The Rochester Riders — a group of young Rochester/Rochester Hills residents — are organizing efforts to get their hometown to no longer opt-out of the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART) and add public transit to the community.
Headed by recent Michigan State graduate Thomas Yazbeck and Oakland University (OU) alumni and current Wayne State student Corey Rowe, the new transportation-focused group has seen the benefits public transit can bring to an area and wants to share that with the residents, workers, and visitors of Rochester and Rochester Hills. The group meets every few weeks to expand education and activism for their cause — most recently on Saturday, July 25.
According to Yazbeck, bringing public transit to the area will greatly benefit the community in terms of access, the environment, and personal economic payoff.
While taxpayers will need to fund the initial cost of subscribing to SMART services, Rowe said people will save money in the long run with SMART fares being only $2 compared to the cost of buying or leasing a car and filling its tank. With COVID-19 causing another recession, Rowe sees transit as an alternative and cheaper mode of transportation.
“You have to build it first, and then people will start using it,” Rowe said. “The demand is not there until you have the system, and it has to be an investment … You have to build the infrastructure, invest in the service first, make it reliable and then people start using it.”
They also addressed misconceptions surrounding public transit — such as alleged increases in crime and poverty — which have been proven false by numerous studies.
The Rochester Riders are working to develop a relationship with public officials through correspondence and attending city council meetings to help spread this message. They understand the financial reasons why Rochester and Rochester Hills have chosen to opt-out of SMART but see the benefits outweighing the cost.
“We’re in this period of time where people are more aware of climate change and how important being green is, and what we’re about is helping people find alternatives to driving a car,” Yazbeck said. “We don’t want to tell people ‘get rid of your car.’”
On top of the greener aspect of public transit, groups that rely on transit — such as the Older Persons’ Commission (OPC) and Leader Dogs for the Blind — are both located in Rochester and struggle with getting their transportation needs met.
Currently, the OPC is served by a paratransit system that has no fixed routes or timetables, but instead can be ordered to take individuals to their destinations. All transportation requests need to be made days in advance, which according to Yazbeck reduces the freedom and independence that a fixed-route system could provide.
“We’re home to two organizations — the OPC and Leader Dogs for the Blind — they both serve populations that basically cannot drive,” Yazbeck said. “The OPC has a paratransit service, but it’s not a solution for a commuter. If I were a blind man in Rochester Hills, I would not be able to commute to work if I didn’t have a chauffeur of some kind, but if there was a bus I could pick up, and I knew where it went, that would give me independence.”
In addition to the transportation problems the OPC and the blind community faces, OU commuter students also struggle with getting to and from campus. The commuter school is notorious for its never-ending parking shortage. The Rochester Riders see SMART opt-in as a solution to this.
Yazbeck and Rowe both had positive transit experiences while in college and want to help connect OU commuters with the surrounding area, similar to East Lansing and Detroit.
“OU can still be a commuter school, but the way people commute needs to change,” Yazbeck said. “There’s plenty of commuter schools in other cities which are served by transit instead of people driving in.”
At their meeting on Saturday, they addressed their desire to connect with more OU students in the future. The Rochester Riders currently have about 15-20 members, but they hope to attract more people and spread education to the community.
Yazbeck and Rowe understand there is a long road ahead to achieve their transit goals, but the two remain optimistic about the future.