‘Transit Exposure Therapy’: Michael Dean

TRU Policy & Communications Intern Michael Dean just finished his summer semester with us. Their work focused on how transit policy intersects with rider experiences. They also contributed the ‘Best Practices’ feature in our TRU “Transit During COVID-19” report. TRU thanks MIchael for all their contributions, and wishes them luck in their future advocacy.

In this guest blog, Michael reflects on the lifestyle shock they experienced when first riding public transit.

Public transportation was not a part of my suburban lifestyle growing up.

Policy & Communications Intern Michael Dean

I’m a suburbanite through and through, having spent all of my youth, school breaks, and this temporary present time at home in the suburbs of Metro Detroit. Growing up, riding the bus was just what I did to get to-and-from school, and the whole experience was, without fail, cast in the iconic school bus yellow-orange, harkening back to Minute Maid pulp-free orange juice.

The idea of public transit was, for the longest time, living rent-free in my head as the stories from my parent’s youth, first riding the bus and then eventually “moving up” to car ownership. From my own experiences, I would often see commuter buses when I was out, with me separated from them by the car I was riding in. Put bluntly: public transportation was not a part of my lifestyle, nor even a concept that I had critically considered as being a part of my life. Of course, though, as with most things, that changed with time.

The first time I used public transit: Uniquely liberating

2016 was a watershed year for me, being that it was the first time I used public transit.  In April, I had traveled to Chicago, Illinois to visit a college in one of the suburbs. At the time, I had never taken a ride on any public transit, let alone a ride on one of the top-four largest rapid transit services in the country, “The L”. So, it was maybe, just a little bit of a culture shock. The noises alone were head-rattling, listening to the train cars barreling around their elevated rail-lines, shuttling people around the city. I was quick to adapt though, figuring out how to read the colorful, seemingly convoluted maps, reminiscent of one of those old Windows screensavers.

“The ability to get to where you wanted to go entirely by yourself (with some assistance from a 25-ton tube of metal) was uniquely liberating. It completely changed the way I thought about myself in relation to my world, and my hometown.”

Using transit, I was able to travel all the way out of the heart of downtown to the suburbs, which in my mind (and locale) had always been two disparate elements, connected by expansive and treacherous highways. And the reward at the end: It spoke for itself. As a teenager who lived a life of being shuttled around from location to location, without any autonomy over how and where I traveled, the ability to get to where you wanted to go entirely by yourself (with some assistance from a 25-ton tube of metal) was uniquely liberating.

Why aren’t things this way in Metro Detroit?

It completely changed the way I thought about myself in relation to my world, and my hometown. It was the first time I truly grappled with the idea of why things weren’t this way in Metro Detroit. Why wasn’t public transit as widely-disseminated throughout the region? And why wasn’t there wide-spread usage of the transit options we did have? Cue the next four years, where I slowly began to get answers to these questions.

Through greater exposure to some of the other mass transit systems in the country (which includes a great story about falling down while riding a bus in New York City), and in conversations with my Mom on drives to-and-from college, I began to get a better picture of why transit was the way it was in Metro Detroit. These experiences made it easier to recognize the fundamental differences in Detroit’s culture from other cities, along the lines of race, class, and accessibility, with transit existing as a harsh expression of these issues.

Now, having been an intern at TRU for the summer, I’ve come to a better understanding of the state of transit in our area. I realize the real value of our transit system, supporting those riders that rely on it every day, even though it may not be in the same position as other regions transit systems. Most important though, I recognize the important role a robust mass transit system plays in ensuring the socio-economic and cultural vitality of a region, and find that I am lucky to have the opportunity contribute directly to the insurance of that vitality in Detroit.

Michael joined with other TRU staff and Board members – albeit virtually – for TRU’s annual leadership planning “retreat” in August