The building where John Abraham works looks like a snapshot from the future. The 25,000-square-foot facility, known as the Communication and Technology Center (COMTEC), is the headquarters of Macomb County’s Road Department Traffic Operations Center. Staff members process a dizzying array of information from numerous monitoring and dispatch stations, including an enormous 20-by-50-foot video wall grid that’s connected to a network of 250 traffic cameras.
“Through the network, we are watching where the backups are and changing our traffic signal timings from here remotely,” says Abraham, the county’s director of traffic and operations. “I feel like somebody who’s helping a lot of people when people don’t realize they are being helped.”
Abraham is helping Macomb County become a national leader in mobility infrastructure. But as is the case for many of the individuals who make up metro Detroit’s mobility talent pool, he didn’t get there overnight.
A native of Mysore, India, Abraham grew up with a strong interest in math and science. He earned his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in 1989 and then moved to the United States to further his studies. He got a master’s in civil engineering from West Virginia University and a Ph.D. in transportation and highway engineering from Wayne State University.
In the mid-’90s, Abraham got a job as a traffic engineer in Troy. There he worked with one of the most advanced traffic signal systems at the time, which used “smart” intersection technology that could sense traffic in each direction and change signal times automatically. Later, he was hired as the transportation manager for Anaheim, Calif., where he was responsible for coordinating traffic for well-known sites including Disneyland.
An employee of Macomb County since 2014, his current job involves a mixture of planning, coordination, outreach, and responding to issues and citizen concerns. He’s responsible for keeping up county roadways and signage, operating more than 740 traffic signals, and overseeing the county’s Intelligent Transportation System network.
On top of that, he’s now in the process of installing 300 roadside units that will serve as the backbone of Macomb’s connected vehicle infrastructure. The units can communicate with onboard vehicle systems and alert COMTEC dispatchers about crashes.
Abraham says variety is “kind of the beauty of the job.”
“In one day I can go from talking to a resident who may have a concern about somebody speeding in their neighborhood, all the way to talking with Ford about connected vehicles,” he says.
Working in southeast Michigan is a plus for Abraham as well.
“Detroit is the mecca for mobility,” he says. “We have all the (original equipment manufacturers) in this area, Tier 1 suppliers, and everything related to mobility, which is all looking at the future and trying to do new things. I don’t think I could have had the same opportunities anywhere else on Earth.”
From event planning to promoting mobility alternatives
Vittoria Valenti has a very different relationship with the mobility field. As Bedrock Detroit‘s Mobility Team Leader, she’s responsible for getting people to think about (and try out) transportation alternatives.
“When I think of mobility, I don’t necessarily think of it from the tech or the engineering perspective,” she says. “For me, it’s thinking about mobility as a service: how we can better connect people to other people and opportunities to make their life easier through the use of these technologies.”
Her target audience? Employees of the Rock Ventures family, an umbrella of companies that includes Bedrock as well as Quicken Loans. Roughly 18,000 people from around southeast Michigan commute to Detroit on a regular basis to work for these businesses.
Valenti’s job is to encourage those employees to think beyond driving a car alone to work, and to consider alternative transit modes like buses, bikes, and ridesharing services. Valenti says the effort is beneficial to Rock Ventures because alternative commuting options can help lower stress and raise morale on the job while easing congestion downtown, where Rock Ventures’ properties are located.
To achieve these ends, Valenti oversees multiple mobility initiatives. Bedrock is making use of the smart commute app Luum to inform employees about and connect them with different transit options. It’s also taken an active role supporting and promoting Scoop, an app-based carpooling service that recently debuted in southeast Michigan. Beyond these two apps, Bedrock also runs May Mobility autonomous shuttles for employees in downtown Detroit. And it’s studying how to better integrate bike parking at its family of companies’ buildings.
Valenti is new in her role as Bedrock’s mobility team leader and her path to the position has been somewhat unconventional. She majored in business at Central Michigan University with a concentration in event management and health services. She came to the Rock Ventures family of companies in 2012, initially working with Quicken Loans’ event management team.
After three years, Valenti became a project manager with the Quicken Loans Community Fund, and over time she increasingly began to take on mobility projects. When the new mobility team leader position opened up this earlier this year, she leapt at the opportunity. She’s glad she did and encourages others who are considering careers in mobility to investigate what the field has to offer.
“If you’re hesitant, take a chance on it, because there’s a lot more opportunity than you would initially think,” Valenti says. “If it’s something that you’re interested in, network. Find people that are working in the industry that are interested in talking to you. It’s worth taking the jump.”
Education on the move
Loren Townes Jr.’s path into the mobility sector is a little surprising, even to him.
A college relations coordinator for Washtenaw Community College (WCC), he works closely with the school’s Advanced Transportation Center to educate potential students about opportunities in the field.
“My job is developing relationships with high school partners and leaders within community organizations and industry to expose the next generation, whether that be high school students or adult prospective students, (to) benefits that are associated with mobility,” Townes says.
Townes initially studied pre-law in college before taking a break from higher learning, during which he developed a passion for marketing. He began studying business at WCC in 2013.
While working two other jobs and attending WCC, he ended up taking a part-time position as a WCC student ambassador. After graduating he was offered a job as college relations specialist with the college’s division of advanced technology. From there, he transitioned to a temporary full-time position where he began organizing a tech night to help prospective students and their parents learn more about promising tech careers. After doubling WCC’s high school and business partnerships, Townes was appointed to his current role.
While his job entails a variety of duties, perhaps the most intriguing involves programming for a National Science Foundation grant focused on lightweight manufacturing and mobility technology.
Under the auspices of the grant, WCC brings high school students to its campus to engage in faculty-led workshops about lightweight manufacturing principles and how they apply to connected and autonomous vehicles. The college spent over $9 million in 2017 to purchase new equipment and technology so students could have a hands-on experience learning about mobility careers. And it’s also created a curriculum for high schoolers to continue these studies in their respective schools.
“We’re doing something that is very nontraditional that you won’t necessarily be able to find at a lot of community colleges,” Townes says. “… We have everything right here that’s cutting-edge. We offer prospective students an affordable opportunity and a flexible one in terms of scheduling their classes and completing their coursework.”
What’s more, Townes notes that the Advanced Transportation Center’s programming and equipment are informed by an advisory board of transportation and mobility industry leaders who let WCC know exactly what sort of training they’re looking for in prospective employees.
Townes sees mobility as the “wave of the future,” and he says people who are interested in working in the field should move quickly to take advantage of current opportunities.
“Mobility isn’t going anywhere, but you won’t always be able to catch the wave because the ease of entry is becoming more competitive,” he says. “So now is a prime opportunity to get on board. Don’t miss the wave.”
Vittoria Valenti and Loren Townes Jr. photos by Steve Koss. John Abraham photos by Doug Coombe.