Mobility in the city: 5 key takeaways from LTU panel on Detroit transit

This feature is courtesy of Driven, the story of how the Detroit region is leading the world in next-generation mobility.
How Detroiters will get around the city and the greater metro area in the months and years to come was the topic of a conversation at the Lawrence Technological University Detroit Center of Design and Technology (DCDT) one evening in early April.

The first in the 2018 speaker series called DCDT TALK, "Mobility in the City" was hosted by moderator Karen Evans, director of the design accelerator at DCDT, and engaged panelists Michael Wayland, writer with Automotive News, Jason Hall, co-founder of Detroit Bike City and Slow Roll Detroit, Marie Donigan, chair of the Royal Oak Transit Task Force, and Bill Canning, vice president of Ann Arbor-based GenZe by Mahindra.

Five general themes emerged in this exploration of expectations and realities of mobility in Detroit.

Detroiters have a transportation legacy to overcome that is not always understood by newcomers to the area

One audience member, a young professional who moved to Detroit to work in the automotive industry, asked about Detroit's heritage of automotive dominance and subsequent lack of public transportation options for open-minded millennials. She described this as a "tension" that exists between automotive and everything else.

Wayland countered with what he sees as a new era of Detroit mobility. He said it's a game of catch-up for the automotive industry, which is adapting as quickly as possible to incorporate new business models, including ride sharing, vehicle subscription services, and even peer-to-peer leasing of vehicles, which can become a revenue stream for car owners.

"There is much more of a melding now of new school technology and old school automotive," Wayland said.

Yet, those who do not want to own a vehicle, and find subscription services too expensive, may complain that Detroit's current public transportation options don't quite meet their needs.

Getting public transportation on the ballot, and then voting, are actions that will advance the conversation, said Donigan. "Nobody votes for roads, roads are just a given. But you have to vote for public transportation."

Donigan encourages younger residents to run for office, advocate for transportation options, and hold elected officials accountable for the services they want and need.

"When we triple the population in Detroit, public transportation will be forced into improvement," added Canning. "Until the masses start complaining enough, it's not the top priority."

On the other end of the consumer base is an aging population with active lifestyles who are increasingly looking for alternatives to driving, but who also aren't tech-savvy enough to use hailing services like Uber or Lyft. Similar questions arise for those who have disabilities and are looking for next-generation solutions to the challenge of getting around in a single car-single driver world.

"The fact that these questions are being presented shows this is moving into the forefront," said Hall, who knows entrepreneurs working to develop senior citizen transportation services to help older people and those with disabilities get around more easily. "They see there is a niche to be filled, and there's money to be made doing it."

We need to continue opening our minds to multimodal transportation

When increased transportation options appear, residents begin to recognize they will leave behind the luxury of door-to-door transportation. This translates into the "first mile/last mile" dilemma that transportation experts often talk about. How do people fill in the gaps from home to their mode of transportation, and from the transportation stop to their final destination?

"Your lifestyle definitely changes," said Hall.

He described how he has to work a little harder to get to his grocery of choice, and then plan ahead to carry groceries on his bicycle. But it's not necessarily a negative thing. "A lot of times, there are benefits outside of getting from A to B that getting on a bike will do for you. Interacting with people on a daily basis is pretty cool."

Michael Wayland, Jason Hall, and Marie Donigan share key points about how we get around.

Innovation can help tremendously, said Canning. He offered a real world scenario to challenge multimodal transportation naysayers.

"If you could look on an app, and find half a block away is a bike, scooter, or car that you can ride wherever you want to go and then leave it wherever you want, and do it again, would you?" he said. "There are models out there like that. Get off the train, or get dropped off, and magically there is a vehicle of some sort just where you need it. We will see this sooner or later. I hope Detroit gets to that point quickly."

Do we want to share rides? Or do we want to cocoon?

What's apparent through these types of conversations is that people don't have a fully-formed view of what autonomous vehicles can offer to future mobility, and that our experiences with self-driving cars is no deeper than what we witnessed in the 2008 Pixar film WALL-E, where individuals transported in separate pods.

In reality, it's likely that autonomous vehicles will largely be shared transportation experiences that have the power to bring people together.

Efforts like Detroit's Slow Roll, which attracts thousands of cyclists for regular group rides in various parts of Detroit prove that people want to come together for shared experiences.

"If you give people the opportunity to come together, they will. They want to," said Hall. "So when you talk about the population of people who want individual autonomous vehicles, I have to believe is a smaller population than those who want to be together and talk to another person in the car. The appeal to bikes is that they are still real, you still have to power them, you still have to pedal, it's still you, not a machine that you get into and out of like a microwave."

There can never be enough education

Whatever the ideal form of transportation, education is key to help public acceptance grow. Don't just put bike share out there, invest in the education on how and why to use this service.

Hall advocates for bike-share education starting with school kids so they see bicycles and other mobility forms as viable alternatives. "You have to keep educating kids as to why. You have to keep filling that jar so those who might move away or might not ride a bicycle will take another look at [bike share]."

Donigan recognizes a distinct lack of education surrounding how to use public transportation. "People ask me if you have to have money to get on the bus; they don't know how to ride it," she said. "They want a card to to swipe their phone to get on. Technology even has to keep up with buses so they aren't old clunky buses, but are clean. But you have to have education."

Overall, people need help figuring out the many transportation options available. "Get on the ground and talk to people," said Hall.

Mobility is as much about the movement of goods and services as it is about moving people

Our mindset of moving ourselves from one location to another will change as we recognize and adopt innovation in getting goods and services to come to us.

"We're baking a big cake with hundreds of ingredients that need to come together, and if we put transportation aside, there are a lot of outside influences that come together in the way we consume things," said Canning. "You see online grocery stores, and Amazon vending machines, and drop boxes, and two-hour delivery. It changes what the needs of the community are, and in turn your infrastructure and planning have to be flexible and fast enough to adapt. The disadvantage to having slow government is by the time you have nailed something down you have possibly missed the boat."

Until things change, in the Detroit region, low-density suburban environments may continue to rely heavily on personal vehicles for all transportation, and those who prefer shared mobility and public transportation will live and work in higher-density, urban areas.

When people can't imagine public transportation, they don't support it, said Donigan. "That's why we need to fill in the gaps in the systems where public transportation simply can’t work.".

Hall sees transportation solutions as being multifaceted and open to change, in habits and in land use, to make getting where we need to go easier and more logical.

"It all goes hand in hand, and there's not a bus without a bike," said Hall. "If you listen to the mayor's speeches, he talks heavily about connecting spaces and not connecting necessarily cars to cars, but pedestrian walkways that go through parks and not around them on the sidewalk. So that conversation is real, it's happening, but all these things play into the mobility pot."

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