It's a chilly Thursday night in late January, and Detroiter Tamara Ballinger is waiting for a bus at DDOT's Rosa Parks Transit Center. The 21-year-old college student and fast food worker is sitting on a bench listening intently to music on her smartphone, seemingly oblivious to the cold. But when asked about how she navigates between home, work, and school, her eyes light up a little.
"I take the bus home from work. And if I get off late, I take a Lyft or a cab," she says. "I like Lyft, but the cab is a little too expensive. I wish they had 24-hour bus service [on my route]."
Not far away, Vincent Further-Bey, 54, a recent Texas transplant to Detroit, says he relies on the bus system to get to his distribution center job in Livonia. When the topic of electric scooters comes up, though, he's eager to share his thoughts.
"A friend of mine comes down here [to the transit center] and takes a scooter to Grand River and Livernois," he says. "I'll be using them this summer to check out downtown."
For Ballinger and Further-Bey and many other commuters, the streets of Detroit aren't what they used to be. The city's transportation landscape has shifted dramatically; new services like electric scooters and bike sharing have become part and parcel to how people get around in the Motor City these days.
To bus riders, new transportation modes mean more choices. And they offer new solutions for covering the distance from work and homes to bus stops, what's known as the first/last mile problem. But the emergence of this patchwork of options also raises questions about which services to use and how to navigate between them.
Detroit is rapidly transforming into a multimodal city where people rely on several different ways to get around.
Megan Owens is executive director of Transportation Riders United (TRU
), a nonprofit Metro Detroit transit advocacy group that held a public forum on new mobility services and technology last fall.
For the most part, says Owens, TRU feels "the more transportation options people have the better," whether as an additional alternative or as a way to bridge the first/last mile problem. That said, Owens stresses the importance of not looking at the arrival of new transit modes as a cure-all for the region's transportation needs.
"Our biggest concern is how do we make sure these are options are for everyone," she says, "whether it's the 92-year-old grandma who doesn't have a smartphone, or people who don't have bank accounts, or people in wheelchairs."
Multimodal city, multimodal region
While taxis, buses, and the People Mover have been here for some time, over the last ten years there's been a surge of new transportation alternatives.
DDOT started getting bike racks on buses around 2008, a move that has allowed bicyclists to integrate buses into their trips and, in turn, enjoy more flexibility in how they get around. Since that time, the city has built an impressive 240-mile network of bike lanes. The on-demand ride hailing service Uber, which relies on a smartphone app to connect drivers and riders came online here in 2013. Its competitor Lyft set up shop the following year. May 2017 saw the launch of MoGo
, a dock-based public bike share system. And last year, three dockless electric scooter
companies — Bird, Lime and Spin — arrived in Detroit, as did May Mobility
autonomous shuttles, self-driving electric vehicles that can carry up to six people along a predetermined loop.
In 2016, Detroit's Mayor Mike Duggan established an Office of Mobility Innovation to coordinate new additions like these. And two years in, it's borne some intriguing fruit.
Last summer, DDOT and MoGo partnered up on a limited-time offer to provide free 30-day bike share passes to bus riders who bought long-term bus passes. In May, the agency kicked off a pilot program with Lyft to help bus riders cover late gaps in bus coverage. DDOT passengers who text a certain phone number can get a $7 credit towards a Lyft ride during designated hours.
And in the fall, DDOT released an upgrade to its bus tracking and trip planning app, Transit
, making it easier to seamlessly connect with Uber and Lyft. The app can also be used to access MoGo's bike sharing services.
The Rosa Parks Transit Center is a hub in central Detroit.
"The City of Detroit Office of Mobility Innovation is doing a good job of trying to stay on top of these things," says Owens. "Cities certainly have a challenge in that regard, when things like the new scooters just literally show up one day."
Unlike Ann Arbor, which warned
dockless scooter users to stay off the sidewalks and bike lanes and initially confiscated those parked improperly in the public right-of-way, Detroit has been more embracing of the new mobility technology. Late last year it raised the cap on Bird and Lime scooters from 300 to 400 each with the understanding more would be placed in neighborhoods outside downtown
Creating space to move
Todd Scott is executive director of the Detroit Greenways Coalition
. For a person whose organization played a considerable role in building up Detroit's biking and walking infrastructure, he has an interesting take on how it relates to the scooters.
"I don't know if it's right to call it just bike infrastructure, because it accommodates bikes and scooters both very well," he says. "And in some ways, I think the scooters are going to encourage the city to make more investments in bike lanes."
Right now, Scott is in the thick of developing the Joe Louis Greenway
, a 26-mile trail that will run a ring around the heart of Detroit. He's excited about what it and MoGo's upcoming expansion into more city neighborhoods and several Oakland County communities will mean for city and regional transit.
A new dedicated walking and biking path will facilitate faster, safer trips for cyclists with minimal motorized vehicle interactions as they commute through Detroit's core city to get to work, school, and shopping locations. And the expansion of MoGo, in tandem with a new 17.1-mile bike route through many of the same communities, called the Woodward Corridor Neighborhood Bicycle Network
, could play a role in normalizing bicycling as a mobility option throughout the region.
Metropolitan connectivity is also a topic of interest for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG
), which intends to include new mobility options in its next long-range regional transportation plan.
"Our policy recommendations include encouraging projects that integrate first- and last-mile connections to increase accessibility ... [and] collaboration with new mobility providers such as bikeshare and e-scooters to collect and share data," SEMCOG spokesperson Sue Stetler said in an email.
As a member of the of Southeast Michigan's Regional Transit Authority
Citizens' Advisory Committee, Owens says that RTA is also actively looking into new mobility pilots and ways to integrate these new services. And that's got her feeling good about the future of new mobility options in Metro Detroit.
"We need to make sure that people don't go overboard and think we don't need transit anymore," she says. "But as long as they're seen as an addition, I'm pretty optimistic about where things are headed."
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Photos by Steve Koss.