“I grew up in New York City, Queens, where the world was very different and mass transit was a daily part of everybody’s daily life,” says Roger Kerson. But Kerson opted for personal transit when he biked to the Sweetwaters café on West Washington to discuss with The Chronicle his recent appointment to the board of the Arbor Transportation Authority (AATA).
The AATA, branded on the sides of buses as “The Ride,” aims to be the public transportation provider for Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, as well as all of Washtenaw County. Kerson is one of seven members on the AATA board.
While he may be the newest board member, Kerson does not lack for eagerness in promoting the AATA’s current initiative to develop a countywide transportation plan. “We’re engaged in a planning process,” he says, “for developing mass transportation and we encourage people to go to MovingYouForward.org … We need to engage in a lot of conversation.” The Moving You Forward website seeks community feedback on every aspect of public transportation.
“Where do you live? Where do you work? Where do you shop? Where do you go to the movies? Are there ways in which you could reduce your carbon footprint by using transit, using the bike?” Kerson asks, adding that the AATA welcome views from all Ann Arborites and county residents, whether they use transit or not.
Encouraging that kind of communication is familiar ground to Kerson. He is currently a media consultant at RK Communications, his consulting firm. Kerson’s roots in Ann Arbor stretch from his time at the University of Michigan, where he graduated with distinction in 1980. “I think Woodrow Wilson was president then,” he quipped. Kerson stayed in Ann Arbor after college, soon becoming interested in journalism.
He began writing for a publication called The Alchemist, which he describes as “The Ann Arbor Chronicle in its day, before the Internet.”
[The editor of The Alchemist back in 1980 was James Delcamp, who's currently running for the state House seat in District 66, which includes parts of Livingston and Oakland counties. Though his time at The Alchemist apparently didn't overlap with Kerson, Delcamp wrote to The Chronicle that he has an old 1981 issue containing a Kerson piece with the headline: "Ann Arbor's Oldest Food Coop on the Brink." Delcamp called it "a great article."]
In 1988, Kerson moved to Chicago to become a freelance writer. Though he has written for mainstream publications like the Chicago Sun-Times and Columbia Journalism Review, Kerson identifies his main work as “indie media,” writing for publications such as The Michigan Voice, Michael Moore’s newspaper in Flint before Moore became a filmmaker.
Although Kerson was a stringer for the Hammond Times in Indiana, he says, “I never had a nine-to-five job … I just became a freelance writer by doing it, so I guess I’m a citizen journalist, rather than a professional one.”
Before moving to Chicago, Kerson held “one sort of leisurely job” as an intern [in 1984-1985] and ultimately a staff writer [in 1986-1987] for Solidarity, a UAW monthly publication. The job marked the start of his long affiliation with the labor union. Four years later, he ended his freelance writing to become a communications consultant, still in Chicago. While there, the UAW became one of Kerson’s chief clients: “That was pretty interesting to me because I wasn’t just writing about it; I was being part of the issue.”
In 1999, Kerson relocated back to Michigan to become the assistant director of public relations for the UAW. By 2006, he had become the director of public relations, a job he held until earlier this year. When asked what some of the highlights were to the job, Kerson answered lightly, “We saved the auto industry.” He quickly went on, “I mean, that wasn’t just me, but that’s what happened while I was there.” As public relations director during the auto crisis, Kerson led a UAW advocacy campaign throughout 2008 and 2009 for federal aid to the auto industry.
Yet as an AATA board member, Kerson’s tendencies favor bikes and buses over cars. Kerson contrasted the shrinkage of the auto companies with his experience on the AATA: “We’re talking about expanding … Yesterday we talked about a fixed service to Ypsi, a potential train to Brighton, a potential bus service to the airport, all different kinds of services that either exist now in some form, or the AATA could do them.” Kerson was referring to a discussion that he and his fellow board members had held about those various strategic initiatives in a four-hour long board retreat/meeting on Aug. 10. [Chronicle coverage: "AATA Targets Specific Short Term Strategies"]
A good transit system, he continued, facilitates economic development and is economical to the consumer. Citing statistics from the American Public Transit Association, he said that switching to transit can save an individual $9,000 a year.
Not only is transit economically viable, he says, it’s also environmentally viable: “Transit jobs are the original green job. Every bus driver is keeping fifty cars off the road.” He cautioned, “We have to do this. We have to change how we move around because climate change is real, and the human and economic costs of that are maybe, in some ways, beyond calculation.”
Environmentalism has been a theme common to Kerson’s community activism. For three years he has served as president of the Ecology Center’s board of directors, though he ultimately considers transit and housing his two principle issues. Along with his service with the Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center, Kerson has served on the board of directors of the Washtenaw County chapter of the ACLU and the Ann Arbor Housing and Human Services Advisory Board.
In reflecting on his impressions of the AATA as a new member, Kerson emphasized the importance of forming partnerships. Although Ann Arbor is the only municipality that collects a tax to support the AATA, economic activity spreads throughout the county. He says the AATA has collaborated successfully with Ypsilanti, various townships, the University of Michigan, and private bus companies.
That spirit of collaboration runs through the rest of Kerson’s life. For example, the former journalist cites Facebook as a main medium for gathering news. While allowing he reads the New York Times and Talking Points Memo, he says, “I also get news that’s not always news of the world, but the news of the community and friends I care about.” For additional knowledge, Kerson often relies on his knowledgeable Facebook friends to scope out relevant news: “My universe of things I can look at has gotten larger – I have other people looking for me, if you know what I mean.”
Hayley Byrnes is an intern with The Ann Arbor Chronicle.