As a transit activist and taxicab driver, Michael Cunningham II knows all too well the inherent struggles of Detroiters who rely on a public transportation system that is often unreliable.
He has spent more than a decade lobbying city officials for improvements as a watchdog seeking accountability for riders and better working conditions and pay for bus drivers.
But Cunningham’s crusade for transit justice isn’t the biggest fight in his life. He said he’s lived through homelessness, incarceration, and severe physical and mental health challenges. Yet, he consistently puts the needs of others – even those he doesn’t know – ahead of his own.
Despite the times, Cunningham said he’s found purpose and “I thank God that I’m still here.”
The longtime Detroiter was recently recognized by the Detroit City Council with a Spirit of Detroit award for his advocacy work. Councilwoman Angela Whitfield-Calloway, who represents the city’s District 2, praised Cunningham’s efforts during a council meeting at Renaissance High School on the city’s west side.
“We appreciate you, Mr. Cunningham, for all that you do for the citizens of Detroit, those who ride (the bus) and those that you take care of by providing them with hand warmers, and also bus tickets,” said Whitfield-Calloway as she presented Cunningham the award. “We appreciate you. We appreciate you so much.”
The council’s honor for Cunningham comes after he was named a Detroit Transit Torchbearer last December by Transportation Riders United, a nonprofit transit advocacy organization, for his “dedication to making elected officials aware of the hardships faced by bus riders, and the need for action to address them.”
Cunningham, 41, said he isn’t used to the recognition, but “these little tiny surprises, I do appreciate them,” he told BridgeDetroit.
“After 10 years of doing your thing helping other people, it’s just about doing that,” he added, “and it ain’t about nobody saying ‘thank you’ and about getting an award.”
‘A man for the residents’
Cunningham said his upbringing was far from ideal. He and three siblings were raised on the city’s east side by a “strong and very religious” single mother, Cheryl Lyons.
“She was a single mother of four, no child support,” Cunningham said. “She was a registered nurse and worked two or three or four jobs at one time to take care of us.”
Cunningham said his father wasn’t completely absent from his life growing up, but he didn’t provide for his children.
“My mom told me a long time ago that one day he’ll show his true character and that’s exactly what happened,” he said. “No child support, no new clothes, he just wasn’t really there for us.”
Tia Evans, Cunningham’s older sister, said her brother was a “very opinionated” child and he began taking the bus on a regular basis when he was about 11 years old.
“Our mom worked midnights, so there were a lot of days where she would be sleep when we had to go places,” Evans told BridgeDetroit. “So thanks to that, we just had to catch the bus.”
Evans said Cunningham’s activism is borne out of his own reliance on the city’s transit system.
“Transportation is very important, especially in Detroit and for it to be such a big and amazing city, our transportation should improve,” she said, “and he’s never forgotten how it was to wait two hours on a bus on a regular day.”
As a teenager, Cunningham said he began looking for ways to help provide for the family and himself, but said there weren’t many great opportunities. Eventually, he found a job as a meat cutter at a Farmer Jack grocery store.
Cunningham said a back injury on the job sidelined him. He could no longer work and received disability benefits, but said the money “wasn’t enough to pay the bills.” So Cunningham said he began stealing expensive goods to make ends meet.
In his early 30s, he said, Cunningham got caught stealing and spent nine months behind bars in Cuyahoga County Jail in Ohio. Then, he served another six months in Oakland County Jail for violating his probation. Due to mental health issues, Cunningham said, he also had “countless” stints in psychiatric hospitals.
“This was before I was on medication and before I knew I had a purpose in my life,” he said.
Rochella Hopkins-Stweart, an organizer with the Detroit People’s Platform Transit Justice Team, said she considers Cunningham like a brother. Hopkins-Stewart regards Cunningham as a man “for the residents of Detroit.”
She and others said Cunningham offers bus cards and food to residents who need it as well as transportation to the polls on Election Day. He also makes daily trips to a nursing home to visit with his mother, she said.
“The City of Detroit needs more people like Cunningham, that’s willing to go in the trenches, work for the people, advocate for them,” Hopkins-Stweart told BridgeDetroit.
‘Experience is a teacher’
After his incarceration and accessing medical care, Cunningham said he still struggled to find employment – and for about eight years has experienced housing instability.
Cunningham told BridgeDetroit that he has applied to “many” low-income apartments, but was rejected due to a lapse in full-time employment. Although he said he has owned and rented homes in the past, he is currently “living directly in the taxi cab,” between short stays with friends.
Cunningham started his taxicab “side hustle” in 2019 as a way to help Detroiters get where they need to go.
He said a lot of the work he does now – including his taxicab service and giving out bus passes and hand warmers – came directly from his experience with homelessness.
“Experience is a teacher,” he said. “You can read about something, but experience teaches you so much. And I know them toes and them hands get cold out here. The need for hand and foot warmers for people waiting on buses that don’t show up on time is crucial.”
Cunningham said he has spent a lot of time over the years riding city buses just to stay warm. That’s when he first realized how broken Detroit’s transportation system is, he said.
“I was riding the bus every day for about eight years and what I saw was just devastating,” he said. “The buses would show up hours and hours late because then there was a shortage of buses. Now it’s a shortage of drivers.”
Renard Monczunski, another member of Detroit People Platform’s Transit Justice Team, said he first met Cunningham at a 2015 city council meeting. He said Detroit needs more people like Cunningham.
“We need more people who act with true compassion, and are unabashed in raising injustices that people face in Detroit,” Monczunski said. “He reminds people that they have worth, value, and a right to exist.”
Evans said she was proud to see her brother get a Spirit of Detroit award.
“I felt good because it’s not a given that the city will do this,” she said. “They actually took the time out to recognize my brother and I’m thankful.”
Always speaking up
Anyone who has tuned in to a City Council or Detroit Department of Transportation meeting has likely heard Cunningham giving his take on transit in person or via phone – on at least one occasion, while ill from a hospital bed – praying for residents and elected officials in the city.
Cunningham frequently relays to the council the challenges bus riders are facing, chiefly long wait times, something that Detroit Department of Transportation officials have tried to solve for years. He said he often speaks about transportation needs during council meetings because members control “the power of the purse,” he said.
“What I mean by that is (the City Council) makes decisions that affect the budget for every city department, including DDOT,” he said. “So, if I see something going on with DDOT buses and I want it to change, the best way to get their attention is to talk to the people who control the money.”
Cunningham also speaks up during DDOT’s monthly community input meetings, making suggestions to improve long wait times and staffing shortages. He recommended that DDOT use the speaker system on the city’s buses to advertise job openings and has urged council members to ride the buses to see firsthand what residents are dealing with.
The city has had a driver shortage since before the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, but the pandemic, low-wages and other challenges further complicated the city’s recruitment efforts.
Cunningham believes improving public transit is in everyone’s best interest, even if it would take away some of his taxi cab customers.
“Most Uber, Lyfts or taxi cabs should be glad the buses are bad. I should be glad the buses are bad, but I’m not,” Cunningham told BridgeDetroit during a recent ride along in his cab.
The city is down more than 100 drivers and is negotiating with the union representing DDOT drivers over pay. Right now, DDOT drivers start at $15 per hour, which roughly equals an annual salary of $31,200 – far below the national average wage of $22.21 per hour, and SMART drivers earn $19 an hour.
Last year, the city created an incentive program, offering drivers up to $4,000 in annual bonus pay and DDOT secured a deal with the driver’s union for pay increases and that boosted the $12.99 per hour starting pay.
“If (DDOT) raises the wages of the bus drivers and they actually fill their ranks, the bus service will get better,” Cunningham said. “Maybe I’m cutting my own nose off to spite my face by saying that, but it’d be better for the people, even if I will lose money.”
Fellow transit activist Robert Pawlowski considers Cunningham an inspiration. Pawlowski began advocating for public transit about six years ago, and Cunningham was the first person he met.
“He is outgoing and determined and will always do right to make the City of Detroit a better place as a whole,” said Pawlowski, adding Cunningham is always willing to go out of his way to give people rides, even when they don’t have money to pay him.
“I’m glad to know people care about transportation as much as him,” Pawlowski said.
To contact Cunningham’s taxi cab service for a ride, call (313) 334-9669. He also accepts donations through Cash App at $5555555Love.
I’m honored to know him. This is a great article that captures the essence of Cunningham’s character and his dedication for the City of Detroit and humanity as a whole.
Cunningham has a true love for people. He has shown his commitment to serving in many ways. I proud to know him and help him any way possible. Keep up the good work. It has not gone unnoticed.
Brother Cunningham in da struggle.
wonderful piece on Cunningham. He does great work to advocate for riders in Detroit. Just hope city council listens and does the right thing to invest properly in our bus drivers and department.
This man is amazing.when I first meet him he was full of joy and had good spirits. We had good conversation. I thank this man I love that he care about Detroit as much as I do. Are used to ride the bus everywhere. He is a good inspiring person, and I think the Lord that I met yes, I do need it for you in the office
I first met this young man when he was a student in high school and I was one of the teachers on staff. He has always had a heart for people seeking to improve the welfare of his fellow man. I am not surprised about his recognition but am truly proud of the great strides he has made in the face of adversity. I, too, hope the city recognizes the valuable resource in Mr. Cunningham, takes all pertinent information under advisement, allocates the funding needed and institutes changes for a better transportation system.
My name is Jailen Kemp camp I’m a young single father of toddlers. I want you to take some good things about me.I needed help at my lowest time of my life and me Cunningham offers too help with my Court bond and it was a blessing too help me keep my kids from going into the system when no one would help me pay my bond bro came through in the clutch. A major rescue we need barely had money himself, but he stated that it’s about the kids. This occurred mid 2022.
I’m 28 years old. My baby children’s age is one years old, and the other is three years old. Black family together. Cunningham is not my biological family, but he loves Detroit and Black people/black families.
This dude is SPECIAL!!! Just a wonderful human being! This guy is an angel! Literally! I hope he knows how much he means to not only me, but all the people in this great city!
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