What is the Detroit Mobility Innovation Initiative?

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan created the Office of Mobility Innovation to integrate mobility technologies and services to make getting around Detroit easier, safer, and faster. A key effort of this department is the Detroit Mobility Innovation Initiative. We sat down with Mark de la Vergne, chief of mobility innovation, to talk about what this initiative will achieve.

Mark, part of this initiative was to gather input from residents of Detroit who are facing challenges with mobility. Tell us about the process that you went through.

We talked with a lot of people with different sets of conditions, and different challenges. From a senior resident who doesn't work, who just has a challenge getting to the grocery store, to a single mom who has to drop off two kids, and then get to a job in the suburbs. We wanted to think through of as many different experiences that we could share with the team as possible. Because these aren't one-size-fits-all approaches.

There are going to be different frictions for different people. And whether that friction is they can't do what they need to do in one trip because they have to make multiple stops, or they don't have a cell phone, or issues surrounding the use of a cell phone for payment.

Bringing a lot of different people from all different parts of the city, different residents representing different segments of the diverse population we have in Detroit, to share their stories, that was the important part.

We wanted to do a really deep dive in research versus just us saying, "This is a good idea," or doing a public meeting that we hoped people would come to, to really talk to what are essentially the customers of the service from us as a city, but also the business side, and get their honest feedback.

There are four key areas that you and the collective determined you were going to touch on. What are those?

The first is neighborhood mobility of being able to get around. Whether it's the cost of car insurance here in Detroit, in the state of Michigan, or the lack of regional transit. It's hard for a lot of people to get around. So being able to dive into that issue, and say, "How can we begin to provide more options?" Specifically, more affordable options was a big part.

Downtown accessibility being another one, as downtown continues to grow and do better, making sure it's as easy as possible for everyone in Detroit to be able to access downtown. The third is traffic safety, and looking into how we can make it safer for all users of our streets to get around. And the fourth is electrification of vehicles.

If you talk to GM, and Ford, and other OEMs, they're very loud that the vehicle future is electric. But we don't have a lot of supporting infrastructure.

So one of the examples that I read about was GM working to reduce the cost of insurance so that they could make Maven, the ride sharing platform, more affordable for everybody.

We're looking through a number of different things, but basically if we can use sensors, or use cameras to better understand specific driver behavior, and then use that to drive down a membership rate, or hourly rate for a Maven member, that will make it more affordable.

So a good driver gets to pay less?

Exactly, so right now the only way that they can do it, is they look at your driving record, right? But just because you've had no crashes doesn't necessarily make you a good or a bad driver. So we are working to get more data to try and drive those costs down.

What are some other examples like that, that this initiative will be rolling out?

One of the things that we're really excited about is the opportunity to use connected technology to give our buses signal priority.

We don't have the traffic that a lot of cities do, so our buses don't sit in congestion. But where they do experience delay is two points: one of which is at the fare box, where people are paying, a lot of times with cash, that can take a lot of time, and the second being at traffic signals where bus just hits the red light, and then has to wait 30 to 60 seconds before it can go to the stop, and then stop again to let customers on and off.

So just simply being able, as the bus approaches the signal, to get the green to get it to the stop, and then the light will turn red, will make a big difference to our bus reliability.

For the neighborhood car shares, that you mentioned, we only have car share in essentially downtown and midtown, and we'd really like to be able to get that option more into the neighborhoods, in a different type of business model. So that for people who don't necessarily need to use their car all the time, but maybe once in a while can have an option beyond having to own a vehicle to get to the store, to get to a doctor's appointment, or even just to a job interview.

Then we're looking at another pilot around developing a smarter parking app for downtown. Our app that we have from a city standpoint is essentially just on-street parking. What we'd like to do is think through not only how can we begin to bring more people together for parking, but also allow the app to provide data to the owners of parking garages to help them with their planning. That's four I think.

So the fifth is working with DTE to provide a public fast charging station for electric vehicles that allows owners of electric vehicles to charge their vehicles in 30 to 60 minutes, and do it in conjunction with some placemaking so there's something for people to do when they drop their vehicle off. And seeing then how we can hopefully scale that further, but the pilot will just be looking at one location.

And then the last one, which it has a lot more work to do, is really better understanding how we can use data that's coming off of vehicles, a lot of big data to help us inform decisions on something as simple as where are potholes? So there will be a lot more work on that, and there's a lot of people working on that around the world. But obviously something that could really help the way we do business in the city.

Here's another thing I'd say I'd like to see, if you happen to be asking me: a faster, easier way to get a bike on the front of a bus. Because that's another thing that slows us down.

It is. I agree, that could be a pilot. We could make that faster.

And also the Bird scooter model. Just see a scooter, pick it up. Use your phone, ride it, leave it wherever you want. Love that.

That's one of the things that we talked about. We started with about 100 ideas, and then narrowed it down to the six, and that was one of the ones that we had talked about. We're going to be spending this summer looking through how other cities are dealing with that, so that one day we can incorporate that into Detroit.

This initiative is kind of a quick-start thing, right?

Yeah, we'll continue to work on the pilots, we're hoping to get some stuff up on the ground in the fall, so we can just sort of keep momentum going. We don't want to just say, "We're done," and pat ourselves on the back. All we did was a plan basically. We want to get these things on the ground, and start seeing how they're being used, and learning lessons off them.

We're really excited about this, in addition to all the other investments that we're making around mobility. This is just a small part of everything that the mayor, the team with DDOT, DPW, our planning department is doing to address how we can make it easier for people to get around Detroit.

Photos by Stephen Koss

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