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Do we want to be the Motor City, or the Mobility City?

Much was said about the 200 business leaders on Mackinac Island last week who signed posters advocating their support of a regional transit solution in Metro Detroit. But there may be more to learn from those who don’t.

As the chief executive of Emagine Theatres, Paul Glantz has led the local market in upscale cinema experiences and has partnered with the likes of Big Sean to bring the Emagine brand to Detroit. But the limits of Glantz’ perspective were obvious during a lightning round on transit last Friday at the Mackinac Policy Conference.

The CEO told the audience he didn’t support regional mass transit because the future belongs to autonomous vehicles. Off the cuff, divesting in regional transit to wait for the autonomous age is an innocuous — perhaps prudent — view. But it’s evidence of a dangerously ill-informed opinion sweeping across cities. In Nashville, where a transit referendum recently failed, some politicians argued that they should be funding self-driving buses instead.

Industry leaders vary on the exact year autonomous cars will become widespread, but 2035 is an optimistic bet. Still, that doesn’t mean everyone will immediately own an autonomous car (tens of millions of “dumb” cars will still be mixing it up). Uber and Lyft’s stated missions are to reduce car ownership and increase shared ride services. As more road lanes are reserved for autonomous trucks, shuttles and buses will be needed even more to get people around. Mass transit may adapt, but it isn’t going away.

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Don Butler of Ford Mobility delivers his keynote address on the future of mobility at the Mackinac Policy Conference on May 30, 2018.

During his Mackinac keynote, Don Butler, head of Connected Vehicle Platform and Product for Ford Mobility, articulated a future city more in sync than the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. It’s a city where stoplights are synchronized with road sensors, where autonomous vehicles conversate with bicyclists. A panel called The Mobility State got even further into the weeds. In our transit system of the future, connectivity, data analysis, leading-edge products and quickly-adapting policies are key. The complications are endless. In short, there are no opt-outs in our future of mobility.

When CEOs like Glantz, or county executives like Mark Hackel and L. Brooks Patterson fight against funding a regional transit authority, they argue that we should spend money on fixing roads and advancing new tech for drivers, not buses or rail. You may agree or disagree with that premise.

But it’s worth asking what else we may need a regional transit authority for in the future. GM and Ford didn’t construct the nation’s highways to sell cars — the public sector did. Who else, if not the public sector, do we think is going to build and manage millions of people moving across a truly connected region? Waymo and Uber are building cars of the future, but do we expect them to build the infrastructure of the future, too?

Debating the specs of this regional transit plan is old news. What became clear last week is how much bigger this question is than just buses — and how quickly we’ll fall behind if we don’t put some (hell, any) sort of visionary body in charge of guiding Metro Detroit’s future as the Mobility City.

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