Dustin Walsh (Crain's Detroit Business)
Friday, October 9, 2020
As the states prepares to begin a viability study for the planned 40-mile autonomous corridor between Detroit and Ann Arbor, the question of mobility's role in creating social, economic and racial equity remains.
Mobility projects throughout the state have been built on the promise of delivering new services to those who need it the most. But as the region's auto sector continues to double down on autonomous vehicles, the path to a more equitable future is unclear.
Experts in the state tackled the topic during Crain's Detroit Homecoming event last month and the consensus is that mobility can deliver on its pledge but equity is not a foregone conclusion.
"When we want to talk about new economic opportunities, I believe (Detroit) can also become a model for the country on how we grapple with civil and social unrest along with a pandemic and an economic crisis," David Woessner, executive vice president of corporate development and regulatory affairs for Phoenix-based Local Motors Industries said in a virtual panel discussion on the issue. "How we truly create opportunities for not just one type of demographic in certain areas that's what this city and this industry can continue to grapple with ... talking about equity and how you create an equitable approach for the future of manufacturing mobility along the way."
Racial equity in manufacturing has been at the forefront for decades — since white flight began in the late 1940s. As white families fled to the suburbs, businesses followed. Between 1947 and 1963, 25 new auto plants were built by General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler — all in the suburbs. The deindustrialization of the city led to more than 143,000 job losses.
The city has never recovered those jobs, but leaders hope that could change as projects like the mobility corridor along Michigan Avenue can create a more connected region.
A 2017 study by the board, funded by JPMorgan Chase & Co., revealed that Detroit had 258,807 jobs in 2014 and a population of 706,663. That's only 0.37 jobs for every resident. Connecting Detroit and the suburbs remains critical.
"Sometimes good jobs have come for us but mobility and innovation haven't lifted up the people in the city of Detroit itself," Jessica Robinson, co-founder and board member of Detroit-based nonprofit Michigan Mobility Institute, which is set on training workers for new jobs in the mobility space, told Crain's in an interview. "I do think that mobility innovation has an opportunity to raise up communities and connect them ... but it's not necessarily a given."
The mobility industry believes it can play a role in providing cheap options for commuters, opening up more equity to job holders and seekers. The poorest 20 percent of Americans spend 40.2 percent of their take-home pay on transportation, while those who make $71,898 and greater only spend 13.1 percent, according to a 2018 report from The Greenlining Institute.
But beyond helping people access jobs, the industry is focused on creating jobs, and where those jobs are located is critical to the region. For the Mobility Institute, equity begins with training to augment a local mobility workforce, Robinson said.
The nonprofit estimates autonomous vehicles and electrification alone will create 120,000 new jobs in the U.S. over the next 10 years and the demand for these jobs is outpacing the supply of qualified college graduates by sixfold.
"We don't have a choice; we have to figure it out," Robinson said. "The accelerating pace of the job change for this industry ... these are good-paying jobs and they can go somewhere else in many cases. They can even be done remotely. We need these skills today."
Mobility's role in job creation can extend beyond its own sector — or at least that's the hope of the Michigan Avenue project. The 40-mile project will include communities along Michigan Avenue and I-94 in Wayne and Washtenaw counties and include up to 12 Opportunity Zones in which investors can park investment dollars for tax breaks.
Economic development to create equity is part of the formula.
Real estate investors lined up to develop properties along Woodward Avenue ahead of the build-out of the privately funded QLine light rail route. Investors spent more than $1 billion on properties along the 6.6-mile route ahead of its opening in May 2017.
But whether that investment translated to an economic boost for city residents is not clear.
"From what I've seen ... mobility infrastructure investment, whether that's rail, bus rapid transit or a corridor like this often does have an economic development benefit," Robinson said. " ... I think it's not a necessity that it has those same community benefits, but it can."
The article was originally published on crainsdetroit.com
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