A half-century ago, Southfield was the fastest-growing community in Metro Detroit, a sprawling suburb dissected by highways and busy thoroughfares, its land-use patterns dictated by the automobile. It was a city of glass office towers and housing developments, void of a center.
Today, the Oakland County community boasts the equivalent of a main street in front of its city hall, connected by a network of sidewalks and trails and complemented by pedestrian-friendly amenities, including benches, public art, and wayfinding signs.
Informational roadside signage in Southfield.
While Southfield’s transformation came because of desires to create a more attractive, walkable community in the wake of falling office occupancy rates during the Great Recession, the landscape changes are also helping the city lay the groundwork for a future far less dependent on traditional automobiles.
“We’ve seen, with a concentrated effort over multiple years of building infrastructure, a growth in bicycling, people walking, and public transportation,” says Terry Croad, Southfield’s director of planning. “It’s some of the same things we’re going to be looking at with autonomous vehicles and mobility-sharing services.”
Southfield director of planning Terry Croad.
Southeast Michigan has emerged as a leader in developing, testing, and promoting connected infrastructure, with the aim of improving safety and traffic flow. But self-driving vehicles and mobility will mean changes in other infrastructure, including roads, curbs, parking lots, parking structures, and more. And as autonomous vehicles move from testing sites to roads and shared mobility services continue to grow, community planners are considering how to plan for the future.
In areas with expected heavy use of connected, autonomous, and shared mobility, possible changes in infrastructure include narrower driving lanes on roadways, fewer parking spaces, and smaller parking lots. Autonomous vehicles are expected to be in motion regularly and not sitting idle in lots.
Additionally, designated pickup and dropoff sites will be needed to accommodate growing numbers of shared mobility users. Planners also are envisioning allotted space for bike and scooter racks, as well as more bike lanes on roadways.
“There are many communities looking at what they can do to create a multi-transportation environment, whether it’s with bike lanes, bus lanes, or whatever,” says Carla Bailo, president and CEO of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor. “Even cities like Saginaw and others are starting to look at the mobility issues that need to be addressed in their communities.”
Those issues include providing mobility options for a wide range of demographics. Broader use of microtransit and designated rideshare programs could accommodate the mobility needs of the elderly. And there’s growing pressure from consumers, especially younger residents, who want to get around without spending time in a vehicle.
“There are a number of things people are looking at,” Bailo says. “The whole Detroit area was built around vehicles. Now people are demanding new ways to get around, so we have to look at how we design buildings, shopping malls, and everything.”
In Macomb County, officials have been taking a multi-pronged approach to mobility. The county is not only testing technology to improve traffic flow and safety, but also pursuing economic development to tap local and international talent in emerging technologies related to mobility, and promoting job potential in the Detroit area for upcoming graduates.
One of the immediate concerns for Macomb County planners is accommodating workers who use rideshare services to get to and from work.
“The way people are moving around these days has changed. It’s not one vehicle, one driver anymore,” says Vicky Rad, director of Macomb County Planning and Economic Development. “We’ve been working with major employers, looking at right of ways for Uber and Lyft to drop off employees. The No. 1 issue is safety. We don’t want any pedestrian accidents. You need special lanes and we currently don’t have them.”
Many infrastructure changes, such as changing parking space quotas, will be handled at the community level, through ordinances and regulations. In Wayne County, Westland city officials are aware that the advent of self-driving vehicles and non-motorized transportation will have an impact on the 20-square-mile city.
The city has already been working to reduce parking space requirements, with a focus on more green space, walkways, and public spaces. Through changes in zoning ordinances, the city also is requiring developers to construct parking lots behind buildings.
“Some of the things we’re working on are not specifically because of autonomous vehicles, but that thought process might also encourage a reduction in overall parking spaces needed in our long-term future,” says Mohamed Ayoub, Westland’s planning director. “It’s not something we’re planning for specifically, but it’s on our radar. We’re aware of a lot of stuff that is going on with autonomous vehicles.”
Along those lines, the city plans to conduct a feasibility study this year for a bike lane along Central City Parkway, between Ford and Warren roads. Ayoub says the changing dynamics in how people get around could mean better use of land in commercial and industrial areas. One possibility, he notes, is creating a large parking facility to allow hundreds of people to park in one location and then use rideshare services as the connector to their workplaces.
"The interest behind this strategy is a massive reduction or maybe even elimination in pervious surfaces at and near large employment areas," he says. "This can allow us to be more efficient with managing stormwater runoff, managing the way in which buildings are laid out, and the unintended positive consequence of forcing major commercial areas to be walkable by eliminating the car."
In Southfield, Croad regularly attends meetings of the Michigan Connected and Automated Working Group, which includes representatives from the auto industry, state and county government, transportation agencies, and universities working to advance Michigan’s role in connected and automated vehicle research.
“I can see that our land use patterns are going to be changed,” Croad says. “Dropoff and pickup areas will be more prominent. The amount of parking will be reduced. When we get new development, we’ll be looking at those things.”
Southfield's existing shared-use path.
For cities like Southfield, there will be other challenges in adapting to mobility because the community is so spread out and not as dense as Detroit.
“There is a realization that we are in competition with communities with walkable downtowns,” Croad says. “But that doesn’t mean the 175,000 people who are here during the day don’t want to get out and walk. If you make things accessible and comfortable, people will get out and walk.”
He sees the growth of Southfield's “downtown” as evidence of that.
“These are positive signs that suburban communities can transform themselves,” Croad says.