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From Motor City to Mobility City

Detroit’s mobility chief discusses his vision for affordable and equitable transit

By Melissa Anders

As cities across the country increasingly focus on efficient ways to improve operations via technology, Detroit’s leaders are taking steps to stay ahead of the mark. The epicenter of the global automotive industry, Detroit is positioning itself to serve as a national model for mobility.

To address the city’s myriad challenges — including access to a regionally connected transit system — last year, Mayor Mike Duggan created the Office of Mobility Innovation and tapped veteran transportation planner Mark de la Vergne to serve as its chief. The Motor City was also one of 77 midsize cities nationwide to compete in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s 2016 Smart City Challenge. As part of that, the city developed a plan calling for a mix of hard and soft infrastructure that would provide equitable access to affordable and timeeffi cient mobility solutions.

Over a year into his post, de la Vergne is working on several fronts to make it safer and easier for people to get around. In 2017, the city won a pair of grants that will help it achieve these goals. Nearly $2.2 million from the Federal Highway Administration will allow Detroit to deploy technologies such as vehicle-to-infrastructure communication networks in four corridors to help improve traffic fl ow. The city also received a $200,000 Knight Foundation grant to develop a strategy on how to best use smart city technologies and the Internet of Things to ensure improvements benefit all residents. In an interview with the Detroiter, de la Vergne discussed the city’s future plans.

Describe your role as chief of mobility innovation. What does that entail?

My role and our team’s role is essentially to integrate new types of mobility services and technologies into the work that (other city departments) are doing so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

How are you working to improve existing services?

I’ll give you one example. At the Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT) over the last two years, there has been a lot of (bus service) improvements — from new routes, to implementing 24-hour service on nine routes, to increasing frequency on some core routes. We are going to continue to do those improvements.

Where we get tied up from an operational standpoint is people just paying for a fare on the bus. So we are looking at ways at how we can improve that, whether that is implementing pilots around doing offboard fare payment … to potentially implementing a mobile payment pilot to allow people to pay with their cell phones if they do not have cash or a pass.

Secondarily, we are also looking to understand that fixed-style service is probably not the solution for every single part of the city, because the city has different densities in different neighborhoods. But just because someone lives in a low-density neighborhood does not mean that they should have a lower level of access to mobility … we are going to be going through a pilot program over the next few years to begin to deploy different types of services.

How do you foresee outside mobility providers playing a role?

We are in a unique spot where we can say we are very open to partnering with all these private sector partners because we believe that what we do well — which is going to be running fi xed-route service on our main course at a high frequency and moving a lot of people — is something that we can do better than everyone else. But we are going to need these various sources, whether it is providing service to a neighborhood late at night where the bus does not go, to being able to provide options for people that do not own a car but might need to use a car once a month.

What are the next steps to increase mobility and access for Detroiters to get from Point A to Point B?

The engagement portion is going to be important to be able to talk to people, to understand what works for them now, what does not work for them, how they view the services that are out there, so that we can ideally address these barriers to create good pilot projects. And then when we get ready to scale some of these solutions, then we have got a lot of these answers already in our pocket.
If you had a crystal ball, what do you see mobility and smart technology looking like in Detroit in the next 10 years?

Mobility has been transformed in Detroit and it is much easier to get in and around the city. DDOT is providing fast, frequent reliable service on the main corridors of the city and it is fully integrated with other types of mobility services so residents have numerous options to get to their destination. Our traffi c and parking infrastructure is using real-time information to improve the operations within our right of way.

Melissa Anders is a Detroit native and freelance writer.