City of Detroit Tests Real-World Mobility with Innovation Initiative

Michigan’s government and business leaders have worked diligently over the past few years to position the state that put the world on wheels to be major player in the development of self-driving cars. (According to a June 25 opinion piece in Forbes, Michigan has become “the Silicon Valley of mobility.”)

The city of Detroit is also getting in on the mobility action. Last December, Mayor Mike Duggan hired Mark de la Vergne, a veteran in transportation planning and engineering, to serve as the city’s chief of mobility innovation. De la Vergne has worked with members of city and state government, as well as industry and nonprofit leaders, to conduct more than 100 hours of interviews with city residents this year to help formulate the Detroit Mobility Innovation Initiative.

The purpose of the initiative is to “help inform long-term transportation solutions for residents, visitors, and employers in the city of Detroit while also supporting a startup ecosystem and providing corporate partners an opportunity to explore innovative technologies and services,” according to a press release sent out by the mayor’s office.

“The mayor recognized the opportunity to better understand how new mobility technologies can add to traditional transportation investments, and to implement them,” de la Vergne explains. “Part of my job involves developing new initiatives. We want to start small, run pilots, and learn. As we began to think about mobility internally, there was a lot of advancement coming from the private sector. We wanted to work with the companies developing [mobility solutions] so they could hear directly from Detroiters.”

To narrow down 120 potential pilot projects in four major areas of need, the city hired Boston Consulting Group to run a 12-week “innovation sprint” with stakeholders from each partner organization—PlanetM/Michigan Economic Development Corporation, General Motors, Lear Corporation, DTE Energy, Bedrock Detroit, Quicken Loans Community Investment Fund, and New Economy Initiative—to identify significant mobility challenges, brainstorm solutions, and develop business models to implement potential solutions.

The four key areas of need the innovation sprint committee found were neighborhood mobility, downtown accessibility, traffic safety, and electric vehicle utilization and education. Within those four broad categories, six proposals will be studied further for possible real-world testing and deployment. Here’s a brief description of each, according to the mayor’s office:

  • Dynamically routed shuttles and buses based on rider demand in order to dramatically improve the transit experience by taking more direct routes and reducing the number of stops.
  • A car-sharing program that will provide low-cost vehicle access to Detroiters through features that encourage responsible driving, and lower insurance fees and operating costs.
  • A parking platform that integrates dynamic pricing with a perks program to help Detroiters find parking at lower prices while fostering economic development and reducing congestion.
  • A public space in the heart of the city that residents and visitors can enjoy while fast-charging their electric vehicles, where they’ll learn about the benefits of EVs and other state-of-the-art automotive technologies.
  • A traffic management system employing connected technology to provide priority to transit vehicles at signalized intersections.
  • A central intelligence hub that sources data from various infrastructure, vehicle, and mobile device sources to enable the development of initiatives to address safety and operational issues on Detroit’s street network.

De la Vergne says that in one pilot project already underway, Lyft is exploring the utilization of a first mile/last mile service along the busy Woodward Avenue corridor downtown between midnight and 5 a.m. Once 2,000 riders have been surveyed about their experiences, the program will be evaluated for expanded deployment.

“We’re trying to solve problems and doing it quickly and lightly to better learn and iterate,” he adds. “We’re still determining funding, but the first step is pilot projects.” He says there is also industry interest in partnering on some of the pilots to advance corporate research and development efforts.

The 100 hours of interviews with residents proved valuable, de la Vergne says, because there is so much friction and provincialism associated with transit in Southeast Michigan.

“Mobility is a very personal experience, but it’s also hard to empathize with other people because you can’t see [transportation challenges],” he notes. “We heard about everyday pain points and found out what people want to see improved. It helped us prioritize. Like every other city, we want to get where we need to go safely and affordably. There are big things, like the cost of car insurance, that stand in the way of affordability. We want more options and less friction.”

As the pilot projects move from the planning stage to implementation, de la Vergne says a big focus will be on making it easier for people to get to their jobs.

“There’s so much being done by our workforce development team, and we want to support people getting to those jobs,” he says. “How can we leverage mobility to help support public works and planning? A lot of what we do is supportive of other city department efforts.”

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