Michigan’s roads took center stage (as if they ever leave it?) in this past November’s election, as now-Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s “Fix the damn roads,” slogan struck an obvious chord. While the need for pavement maintenance is obvious, it’s only one part of our state’s broken transportation system.

Beyond filling the potholes, Michigan is overdue for actual innovation that addresses our mobility needs holistically. Decades of experience have shown us that neither is a pavement-only approach fiscally sustainable, nor does it address our critical health, safety, and equity needs.

We know that we simply can’t afford to just double down on our road system.

In past years, we’ve built so many lane-miles, bridges, and interchanges that the state’s maintenance needs are now overwhelming even the hundreds of millions of dollars in general fund subsidy that we’re pumping into the roads each year.

As a new Senate Fiscal Agency analysis shows, even this diversion of funds away from other pressing needs is only enough to slow the decay. A functioning road network is essential to moving people and goods–but the decades of expanding our maintenance liabilities so much faster than our population or economy have grown has caught up to us with a vengeance.

While our population growth has been sluggish over past decades, we've spread out rapidly, taking on massive infrastructure maintenance costs (also known as "potholes") in the process.

While our population growth has been sluggish over past decades, we’ve spread out rapidly, taking on massive infrastructure maintenance costs (also known as “potholes”) in the process.

We know that roads alone are not sufficient for all of our residents’ mobility needs.

A third of Michigan residents cannot drive a car due to their age, a disability, or other factors; others are forced to drive uninsured because they cannot afford insurance and have no other options available.

The challenges in metro Detroit are well-documented, but are reflected around the state: Region 9’s Michigan Works! Agencies noted in 2015 that transportation was a barrier to finding and keeping a job for half of the customers they served, and lack of transportation is also the leading factor in missed medical appointments. With these challenges falling most heavily on people with disabilities, people of color, and low-income residents, a focus only on roads presents clear equity problems.

We know that our local, regional, and inter-city transit gaps are barriers to talent attraction.

In addition to lower-income workers’ job access, lack of transportation options limit Michigan’s high-skill, high-wage jobs as well. Amazon aside, consider Ann Arbor-based Duo Security, which recently became Michigan’s first-ever “unicorn” tech company when Cisco acquired it for $2.35B: founder Dug Song has previously cited a lack of transit options as one reason that the company opened satellite offices in other states.

There’s a ton of talent in Metro Detroit that we just don’t have access to because it’s too far for them to consider the commute…and that’s why we’re opening a California office. We’ve sped up out there because really, the talent is easier for us to pull from given the BART, given the CalTrain, than it is here.

You know, having to split up the company and do more in other places, I wish we could grow more here…We’re just very strong supporters of regional transit. I think it would be very helpful if we had trains that went to Detroit, the airport at least, to Grand Rapids, down to Columbus…Our challenge is we just need more access to talent.

Dug Song, then-CEO of Duo Security, to Washtenaw County Office of Community and Economic Development (2015)

And we know that a roads-first focus threatens public health and personal safety.

The state of Michigan and metro Detroit have the dubious honor of placing among the most dangerous regions in the country for pedestrians, with traffic crashes killing over 1,400 pedestrians in the past decade. In total, over 1,000 people have been dying in Michigan traffic crashes each year–another 75,000 are injured annually.

While only southeast Michigan made the national report, fatal pedestrian crashes touch every part of the state.

While only southeast Michigan made the national report, fatal pedestrian crashes touch every part of the state.

Outside of crashes, the impacts of air quality, stress, and simply sitting for long periods mean that an over-emphasis on cars and a lack of other options contributes to heart and respiratory diseases, reducing life expectancy.

Seniors, people of color, and low-income Michiganders are at greatest risk of being killed by drivers, and also tend to have the most exposure to hazardous air quality. Placing the greatest harms of our focus on roads on the groups of residents least benefiting from them adds injury to injury.

So let’s fix the roads–strategically, and for everyone.

We know that the roads do need work, of course. (After all, I drafted this while waiting for a dented rim and warped tire to be replaced…for the second time in as many years.)

What we need is to not pour money in the roads for the sake of action, but to ensure any transportation fixes are strategically and comprehensively improving Michigan’s health, economic opportunity, equity, and budget outlooks at the same time as we’re digging into our repaving backlog.

This means that at all levels–state, MPO, county, and local–we should,

Focusing too narrowly on the area between the curbs without thinking about the whole system can lead us into trouble.

Focusing too narrowly on the area between the curbs without thinking about the whole system can lead us into trouble.

  • Place a moratorium on any new roads, lanes, bridges, or interchanges, including those previously authorized–and using any reconstruction project as opportunities for road diets that reduce, rather than increase, the amount of asphalt we’re on the hook to maintain in the future.
  • Focus all business development incentives on locations already served by streets, and that offer transit, walking, or biking access to workforce: we can’t afford to “win” new business development in greenfield locations that add to our maintenance burden.
  • Ensure that all work on our roads is looked at for opportunities to serve multiple transportation needs, not just pavement condition. A mill/overlay project may not trigger legal obligations for new curb ramps or crosswalks, but the marginal cost of adding those improvements to an existing project may bring substantial benefits to equity, accessibility, and quality of place.
  • Use “tactical placemaking” to test-drive different options for our streets in advance of any construction project. Whether very temporary “pop-up” events or longer-term pilot projects, these let us experiment inexpensively before we commit plans to concrete. Where these pilots demonstrate that right-of-way can be rededicated from pavement to green infrastructure or pedestrian space, they can offer huge benefits over time, potentially even with reduced up-front costs. (And where they don’t, well, they didn’t cost much.)
  • Invest appropriately in all parts of our transportation system. It may seem counter-intuitive to apply limited dollars to transit, or sidewalks, or bike infrastructure in the name of fixing the roads, but those investments can pay off by providing access to destinations in our communities more efficiently (and equitably) than spending all of our money on roads, while also contributing to the sense of place that makes our communities worth living in.

If we don’t do these things, but instead just try to pay our way to smooth pavement, then we will end up making a massive investment in “fixing” our roads that bakes in the current liabilities and inequities, guaranteeing ourselves even an even greater repair bill the next time. Let’s not make that mistake.

New ways of getting around our communities keep popping up: Lyft now claims to be available for ridehailing statewide, bikeshare systems are active in half a dozen cities (and under consideration in others), and now…

Electric scooter sharing has arrived in Michigan.

Bird scooter photo from Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons license https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bird_scooters_on_the_sidewalk_in_San_Jose.jpg

You heard me right: scooters.

Last week, Bird Rides Inc. deployed e-scooters in parts of downtown Detroit. Anyone (with a smartphone and credit card) can take a ride by using Bird’s app to find and unlock an available scooter, zooming to their destination at up to 15mph, and then leaving the scooter anywhere it won’t be a nuisance for the next rider to find and use.

Like some bike-share systems, these scooters are “dockless,” which means they can be picked up and dropped off anywhere, rather than only at defined (and costly) stations. Not only does this mean scooters could end up in odd or problematic places, it means the companies deploying them don’t need to do any construction or make significant capital investment, so may skip even a conversation with municipal staff—just, poof, one day the vehicles suddenly appear around town.

It’s too soon to have a good understanding of what impacts these vehicles will have—but it’s exactly the right time to think about nudging those impacts in the right direction. Before e-scooters (or e-bikes) hit your downtown is the best time to think about managing any downsides if (when?) they arrive locally, and to push them to improve mobility broadly within your community.

Fortunately, resources are emerging that can help communities navigate these issues:

  • Alex Baca recently wrote a primer on dockless bikeshare for CityLab and a followup Q & A with BetterBikeShare.org—both aimed at city officials trying to wrap their heads around these systems, and most of which is immediately applicable to e-scooters deployments as well. Baca formerly ran a bikeshare system in Cleveland, so has hands-on operational experience with some versions of these modes.
  • NACTO just released version 1 of their Guidelines for the Regulation and Management of Shared Active Transportation, which outlines recommended standards for issues like operation of vehicles in the public right-of-way, vehicle maintenance, provision of usage data, parking expectations, and programs to provide equitable access to low-income residents.
  • Detroit’s DPW has issued initial guidance on how the city’s existing nuisance and right-of-way codes are likely to apply to e-scooters, including expectations around their maintenance, placement, and use, with the caveat that this first interpretation is likely to change as the city gains direct experience with the vehicles.

That caveat, “subject to change at any time and without notice as understanding and experience continues to develop,” is a good summary of the overall approach communities will need to take towards these new transportation devices. Let us know what challenges your community encounters!

With metro Detroit’s Regional Transit Authority once more debating whether to pursue funding at the ballot in 2018, some old questions have been revived: won’t it just be confusing to riders to have new rapid transit lines operating under a different banner than the existing local buses? Shouldn’t the existing local systems be merged or absorbed by the RTA before it creates any new services?

SPUR's 2015 Seamless Transit report maps the Bay Area's constellation of transit systems and outlines recommendations for continued improvement.

SPUR’s 2015 Seamless Transit report maps the Bay Area’s constellation of transit systems and outlines recommendations for continued improvement.

Well, no.

It turns out that an easy-to-use regional transit network doesn’t have to be a single system—just a relatively seamless system.

My family recently had a taste of this when we spent a week in the San Francisco Bay Area, visiting family and friends. When we arrived, our host handed us two house keys, and two Clipper Cards. While the Bay Area has almost two dozen overlapping local transit systems, these magical cards let us move around without having to worry about which system we were using—at least as long as we had money on them.

Left: refillable, durable, nearly magical token works across 20 connecting systems. Right: flimsy single-system paper cards with finicky magnetic stripes.

Left: the Bay Area’s refillable, durable, nearly magical token works across 20 connecting systems.
Right: my home transit agency’s flimsy single-system paper cards with finicky magnetic stripes.

BART subways? Tap the Clipper card at the turnstile. AC Transit (Oakland/Berkeley) buses? Tap the Clipper card at the farebox. Muni (City of San Francisco) bus? Tap. I could even unlock a bike from the Ford GoBike bikesharing stations with a tap of my card. No need to worry which system I was boarding, or if I had the right transfer for each system, or whether a day pass was more cost-effective than individual ride fares, or exact change, or whatever, just tap, and it’s all handled automagically.

With access to transit apps or Google Maps, planning a trip is similarly seamless, even with multiple transfers: take an AC Transit bus to the BART station, ride under the Bay, transfer to a Muni bus to reach a destination—all presented as easily as driving directions via Waze or similar, and with real-time updates about whether things were running on time. (This particular step relies on access to a smartphone or computer, which is a limitation—I didn’t take an opportunity to navigate only via paper maps and posted signs.)

It’s these user-experience issues that make a difference, not the underlying legal structure of the agencies running the transit system. And they are strengths of the RTA that’s been created for metro Detroit. Rather than waiting on a consensus on the herculean task of merging transit systems, the RTA took on tasks to make the system more seamless: a single transit map, planning for a Clipper-like single-fare card system, planning for universal dial-a-ride dispatch, creating the RefleX regional express bus services.

Ford's GoBike system is quick and easy to use--once you travel 3 time zones away from Dearborn.

Ford’s GoBike system is quick and easy to use–once you travel 3 time zones away from Dearborn.

As a transit rider, it’s these steps that would provide the most immediate benefit—I get once more excited what a (funded) RTA could do for southeast Michigan every time I visit a place that’s doing it right.

And, while the need for moving easily among multiple transit providers is less acute in Michigan’s other metro areas, the idea of seamless systems is still worth keeping in mind as we consider how to integrate new travel modes like ridehailing, bikeshare, and autonomous vehicles into our communities.

I’ve had a firehose-drinking few weeks of thinking about how connected and automated driving could affect our communities. “Could” remains the operative word, at least for self-driving cars, since the buzz still outweighs the reality by a significant factor.

"Gartner's Hype Cycle" for 2016 shows autonomous vehicles (yellow arrow) just about at the top of the "peak of inflated expectations."

“Gartner’s Hype Cycle” for 2016 shows autonomous vehicles (yellow arrow) just about at the top of the “peak of inflated expectations.”

Capital Conference 2017

At the League’s Capital Conference, Harry Lightsey from General Motors shared time-lapse video of one of GM’s vehicles navigating the streets of San Francisco, apparently in autonomous mode. (Caution: If you get motion sick easily, maybe skip the video.)  Nicole DuPuis from National League of Cities followed with thoughts from NLC’s Future of the City work.

We followed with a breakout to talk about the hot-off-the-presses report from PSC and CAR to Prosperity Region 9, outlining near-term issues that our communities need to grapple with. These range from figuring out what training police officers need to handle a potential traffic stop or crash involving an automated vehicle, to completely rethinking parking (how much, where, and at what price?), to understanding the role of public transit agencies in ensuring equitable access as the technology changes.

Briefing with MSU’s new CANVAS research center

The following week, I was invited to speak at a Great Lakes International Trade and Transport Hub briefing at MSU. Several faculty in MSU’s engineering college presented on their CANVAS–Connected and Autonomous Networked Vehicles for Active Safety–research center. Other presentations ranged from Andreas Mai’s V@S model estimating $5 Trillion in global value from CAV over the next decade, to the Stratford, Ontario, city-wide connected mobility pilot projects.

My own comments included a summary of the Region 9 findings. More importantly, though, I focused on the role of policy in shaping the impacts of automated driving—just as policy decisions, from engineering standards to real estate finance programs, played a huge role in determining what personal automobiles meant for our communities.

Technology has a significant impact on the shape of our communities--but the policy context that technology operates in can matter even more.

Technology has a significant impact on the shape of our communities–but the policy context that technology operates in can matter even more.

Future Cities regional workshops

Yesterday, I attended the first of a series of regional meetings that Center for Automotive Research is running on behalf of MDOT and MEDC, examining the impacts of connected vehicles, automated driving, and “mobility services” such as ZipCar, Uber/Lyft, and bikeshare.

CAR are the automotive experts, and cautioned that “level 5” general-purpose automated driving is still far enough over the horizon that they can’t make any reasonable predictions about when it will arrive, let along become widespread. Mobility services, however, are widespread in larger cities now, and both connected vehicle and driver-assist technology (such as lane-keeping and blind-spot detection) is becoming more common on new vehicles, so these may be more critical to plan for now.

One “fun” fact from the CAR presentation were estimates that full deployment of connected vehicle tech could save up to 22% of fuel usage even before hybrid or electric tech or increased CAFE standards are considered. Considering how heavily our transportation funding is based in the gas tax, this could pose a Big Problem by eroding maintenance budgets that much more quickly.

New readings look downstream

Two good pieces came out last week as well, on different facets of CAVs:

  • CityObservatory dives into CAVs, traffic, and road funding. “Given that we think that many of the persistent problems with our current transportation system stem from getting the prices wrong, we think that the way that autonomous vehicles will change the cost and price of urban transportation will be key to shaping their impacts.” They suggest that a VMT model with “surge pricing” that considers where and when the vehicle is driving could be the best way to fund our transportation system and manage congestion as ridesharing and automated driving become more popular.
  • Benedict Evans, a tech venture capitalist, thinks down some rabbit holes about the effects of both automated driving and auto electrification: e.g. if electric vehicles become widespread (or AVs can fuel themselves without you), your neighborhood may no longer need gas stations—and the convenience stores attached to those gas stations may go away too, without a captive user base of people buying gas. And, “well over half of US tobacco sales happens at gas stations, and there are meaningful indications that removing distribution reduces consumption,” meaning reduced car crashes might not be the only health benefit of electric and autonomous vehicles.

What’s next? Watch carefully, plan flexibly.

Where the Capital Conference and MSU events surveyed some potential effects over the next 1-10 years, the CityObservatory and Evans pieces demonstrate just how far-reaching the impacts could be over the longer term.

I’d be a sucker to say I knew what these outcomes will be, though, despite (or because of?) all of the above. My expectation is that we’ll start seeing semi-automated trucking platoons on our interstates and ridehailing/taxi-style or micro-transit automated services in larger urban areas in the 5-10 year timeframe, and we’ll need to remain agile in figuring out what combination of directing, managing, and adapting to the impacts of these changes is possible.

As envisioned in this Swedish video, CAVs and placemaking can be very compatible, if we prioritize space for people over space for vehicles.

As envisioned in this Swedish video, CAVs and placemaking can be very compatible, if we prioritize space for people over space for vehicles.

Meanwhile, carshare (like ZipCar or GM’s new Maven), ridehailing (like Uber or Lyft), and bikeshare are options available now that can support local placemaking efforts to expand transportation choices available to residents–and can help shape the travel habits that we bring to automated driving.