Detroit plans a ‘sandbox’ for mobility companies. Will residents benefit?
Southwest Detroit could become a test site for self-driving cars and other transportation technologies as part of the city’s multi-million dollar partnership with Ford Motor Co. and the state of Michigan to create fertile ground for mobility companies.
The City Council is scheduled to vote next week on an ordinance to designate a “transportation innovation zone” where companies can fast-track mobility technology projects. Billed as a first-of-its-kind “sandbox” in the Midwest, the zone would allow Detroit’s Office of Mobility Innovation to streamline the permitting process for pilot projects within a proposed area around the former Michigan Central Station in Corktown.
“Industry is moving so quickly; they’re innovating every single day,” Tim Slusser, chief of mobility innovation, said during a presentation to the council this month. “We really need a model that allows us – at the best of our ability – to match that speed of innovation while taking all reasonable precautions to ensure the safety and proper vetting of these types of solutions for the permits.”
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City officials say the ordinance will give Detroit a competitive advantage to recruit start ups and create jobs in a growing sector of the transportation industry, and could create solutions to traffic problems in Detroit. But some community organizations worry the innovation zone would only benefit companies and want a commitment to put disabled Detroiters and residents who struggle to access transportation at the forefront.
“The benefits to companies is clear here, it is promised to them, but the benefit to the community is kind of a question mark, because we don’t know exactly what types of technology are actually going to be deployed and who they’re going to benefit specifically,” said Kaci Messeder, a policy analyst with Detroit Disability Power, a nonprofit advocacy group.
The innovation zone has long been a pillar of plans to bring 5,000 jobs to a 30-acre mobility campus in southwest Detroit. Ford is investing $740 million to remake the train station into a hub for tech entrepreneurship and enhance the surrounding area with accessible green space, transit options and amenities. The innovation zone would be bounded by Grand River Avenue, the Lodge Freeway, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Fisher Freeway.
If passed, the ordinance allows companies within the zone to obtain permits, licenses or other authorizations from the city’s Office of Mobility Innovation instead of the Buildings, Safety, Engineering and Environmental Department.
Slusser said having his office lead the permitting process will make it easier for smaller companies that don’t have the resources to navigate the city’s complex regulations. It also allows for more flexible permitting, Slusser said, since new technologies may not fit within current definitions.
“The pace of innovation in this industry is just astonishing, and it is outpacing the regulatory environment,” Slusser said.
“This is for the little guy, this is for the startups, this is for the Black and brown innovators,” Slusser added. “The big players can already navigate the process. For the little ones, a six-to-eight month permitting process can mean the difference between whether or not that company exists.”
State documents show future investments rely on Detroit establishing the innovation zone. The state of Michigan committed to invest $126 million to support the envisioned “innovation district,” and already approved $207 million in tax breaks and a $7.5 million economic development grant. It’s also a component of the state’s 2022 electric vehicle plan, which describes the zone as having “streamlined permitting access for testing real-world mobility and electrification technology applications.”
Two-thirds of the City Council – six of its nine members – must vote in favor of the ordinance amendment for it to pass. Council Member Coleman Young II asked his colleagues on Tuesday to delay the decision for one week so he could meet with organizers from Detroit Disability Power. BridgeDetroit could not reach Young this week for comment.
Messeder said she’s encouraged that Young postponed the vote to set up a meeting with her organization. Messeder said the group plans to meet with Young on Monday and wants to see more transparency around proposed permits, and consultation with the Office Disability Affairs before approval.
“Our community is typically left out in normally-timed processes let alone something that’s fast-tracked and only a few key people will be assessing the permits and approving them,” Messeder said. “There’s really not a clear process for any of our community members to come in and comment on that.”
Messeder also flagged a line in the proposed ordinance which states the city can issue a permit even if public places or the public right of way are obstructed.
“One of the lines, at least to me, reads like obstruction of public spaces is allowed, which is our primary concern,” Messeder said. “We’ve seen scooters across the city left across sidewalks and for people who have mobility aids it’s just as much of a barrier as a curb. Where is the protection from that type of situation?”
Stephen Handschu, a blind man and longtime Detroiter, talked with BridgeDetroit while riding in a Lyft to a medical appointment. He’s among a vocal group of residents who have complained to the council about subpar transportation services for disabled Detroiters. The public bus system is unreliable, Handschu said, but Detroit shouldn’t look to companies to privatize services like it did with Transdev, a paratransit contractor marred by reports of dismal performance.
“I don’t think the City of Detroit should be spending a dime on (the transportation innovation zone) because the City of Detroit doesn’t have enough money to make the buses run,” Handschu said.
Lisa Franklin, founder of Warriors on Wheels of Metropolitan Detroit, said some of the promised benefits sound like “false hopes” and “political grandstanding.” Ruth Johnson, public policy director for Community Development Advocates of Detroit, also expressed concerns with the city’s level of outreach during a November council committee meeting.
“I asked this council, I asked the city not to go forward with the transportation innovation zone unless and until the public, especially people with disabilities, have been involved in all aspects of the proposed amendments planning, permitting safety plans, deployment, evaluation, monitoring and reporting,” Johnson said. “This is a highly risky and dangerous experiment that risks public health and safety. Don’t sacrifice the mobility, the health, the safety and the very lives of people with disability on the altar of the wants of billionaire mobility industry leaders.”
Todd Scott, executive director of the Detroit Greenways Coalition, said his nonprofit organization is “generally supportive” of the proposal. However, he said the city needs to make sure companies are operating within the law. Detroit has had issues with electric scooters, which are not licensed by the city, cluttering sidewalks and causing other problems. Scott said mobility providers sometimes overlook legal requirements out of convenience – Detroit should stand firm on its ability to rein in delivery drones and other kinds of vehicles that could cause chaos, he said.
“We’re all in favor of innovation,” Scott said, “but we just don’t want to open the doors to have a wild west in our public spaces.”
Young has lofty ambitions for potential innovations that could come out of the zone, saying companies like Ford, Google and Trexo Robotics are working on technologies that “helps the blind to see, the deaf to hear, and those who cannot walk to be able to walk.” City officials have not publicly discussed which companies are interested in working within the innovation zone.
“This ordinance, through the establishment of regulation and permitting, provides the pathway for these inventors to come to Detroit and make Detroit a mobility technology center,” Young said Tuesday. “This is a new industry for Detroit, and makes Detroit the epicenter of this new innovative technological development.”
Handschu, who has heard such promises his whole life, said the prospect of curing blindness seems a little far-fetched, to say the least.
“A lot is being driven by the fear of missing out,” added Scott from the greenways coalition. “Yeah, we need to be at the forefront of all this, we need to make this as easy as possible for everybody, but there’s not a whole lot of realism involved in many of these projects.”
Scott said there’s a tendency to focus on new mobility technology while overlooking existing solutions.
“One example I discussed with the city was the lack of investment or focus on e-bikes, but especially e-cargo bikes,” Scott said. “These are a far more effective, faster, year-round solution for last-mile delivery. They don’t require changes in existing laws of (transportation innovation zones). They can operate safely around other users and can create decent entry-level jobs for Detroiters. e-cargo delivery is huge in Europe and even cities like NYC. So why isn’t this given the attention that outsiders with robots are getting?”
LeAaron Foley, director of government and community relations at Lime, said the company is researching ways to make electronic scooters safer and coordinating with Detroit to create protected bike lanes based on Lime’s ridership data. Lime isn’t yet involved in the innovation district, but Foley said the company sees its potential to enhance quality of life in the city.
Council Member Angela Whitfield-Calloway and Council President Mary Sheffield are drafting regulations for electric mobility devices like bicycles, scooters and other types of vehicles. Whitfield-Calloway sent a Monday memo to Slusser recommending that, before approving the transportation innovation zone, the city should first study mobility options in the area and strategies to improve access for seniors and people living with a disability.
The memo states it is “hard to imagine” the zone will provide solutions for average residents, and Detroit should put resources into improving walking, cycling and mass public transport options.
Whitfield-Calloway’s Senior Policy Advisor Ramses Dukes said the innovation zone is a great opportunity for Detroit to become a leader in research and development, but there has to be consideration of improving public transportation and infrastructure that already exists. Dukes said the ordinance is a bit vague in terms of how residents will benefit.
“If we’re thinking about the future of how our cities look and what technologies are going to be on the road, there’s ample research that shows that even though electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles are a better approach than combustion vehicles in our reducing carbon footprint, it’s still is a car on the road,” Dukes said. “We believe that we don’t have the infrastructure, investment and the capacity to continue with this auto-centric approach.”
Dukes said research suggests around 30% of Detroit residents don’t have access to a car, leaving them reliant on imperfect public transportation services.
Slusser says Detroit risks losing a competitive edge if it doesn’t create the innovation zone soon. Last month, the District of Columbia launched its own innovation district and a partnership with Circuit, a company that provides on-demand electric shuttles for short-distance trips. San Jose, California – a city in the heart of Silicon Valley – has experimented with innovation zones since 2014. The latest attempt in 2020 was focused on autonomous vehicle testing and reducing congestion.
There is no cap on the number of permits that can be issued in Detroit, though Slusser said the city expects 10-15 businesses will seek permits each year.
“We have expectations from our partnership with the Michigan Central team that they’ll be looking to fund somewhere in the order of 10 to 12 pilots, which may or may not require a (transportation innovation zone) permit,” Slusser said. “We have a number of other entities that have reached out to us wanting to partner with the City of Detroit to deploy certain mobility related solutions.”
The City Council must be notified before the permits are issued or suspended, according to the ordinance, and before the innovation zone boundary is changed.
Permits are issued for 180 days and can be renewed once by Slusser before requiring the council’s approval for additional extensions. Slusser also has the ability to suspend or revoke permits if needed to protect the public. Permits are not transferable to other companies and can’t be applied in areas outside the innovation zone.
Slusser said the innovation zone boundary could be expanded in the future, if the initiative is successful.
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