Driven – Mobility Moment: Mark de la Vergne, City of Detroit

From simple transit solutions to future-focused mobility, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes right now in the city of Detroit to make getting around easier, faster, and safer. And some of the initiatives are getting the private sector involved.

We’ve been lucky to have here in the city partners that are interested in learning this and learning together, so that we can sit down and we can better understand where they’re coming from. They can better understand where we’re coming from. And we can start to develop solutions that we really want to pilot, and potentially see how we can scale, and then ideally how it might actually work in other cites as well.

That was Mark de la Vergne, chief of mobility innovation for the City of Detroit. He’s my guest today on Driven’s Mobility Moments Podcast. Stay tuned because we’re talking about pilots and initiatives designed for Detroit and beyond. I’m your host Claire Charlton.

Hello Mark and welcome to Mobility Moments podcast, how are you today?

I’m doing great. Thanks for having me on.

So Mark, recently in your role as chief of mobility innovation for the City of Detroit you participated in a panel discussion called Digi.City Detroit. And the discussion focused on digital infrastructure to create smart cities. Can you share some key take away messages from that discussion?

Sure. So the main thing that we’re trying to do here in the city of Detroit is use technology, use innovation to address real issues that are facing Detroiters. And whether that’s with regards to traffic, whether that’s regards to taking the bus, whether that’s regards to just simply crossing the street, that’s really what we’re trying to do is to use these new types of technologies and these new types of services to layer onto existing ways that we’re going about addressing challenges.

And so from a mobility perspective what does it meant to be a smart city, as you see it?

Sure, it can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. But again for us, what we’re trying to do is not just do things so that it’s a shiny thing where we do a press conference, but it’s actually helping people out. And to do that you really need to really understand the problem before you build solutions.

We’re doing a lot of work on the transit end focusing on getting folks to jobs. The way that we’re going about this is to basically go out and talk to people and really understand the frictions that exist in the system today. And as we come up with some ideas and hypotheses to test those out with the potential customers, so that when we’re ready to go out and pilot, we have a sense of where some of the challenges might lie so that we can see one, if that actually happens, and then two, how can we address that. Because when we take a lot of these pilots out there they’re going to be refined to a point, but there are things that we’re going to need to learn. And what we want to be able to learn is one, does this work, and two, if this works how do we scale it? Because all of these solutions and whether it’s a new type of service, or a new type of technology, have to be able to work for all Detroiters.

And so, it seems in the mobility industry there are so many different projects that the city could try. And it’s almost an exercise in self-restraint so that you don’t overcommit. And I want to give you the opportunity to talk about that mindful approach to mobility decision making, and the way in which you engage the citizens of Detroit for their feedback. How does that happen?

Sure. That’s been one the things that’s been a hard lesson for me is just being sure that we’re having focus on a few things versus trying to tackle everything. Because there’s lots of ideas out there and lots of different things you can do, but ideally when it comes down to it we need to be really responding to our constituents and addressing issues that they might want to see us do, and making it easier, safer, and more affordable to get around.

We’ve gone about two ways of really understanding issues. One is, our planning and development team have been doing neighborhood plans across the city, and doing a great level of outreach is part of that. Just being able to take all that input in and saying, on this corridor, on the northwest side folks are looking to create a more walkable corridor. And potentially say beyond just traditional street design where other potential solutions could we be using to enhance that? But then we’re also doing a lot of one-on-one interviews. And some of the different efforts that we’ve done to just go out and talk to specific Detroiters to understand what they go through on a daily basis, and how they might want to see things improved.

Do you have an example of a common problem that residents are saying to you over and over again, and a mobility related solution that you’re putting into place?

Sure. One is just simply “where’s my bus?” Because I think that’s just a common phrase if you’re out standing waiting for the bus and just wanting to get that information. And we’ve got a number of different ways that we’re trying to address that issue from an internal technology upgrade at DDOT to improve the accuracy of the GPS on our buses.

We’ve worked with an app called Transit App to consolidate all the transit information from all the providers in the Detroit region into one single app. And then finally beginning to look to see, how do we start to provide that information publicly so that folks who don’t have a cell phone or don’t have the app then know how to essentially get that information online that we’re just providing that information. So trying to figure out a number of ways, but then also starting to put just simply time tables and maps at our bus shelters as well. Addressing that through both traditional means as well as using technology to do so, so we’re just getting that information out as many ways as possible.

Cool. Okay, so let’s talk about a specific smart intersection that I’ve been reading about. So, it’s actually a set of connected intersections on Larned, is it a two mile stretch close to the Detroit Riverfront. It’s being tested with the help of a company called Miovision, what’s happening there?

Well, Miovision’s been a great vendor for us because similar to the way that we try and listen to our constituents is the client they listen to us. We were working with them on addressing an issue with regards to just being able to provide remote access to know if your traffic signal is on or off because that was one of the things that we were struggling a little bit with. But we started to talk about, these are the things that we would like to see traffic signals do. And obviously we want to see it control traffic as best as possible, but there’s so many other things that go on in an intersection. There’s a lot of counting numbers, like there’s a number of vehicles that go through, the number of pedestrians that go through, the number of bicycles that go through.

But we also wanted to better understand not just the what, but also the how. Like how are vehicles traveling through? How are pedestrians traveling through? How are bicycles traveling through? And how can we make it safer for all those modes to get through the intersection? As well as starting to use the traffic signals in a smart way to communicate with our emergency vehicles and our buses to allow them to get more priority at the intersections. So that our buses aren’t waiting at a red light when they could have just gotten an additional few seconds of green time to get through and improve their operations.

We’ve been really beginning to look at the intersections and the traffic signals as not just a way to go red, yellow, green but to better understand and eventually make actionable from all the data that they’re going to be providing on how we can just make it easier for all modes of transportation to get around.

And so, what I’ve read about this particular software being used in this initiative is that it’s an open platform rather than proprietary. I imagine that is an important detail for a flexible smart infrastructure in Detroit.

Yeah, and I think that’s one of the things I think if you talk to Beth Niblock who’s our CIO will really talk a lot about how important that is. We start to see much more technology in the right of way that the need for openness, so that vendor A and vendor B, while they might have different products, those two products can work together to build a better solution.

I think that we don’t want to get into a sense of where we’re closed off and we’re stuck with one thing forever, and basically dependent on that one vendor to do things. Because there’s just so much innovation happening on the private side, we want to make sure that as new things come on top of it we can just keep layering solutions on top of each other and getting solutions to work with each other versus aside from each other.

And so, basic infrastructure is a super-hot topic in Detroit and across Michigan, and so is funding. So let’s talk about the value of the private sector when it comes to partnering with the city of Detroit to fund some of these mobility initiatives.

Sure. I think that everyone in this space, public and private, is beginning to just try and understand what the future holds. And you’ve got players in the private sector who have not traditionally worked with city as a client, or government as a client beyond just selling something to them, but not working around the topic of mobility. So for everybody it’s learning. From us it’s learning of what are the potential benefits of doing a new type of project? But then also thinking through what’s the ROI on that, what’s the benefit cost, what capacity do we need in a different way or expertise?

And then from the private sector is these new types of products or are these new types of services that they’re developing something that can be a real thing that people will buy and they can make money on? That’s really what we’ve been doing really lucky to have here in the city is partners that are interested in learning this and learning together. So that we can sit down and we can better understand where they’re coming from, they can better understand where we’re coming from, and start to develop solutions that we really want to pilot. And potentially see how we can scale and then ideally how it might actually work in other cities as well.

So can you share some reasons to be optimistic about the city of Detroit as it moves to become a smarter city with a mobility focused infrastructure?

Sure. So, the mayor is very committed to the very simple idea of making it easier, safer, and more affordable to get around the city. You can see that from a lot of the investments that we’ve made. From adding more service to DDOT and adding more buses as well, and different types of investments that are going on there. To the street bond project that we have here in the city, to invest money in our commercial corridors, to just the way that we’ve now begun to reorganize how we deal with mobility and transportation as a city internally.

Moving forward we’re going to have a lot more initiatives beginning to come out. And those initiatives will be very heavy on traditional improvements. And whether it’s repaving streets to redesigning intersections, to adding more transit service. But with all those things we’ll be adding on a layer of innovation. So, on transit we’ll be adding things with making it easier to pay using your cell phone, or adding microtransit to complement fixed-route transit. And then with traffic safety going beyond just redesigning intersections but starting to use data to really inform how we’re measuring, and how we’re evaluating, and then how we’re actually prioritizing intersections with regard to safety or traffic operations. Similarly, using connected technology to improve transit operations, to improve emergency vehicle response times. So we’re looking at this from all angles.

We’re not sort of putting all of our chips in say … we’re pretty confident that this is what’s in the future so we’re just going to do all this, but we’re also not putting our head in the sand and saying, this is how we’ve done things for 50 years and this is how we’re going to keep doing things. We’re basically looking at this to say, how do we piece all of this together to create the outcomes that we’re looking for?

So you mentioned using micro transit and I imagine that this is one of the first mile last mile initiatives that Detroit is looking at. Are there others that you can share with us?

Yeah, so we have a pilot right now with Lyft addressing first mile last mile issues during the overnight period on one bus route. We’ll be evaluating that to better understand how that might be able to expand to all the bus routes that we run 24-hour service on. And then we’re going to begin to evolve that over in time.

Our next set of pilots will be focusing on getting folks to jobs, and address it, but not doing it as a one off but more of aggregating the demand a little bit more. And ideally we want to evolve that over time so that as technology like dynamic routing begins to get more sophisticated we can bring that into the equation. And then as well as with autonomous vehicles saying, how do we start to integrate that into these pilots? And then as the pilots themselves mature then we say, how do we start to scale this service, and what makes sense and what doesn’t make sense?

Thanks so much Mark, it’s been a real pleasure talking with you.

Thanks for having me on.

Thanks for joining me for this episode of Driven’s Mobility Moments Podcast. There’s a lot more about how the Detroit region is leading the world in mobility at Join us there and subscribe to our newsletter. And listen to our new Startup Spotlight Podcasts too.

I’m Claire Charlton, see you soon.