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Analysis: Detroit’s new mobility chief must be a prime mover

Crain’s Detroit Business

By Dustin Walsh

December 4, 2016 

The city of Detroit just got serious about mobility.

The hiring of veteran transportation and engineering executive Mark de la Vergne puts the city, which has historically struggled with making its residents mobile, on the front lines of the race to build a new economic reality, not just for Detroit, but for the region and state.

Before joining the city as chief of mobility, de la Vergne served as the principal of growth and innovation for traffic and transportation planning and engineering firm Sam Schwartz Consulting LLC in Chicago. There, he managed Chicago’s plan for pedestrians and cycling. The pedestrian plan — which has faced significant delays — sought to create safer travel for Chicago’s wealth of commuters on foot, including eliminating dedicated right-turn lanes, creating pedestrian islands, reducing one-way streets and more. The plan is part of an initiative to reach zero-traffic fatalities, including pedestrians, by 2026.

Before that, he served as principal at Land Strategies Inc.

De la Vergne is not entrenched in the automotive world. He’s an outsider — which the city desperately needs to solve the mobility conundrum.

“He has a much more multimodal and broader perspective about mobility than an auto background,” said Jean Redfield, president and CEO of Next Energy LLC, a Detroit-based energy and transportation business. “He’s coming at this with a different experience, and that’s refreshing.”

Glenn Stevens, executive director of MichAuto, met with de la Vergne last week.

“This is an excellent hire,” Stevens said. “With his tremendous background in mobility as a service, the city, region and state are going to gain a lot for mobility efforts.”

After all, no other U.S. city faces a more critical challenge tied to mobility. While the industry of mobility is tied, locally, to autonomous cars, car-sharing services and other advancements in automotive, it’s far more. The literal definition of mobility is the movement of people from place to place, or from job to job.

De la Vergne now has one of the most difficult positions in the region, yet potentially the one with the greatest impact for Detroit, and beyond.

De la Vergne did not respond to requests for comment for this story, but here is a “to-do” list to shape Detroit’s future around mobility.

Connect Detroiters, jobs

Of the 258,807 jobs in the city, 71 percent are held by employees commuting from the suburbs, according to a 2015 report by the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce and funded by J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. That’s only 0.37 jobs for every resident — abysmal compared with other cities.

In Detroit, 108,000, or 61 percent of employed Detroit residents, travel outside the city for their jobs, according to the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce study. Roughly 46 percent of those travel more than 10 miles from home, the study said. Unreliable transportation options for the city’s residents precludes many from finding those jobs in the suburbs.

Get Detroit thinking beyond the automobile

More than a quarter of Detroit households don’t own an automobile, ranking eighth among the 30 largest cities in the U.S., and behind only cities with robust mass transit systems, such as Chicago, New York City and Washington, D.C., according to a 2014 study by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute.

The city’s mass transit options are terrible, even if it’s gaining a new rail line in the QLine. In the November election, the Regional Transit Authority’s transit tax was narrowly defeated. Detroit must connect itself to the suburbs to ensure migration of Detroit residents to and from the aforementioned jobs located outside the city limits. The RTA needs a new plan, and Detroit must be central to the plan.

Woo the federal government

The federal government has supported mobility initiatives in Columbus, Ohio; Pittsburgh; and Denver. Detroit, despite submitting proposals, continues to get overlooked. De la Vergne must ensure the federal government knows Detroit is a serious mobility contender. Experts said Detroit failed to get federal funding because of a lack of leadership.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is expected to meet with the state’s mobility leaders, including MichAuto, a unit of the Detroit Regional Chamber dedicated to boosting the region’s automotive collaboration and marketing; Detroit Economic Growth Corp.; NextEnergy LLC; the New Economy Initiative; and others.

De la Vergne will need to make an impression that will resonate with the feds to boost Detroit’s chances and profile in the space.

Take a leadership role within the regional and state mobility efforts

The state closed last month on 300 acres at Willow Run in Ypsilanti to create an $80 million testing hub for connected and driverless cars called the American Center for Mobility, which is expected to open in 2018. University of Michigan opened its MCity early-testing facility for the same technologies last summer.

General Motors Co. acquired driverless car tech firm Cruise Automation for $1 billion, invested $500 million into San Francisco ride-sharing service Lyft, and launched its own car-sharing service, Maven, all earlier this year. Ford Motor Co. created a mobility subsidiary, Ford Mobility LLC, and began testing driverless cars in Pittsburgh with Uber this year. Uber then announced it was opening an office in Detroit to partner with local automakers.

It’s de la Vergne’s responsibility to ensure these regional efforts can benefit Detroit and its citizens.

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