Monday, July 1, 2013

The Long and Short of It

Posted by Kim Klein

Last week, the Nonprofit Quarterly featured a piece announcing a large grant that the Skillman Foundation had awarded the Detroit Bus Company, an independent transit provider in the Michigan city.  The grant was for $100,000 and will support a program that will provide free transportation for the city’s children to travel to and from over 90 approved after-school  and summer programs.  The Foundation’s hope is that with the added lure of free transportation more children will enroll in the programs the bus route supports. 
It’s a great idea in theory. The public transportation system in Detroit has been recently decimated by funding cuts.  Funding a program that provides free transit eliminates a common barrier to after-school programs and care- transportation.  These programs are now an option for families who don’t own a car, have parents who work during normal pick-up times, or who depend on city transit with buses that have become, at best, unreliable.  The busses will even drop children off at other pre-approved safe locations, like local libraries or police stations.

So what’s the problem?  I don’t like to always be a wet blanket but I really wish that Skillman, in their award letter, would say something like this, “We are proud to support this program as a temporary solution to the much bigger issue of Detroit’s lack of public transportation.  We will be working with partners in Detroit to address this issue.  Stay tuned.”  Without that caveat, the program stands as yet another example in a string of private enterprises taking over the provision of necessary public services, especially in Detroit. These programs are rightly lauded for stepping in to provide a needed alternative to the public system after cuts to local services render the original programs insufficient, but these programs are rarely, if ever,  set up to cater to the most marginalized people who depend on public services the most.  In fact, the original goal of the Detroit Bus Company was to provide weekend barhoppers with transportation to and from local watering holes downtown.   Regular rides on the bus are $5, compared to $1.50 city bus fare.   While the Company provides the after-school program for free, its need to seek profit will have an impact on how long it can provide this service.  
Short term solutions are important because we all live in the here and now.  But whenever we create something that solves a problem temporarily but is not at all an ideal solution, we have to ask ourselves how are we going to prevent short term solutions from having a cascading litany of consequences that may cause the appropriate long term solution not to ever happen?  When this $100,000 grant runs out and Detroit still doesn’t have proper public transportation, these kids won’t be able to go to their after school programs.   Then those programs will close.  Meanwhile, all the people that need to go somewhere who don’t have cars and who would have depended on the bus system can’t go where they need to:  job interviews, doctor’s appointments, the grocery store.  You don’t have to have much of an imagination to see the problem growing bigger and bigger. 

What the NPQ article fails to highlight is that it is because the transportation system in Detroit has been so gutted (allegedly unconstitutionally) that others have needed to step in, perhaps without a lot of thought about the long term consequences of their short term generosity.  What they also don’t report but what is so important to note is that local groups are uniting in the face of these cuts to organize and advocate for a better public system that services Detroiters who depend on it the most.  The North End Woodward Community Coalition, a partner of Building Movement Detroit’s, has been working tirelessly to force local Detroit officials to restore bus services to pre-cut levels.  They’ve done it all, from filing a Title VI Civil Rights Complaint with the Department of Transportation, to submitting a petition to restore bus services with over 1,300 signatures to the city council.   Perhaps the $100,000 spent on the Detroit Bus Co would have been better spent on this organizing, or perhaps another $100,000 can be freed up to do the long term work required for providing actual public transportation funded by the public to Detroit’s residents. 
To his credit, the founder of the  Detroit Bus Company, Andy Didorosi, says he hopes his service will “get made redundant one day" and appears to be active in the community and committed to a revitalized Detroit.  The nonprofit sector needs to step up and help Didiorosi’s vision of redundancy come true. 

Special thanks to Caitlin Endyke for all the research required for this blog post and for providing much of the original writing.