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Wednesday, September 11,2013

On the bus

An able-bodied writer with two cars and his internal conflict while riding Wal-Mart’s shuttle

by Andy McGlashen
About 15 people are aboard the Saturday bus to the Walmart Supercenter in Delta Township. Two are in wheelchairs. Most are seniors, a few with their grandkids. There’s a lot of laughter among the passengers, who all seem to know each other. It’s an outing.

The driver, Kim Anderson — who is effortlessly friendly and knows most passengers by name — says today’s group is typical.

“This is their way to get out and get to the store,” she said. “I haul a lot of elderly and disabled people, and people without transportation, and they think this is a great thing. My people ride two days a week. That’s what they count on.”

Wal-Mart launched the free shuttle service in the spring to its stores in Delta Township, Okemos and Eastwood Towne Center. The retailer contracts with the Owosso-based bus company Indian Trails to pick up shoppers from retirement communities, mobile home parks, apartment complexes and other stops. Each store runs a shuttle two days a week, twice per day. There also are Indian Trails shuttles to Walmart stores in Benton Harbor, Kalamazoo and Muskegon.

I don’t shop much at a Walmart, probably for the same reasons many City Pulse readers don’t. Critics say the world’s largest retailer pays its employees squat and caps their hours so they can’t get benefits, discriminates against women, is staunchly anti-union and crushes local mom-and-pop stores.

So I was game when the Pulse asked me to ride the bus and — I’m paraphrasing here — see if it’s just a way to shake the spare change out of Lansing’s economy and place it in the soft pink hands of Sam Walton’s hoggish offspring.

On one hand: Yes, of course it is. The shuttle cruises past local businesses and brings more wallets into Wal-Mart. Not by being sweethearts did the Walton family come to own more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of Americans. The shuttle creates a conflict not unlike Wal-Mart’s latest push to redefine sustainable agriculture, which has the potential to drive small, local arms into the arms of dependency on the corporate giant (see accompanying story).

But if I were among the one in four Lansing residents who live below the poverty line, I’d care about price. Period. And whatever the external costs may be, Wal-Mart’s prices are low. Plus, Lansing was not designed for the convenience of people without vehicles. If I didn’t have a car — and none of the bus passengers I spoke with does — I’d appreciate a place where I could buy groceries, clothes and household goods all under one roof.

Whether it’s ultimately good for Lansing is open for debate, but there’s no doubt Valerie Treve-Reed sees the bus as a service to her.

She and her husband, Michael Reed, are on food stamps. Michael is in a wheelchair because he has spina bifida. The couple shares an apartment in Woodbridge Manor, just off South Cedar Street. Jean Reed, Michael’s mother — also in a wheelchair — lives in a unit nearby.

“I like Wal-Mart because they’ve got better meats cheaper than over to Meijer,” Treve- Reed says.

Like others I spoke with, she says she’d still shop at Wal-Mart either way, but the shuttle saves her the added cost and hassle of taking CATA.

I asked City Pulse sustainability columnist Terry Link, a harsh critic of Wal-Mart, what he thought. He said greater Lansing should work on fixing the underlying issues that make the shuttle feel like a service.

“If it’s a transportation issue, let’s look at transportation,” Link said. “If it’s access to food, let’s look at access to food.”

And if Wal-Mart really wants to help customers, Link said, it ought to stop building stores on Lansing’s fringes and put one in the city.

When we get to the Walmart store, Anderson tells the shoppers she’ll be back for them in two hours.

Shirley, who says I’d better not use her last name, asks if I’ll be riding back with them. I just shake my head. I don’t tell her I drove to the bus stop, or that my wife will pick me up in our other car.

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