The southeast Michigan planners and designers working to make transit accessible for all

If you've spent any time in Midtown or downtown Detroit lately, you've undoubtedly noticed people riding red bicycles along protected bike lanes or zooming by on electric scooters. For workers, shoppers, or visitors, MoGo and Bird create affordable last-mile solutions to supplement public transportation and private vehicle use. 

From autonomous shuttles and bike share programs to "blended" models that combine various transportation methods, Michigan residents have access to more ways to get around than ever before.

But despite their early, enthusiastic adoption, there are still some reasons for caution. While mobility innovations have the potential to create economic opportunity for disadvantaged populations, if social equity isn't a priority during the planning phase, it may just create more options for people who can already afford to get around in traditional ways, says Tierra Bills, assistant professor in the civil and environmental engineering department at the University of Michigan.

A Bird scooter in downtown Detroit
"Social equity is about providing benefits to those with the greatest needs and making sure that those groups who have been historically marginalized are paid close attention and benefitted first, compared to members of society who are more affluent," Bills says. "We need to make sure we are serving those with the greatest need first."

As transportation options expand, who benefits?

Transportation is key in "social mobility," says Komal Doshi, director of mobility programs at Ann Arbor SPARK.

In a "transportation desert" where transit options are few and the main way to get around is by automobile, low-income individuals either can't afford a car or spend a lot of money on maintaining a car, hindering their efforts to keep a job and "move up the social ladder," Doshi says.

A policy brief on transportation equity put out by AARP notes that "the poorest fifth of Americans spend 42 percent of their annual household budget on automobile ownership, more than twice the national average."

AARP also notes that workers who have access to reliable and efficient public transportation spend about 7 percent less of their budget on transportation, so programs that improve public transit and blended modes of transportation can play a key role in social equity.

To ensure that disadvantaged populations benefit from new transportation plans, they must be included in the planning process, Bills says. If they aren't considered, tech companies are likely to promote the new transportation services and routes that make them the most money, not the ones that best benefit the population they're serving.

"When we have an equitable way of planning for transportation infrastructure that focuses on those with the greatest need, it tends to result in transportation improvements that will benefit a broader range of transportation users," Bills says.

"We need to get more people who are traditionally left out of those considerations to a place where they can can access the same opportunities."

Transportation studies and pilots in southeast Michigan

City and county government officials are learning that old methods of transportation, such as fixed-route bus lines, are no longer the best option.

Representatives from the city of Detroit, the state of Michigan, and the business and nonprofit sectors recently collaborated on a Detroit Mobility Innovation Initiative, brainstorming with a consultant over 12 weeks to generate four to eight ideas worthy of implementation.

Garry Bulluck, deputy chief of mobility innovation for the city of Detroit, says they tried to think outside the box. Ideas ranged from systems that maximize parking efficiency by allowing visitors to reserve a parking spot, to infrastructure that would make the existing bus system more efficient.

Garry Bulluck
For instance, if no passenger is waiting at the next bus stop, a bus driver can use an electronic device that communicates with city infrastructure to preempt a traffic signal and hold the green so the bus can continue through, increasing efficiency.

The initiative also prompted an idea for a community-based car share program that would target residents of low- to moderate-income neighborhoods.

"You can put people through job training, but if they do not have that initial support for the first 30 to 60 days to access training or required testing, they won't be successful in starting and keeping that job," Bulluck says. "This would close the gap in their ability to take part in job-training programs or take a pre-employment drug test."

Royal Oak in late 2017 launched a Transit Task Force, chaired by former city commissioner Marie Donigan, to review current transit programs, prepare a local transit strategy that would benefit people of all ages and abilities, and investigate funding options.

Task force members consulted with the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART) to delve into transportation "best practices."

SMART buses currently operate only on weekdays, and not frequently enough for many people's needs. Donigan says the plan will expand hours to evenings and weekends, "because that's when life happens in Royal Oak."

Two new routes have already been added, with SMART picking up a third of the cost. Donigan says the hope is that, eventually, residents will have to walk a quarter of a mile or less to get on a bus.

Donigan says that the idea of spending $14 million on a parking deck and sitting in congested traffic seems "old-fashioned" in light of news about other cities using scooters and bike share services. She says Royal Oak's transit plan suggests coordinating with bike share or other transportation modes.

"Those blended models are great," Donigan says. "Having as many mobility options as possible really makes for a great community."

Making the economic argument for better transportation

While much of the conversation around transportation and social equity revolves around social justice concepts, a business and economic case can also be made for better transportation options.

The most obvious way improved transportation systems impact the economy is that they help people get and keep jobs, and attain skills and education to move on to better jobs.

If a resident of southeast Michigan finds a better job on the opposite side of Detroit from where he or she lives, "transportation should not be the barrier that stops that person from going after that," Bulluck says.

New technologies also create jobs, which contributes to a region's economy. Doshi notes that the company Zambikes has been creating bamboo bicycle frames for export from Zambia since 2008, offering not just a new transportation option but creating jobs and a whole "ecosystem" around biking, and "putting Zambia on the map," Doshi says.

A less obvious impact on the economy comes from the link between transportation and healthcare access. Close to 75 percent of all medical appointments that aren't kept are canceled due to lack of transportation access. This affects the time doctors and nurses have to interact with other patients, and causes inefficiencies, waste, and drives up insurance costs.

To this end, Ford Motor Co. recently launched its new GoRide non-emergency medical transportation service in partnership with Beaumont Health to get patients to and from their medical appointments at more than 200 facilities safely and on time, and may be expanding to serve other healthcare systems in southeast Michigan.

"People ride public transportation to spend money or make money," Donigan says, meaning return on investment in public transportation is good, with each dollar spent on transportation generating an additional $4.

"Public transportation is not a loser," she says. "It's a winner for the economy."

Visit Driven and learn how the Detroit region is leading the world in next-generation mobility.

Photos by Stephen Koss.
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