee and their grandson Steve.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: And 28 year old Suank employ walks miles until he sees those iconic red letters.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: On lazy summer days, John Joyce isn't. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Usually our hero gets a new car–every once in a while, a bike–sometimes what begins as a stop by police on the side of the road ends with a viral Facebook post or GoFundMe page. Usually, the one who's walking is a young black man. And occasionally the story will earn national attention as was the case this past summer with the aptly named Walter Carr of Birmingham, Alabama.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: News outlets are recognizing the 20 year old after he walked from Homewood to Pelham for work after his car broke down.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Twenty miles to get there, starting at midnight. Two days later his boss walked Walter over to a group of cars. This is my car, I like it to be your car. [END CLIP]
ANGIE SCHMITT: I mean it's very admirable. His work ethic and his determination to get to work. That's without question.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Angie Schmitt is a national reporter for Streetsblog and she's written that these tales may be heartwarming but they are also quote terrible. Because they miss key issues of transit planning and racial justice.
ANGIE SCHMITT: Now this kid went to extreme lengths and a lot of bad things could have happened to him on the way. A lot of streets on the outskirts of Birmingham probably aren't very safe for walking, especially at night, probably aren't very well lit, probably don't have sidewalks. He could have easily been killed. There's also an opportunity for racial profiling by police.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I mean, we know that Walter Carr was stopped by cops--
ANGIE SCHMITT: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: --at 2:00 a.m. and then 4:00 a.m.
ANGIE SCHMITT: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Here he is trying to work and this 20 year old is facing risks from every side.
ANGIE SCHMITT: And if he wasn't able bodied for example, if he wasn't at the height of his fitness, it would have been impossible. This just isn't an option for everyone and it's not a good option for him either.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The first of these stories that grabbed your attention was that of James Robertson.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: When James Robertson's car broke down he couldn't afford another one. So he did the only thing he could do. He started walking.
JAMES ROBERTSON: Hello my name is James Robertson. I'm 56 years old. I live in Detroit.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Like so many Americans, James Robertson gets up every morning to go to work. His commute on foot–21 miles. That's right, more than ten miles away.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: At 10 p.m. when Robertson finishes his shift, he walks the same seven miles to catch the bus. By then it's 1:00 a.m. and the service is limited so he has to walk an extra five miles to get home.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Overtime, driving to work himself, a Detroit banker like Pollock noticed something.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: This man walking down the road in all types of weather.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: So one day, he offers James a ride. Tells the newspaper the Detroit Free Press. Then a 19 year old college student reads it.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Evan Leedy, a junior at Wayne State University, set up a web page for donations. What it is now is more than $225,000.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: First the banker, then the student, then the Detroit giant Ford who invited James today to test drive some cars are aware of all those donations. But when James got there, they simply gave him the car instead.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The keys to your new Ford Taurus.
JAMES ROBERTSON: You know, if only my parents could see me now.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Tonight the whole country has. [END CLIP]
ANGIE SCHMITT: And people loved it. All over the country, he became nicknamed Detroit's walking man.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Detroit has probably the worst regional transit system of any city in the US
ANGIE SCHMITT: They're the worst of any major city in the country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And it's also the blackest large city.
ANGIE SCHMITT: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coincidence?
ANGIE SCHMITT: No, I don't think it's a coincidence at all. It's the only city in the country that has this separate city and suburban transit system. You can take a bus to the edge of Detroit but once you pass into the suburbs you have to transfer. If the suburbs don't want transit, they can say, 'we're not paying for transit.' And then no buses go to their area. The city of Rochester Hills where his job was opts out of the suburban transit system.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you know why?
ANGIE SCHMITT: Well, segregation and racism plays a big role. Eight Mile Road is the northern border of Detroit, but it's also the border of the county it separates Wayne County from Oakland County and from McComb County. There was and still are walls constructed along eight mile road that helped enforce segregation. I mean, that's a legacy that still exists today. Atlanta is another city who has a very large population and the white northern suburbs have also, until very recently, been very adverse to expanding the transit system. And sometimes there's dog whistles that are more or less explicit. Like I can give you an example. Troy, Michigan is a big job hub and it's mostly white, higher income. They almost refused federal money to build an Amtrak station. There was testimony that the Amtrak would become the heroin express. In Atlanta, you can find similar language if. 'We allow transit to come in our city it will bring crime. It will bring an undesirable element to that city.' In Detroit and in other places, I think that bad transit or lack of transit is used to enforce segregation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how long is this struggle over public transportation been going on?
ANGIE SCHMITT: In Detroit?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah.
ANGIE SCHMITT: They have struggled to create a regional transit system for four decades. So after years and years of political activism, several years ago the Michigan Statehouse went ahead and passed legislation that would allow them to form a regional transit agency.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Wayne County leaders stood together today in hopes of sending a message that a yes vote for regional transit is the right step for Southeast Michigan. Supporters say the plan will provide connections to job centers that you can't access by public transit at the moment. Places like Livonia, Novi and Rochester Hills. [END CLIP]
ANGIE SCHMITT: They had a good plan that would've really expanded job access for people like James Robertson. It failed by one percent at the ballot box. And one thing I would say is that this is all changing a little bit.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: It's going to be the first streetcar in downtown Motown in 60 years.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Yeah but tonight new questions about the Q line and that main.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Ugh, that Q line. What does that mean? This is Detroit.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Quicken Loans paid $5 million for the naming rights for the next 10 years and announced the Q line Thursday. [END CLIP]
ANGIE SCHMITT: I think that the tides are really turning in the direction of transit. Like for example, one of the reasons a lot of the leadership in Detroit has blamed for, they weren't a finalist for that Amazon two headquarters is because the transit is so bad. A lot of the business community recognizes that it really is an obstacle to growth now and attitudes are changing around the country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In all of these walking man stories, one detail always seems to come in and that's the local police. For example, there's the strange case of James Tully, white, a Pennsylvania man doing his walk in the midst of a November manhunt.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: He says he's been repeatedly stopped as he walked the five miles to and from his job every night.
JAMES TULLY: Driver jumps out yelling to get down on the ground has his rifle pointed at my head. Now I'm doing my best to comply with him and he kept screaming at me wanting to know what my name is.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Now he's not taking any chances. Wearing a bright safety vest and prominently displaying his photo ID.
JAMES TULLY: So I can let them know, look I'm not the one you're looking for just let me go on my way. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what's it mean, that some of these footsore travelers have to answer to the police all the time even if sometimes it's the police who end up gifting the car or a bike or starting a GoFundMe campaign.
ANGIE SCHMITT: I think in our transportation system in the United States, we really have a two tiered system. Around the country right now, there's multiple places that are spending a billion dollars on an interchange. So we really don't spare any expense for drivers but for people who don't drive, and about a third of Americans because of age or other reasons don't drive, the underlying system is very second rate. It's very incomplete, a lot of times it's unsafe. And I think that people who are walking, taking transit, a lot of times are sort of on the margins. And so they're attracting police attention and that can put them at risk.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Barring some New Deal sized transit solution we'll probably keep hearing these stories. Is there a way to preserve the good feeling with which these stories tend to conclude, while also very explicitly laying out the conditions that gave rise to the story, the broken transit systems, the low wages, rare jobs, artificial scarcity?
ANGIE SCHMITT: Hopefully, we can empathize with people that have a little bit less heroic stories but are still really impacted in a negative way by some of these problems.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Angie, Thank you very much.
ANGIE SCHMITT: Yeah, thank you so much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Angie Schmitt is the national correspondent for Streetsblog.
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, the self-driving future makes its pitch.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media.
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