What is the future of mobility in Detroit?

While electric and autonomous vehicles are on the table, Detroit is focussed on getting people to where they need to be. By Freddie Holmes

With its pedigree in traditional vehicle manufacturing and a penchant for private vehicle ownership, Detroit may not be an obvious case study for the future of mobility.

Much of the noise around the mobility megatrends has come from the technology hubs of California, but what works in Silicon Valley may not necessarily suit the needs of the Motor City. Here, private and public players within the city and wider state of Michigan believe solutions must be tailored on an individual basis. That was the call during M:bility Detroit, a two-day conference investigating the future of mobility.

The heartland for incumbent automotive giants across the supply chain, Detroit is highly dependent on concrete roads—and that is unlikely to change. Intra-urban rail infrastructure is limited to the People Mover, an overground subway which circles around Downtown, and the QLine tram. Research from Deloitte’s Michigan office has found that 91% of journeys across Detroit and neighbouring Ann Arbor and Windsor are carried out by private car. Just 3% of journeys are served by public transit; less than 4% walk, and bicycles and other modes account for just 2%.

“We can clearly see what needs to be done; now we just need the will to do it,” said Doug Moore, Product Integration Manager, City Mobility Solutions within Ford’s Smart Mobility division. “In the same way that Detroit put the world on wheels 100 years ago, we now have an opportunity to be the epicentre of change and redefine what mobility means.”

Job opportunities

The attraction for public entities to improve transportation networks is clear. Mobility has a significant impact on talent acquisition, and ultimately quality of life. If it is tough to get to work, newcomers are unlikely to make the move. “Transportation plays such a vital role in a city’s prosperity,” said Mark Davidoff, Michigan Managing Partner at Deloitte. “Mobility might just be the key to closing the income-equality gap.”

We can clearly see what needs to be done; now we just need the will to do it

This is a problem for Detroit in particular, which has had to play catch up in attracting the relevant IT, software and electronics expertise. New job opportunities are arising, however, and those spots need filling. Ford recently bought the currently decrepit Michigan Central Station, which is being restored to its former glory, but now as an 18-storey mobility lab. The surrounding Corktown area is also expected to see investment from the Dearborn automaker and others—including Volkswagen, with which it recently partnered. Then there is FCA’s plan for a new assembly plant on the Eastside. Jobs will become available, but the mobility network will determine how accessible those opportunities are, and how long employees stay.

“People lose money because they can’t get where they need to go,” said Mark de la Vergne, the City of Detroit’s Chief of Mobility Innovation. “But access to mobility can drive talent, and mobility networks that perform well will enable and enhance a city’s economic growth. We are driving to make it easier, safer and more affordable for folks to access all sorts of opportunities in the city, whether those are new job opportunities, parks or restaurants across the city.”

Mobility has implications not only for employees, but also their employers. “Companies have a vested interest in the cost of lost hours when people cannot get to work,” explained Ford’s Moore. In San Francisco, dedicated staff buses transport Google, Apple and eBay employees to and from work for this very reason. Ford staff shuttles are also a common sight on the roads around the automaker’s Dearborn facilities. “Employers may have no direct interest in the transit world, but do have an extremely vested interest in getting their highly trained employees to work,” continued Moore, “be that in manufacturing, healthcare or retail.”

Evolution not revolution

The general perception is that shared micro-mobility services and robo-taxis form the basis of changes in store for so-called ‘smart cities’. However, it is not a case of the new replacing the old, and city planners are currently investigating how new services can be integrated without cannibalising Detroit’s existing public transit system.

Access to mobility can drive talent, and mobility networks that perform well will enable and enhance a city’s economic growth

“We need to provide more options,” said de la Vergne. “Public transit will form the base of mobility, but we are beginning to add new options such as bike sharing, bike lanes, scooters and car sharing.” A simple solution may also be found in the city bus. As he pointed out, “The most efficient way to move people is in large vehicles,” not to mention the relative ease with which buses can be rolled out across the city to address underserved routes. “Trains are expensive, so until we have more money coming here, people are going to take to public transit,” he continued. “The city has seen a lack of investment in public transit, but we are making progress; transit ridership is plummeting in most other cities in the country, but we are making gains in Detroit.”

Kelley Bartlett, Connected and Automated Vehicle Specialist at the Michigan Department of Transportation, shared a similar view. “It is in your interest as a citizen to embrace future mobility solutions, but we’ve realised that we can no longer solve problems with more pavement,” he said. “I believe Detroit can be an example for urban areas across the US.”

Open regulation

Detroit has historically led transportation developments in the state of Michigan, said Bartlett, and the local government has been instrumental in facilitating autonomous vehicle testing and development. In 2016, legislation was passed that would allow for autonomous vehicles to be tested across Michigan’s 122,000-mile road network. 

“I believe Detroit can be an example for urban areas across the US,” said Mason, who believes the city, and Michigan in general, have been highly accommodating of future mobility trends. The idea is to foster, not hamper, innovation, he continued: “We need to ensure that regulation does not get in the way—hopefully we’re stepping out of the way here in Michigan.”

Public transit will form the base of mobility, but we are beginning to add new options such as bike sharing, bike lanes, scooters and car sharing

In other states, he said, regulation does little to assist the development of autonomous vehicles, and in some cases puts a strain on resources. “In New York, for example, police escorts are required to monitor each test vehicle. Does that officer understand the vehicle, or provide a more dynamic overview of the testing? I’m not so sure.”

The needs of the people

The expression ‘future mobility’ has become a contemporary buzzword, but the underlying trends have been around for decades. The only difference is that today, new technologies and business models—beyond the addition of new roads and more cars—can be put in place to tackle long-standing pain points. For consumers, however, public money must be spent wisely, and few will be seduced by attractive marketing.

“Detroit has had it pretty good compared to other major cities around the US and the rest of the world—people do ask what the impetus is to change behaviour,” noted Jeff Mason, Chief Executive at the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

We need to ensure that regulation does not get in the way—hopefully we’re stepping out of the way here in Michigan

“There are governments that make shiny press announcements, but not to solve problems,” said de la Vergne. “It’s great when there are new technologies and potential solutions, but we need to focus on those that will make lives easier for our residents. Certain solutions are just not sustainable; some people talk about technology just because it’s new, not because it’s beneficial.”

Future mobility must focus on broad outcomes, rather than individual solutions. On face value, the end goal should be to improve the quality of mobility services, and to ensure that inclusivity, reliability and affordability remain paramount. An expensive and difficult to access transportation link will see usage dwindle and investments wasted. “We need to see cohesion across all transportation units, which must be consumer and citizen centric,” concluded Deloitte’s Davidoff. “A high performing mobility system will take consumers to where they need to go to live, work, play and raise their children.”

This article was featured in our March 2019 special report, ‘Special report: M:bility | Detroit – key takeaways, which is now available for download.

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