Detroit Lags Behind On New Transportation Tech Tools

How does Detroit rate when it comes to new tech tools like Uber and Zipcar that allow users to get around without a car or truck? Unfortunately, while it’s got both of these services, it still has some catching up to do.

In a recent report measuring the availability of new technology-enabled services and tools designed to help people get around without the use of a personal automobile, the Motor City placed 40th out of 70 U.S. cities. Austin, San Francisco and Washington D.C. topped the list, which was put together by the Public Interest Research Group In Michigan (PIRGIM) in collaboration with the Frontier Group.

Their “Innovative Transportation Index” report looked for the presence of 11 different types of technology-enabled improvements like car sharing, ride sharing, ride sourcing, taxi-hailing apps, bike sharing, and different forms of online and real time transit information and ticketing.

Detroit has six of these tools and 10 providers, listed in the graphic below.

PIRGIM organizer Annalise Dobbelstein talked about the benefits of these tech tools during the Feb. 5 release of the PIRGIM report at the Rosa Parks Transit Center in Detroit.

“The emergence of these new technologies enabling transportation options provides more Americans with the freedom to go car-free or have a car-light lifestyle,” she said.

Having fewer cars on the road translates into benefits like decreases in carbon dioxide emissions, fewer health problems linked to automobile exhaust and fewer traffic accident-linked injuries, she told Mode Shift. In Detroit, where so many residents are reliant on public and private transportation services, it also makes getting around the city easier for folks who lack a vehicle but have access to technology like a cheap smartphone and Wi-Fi. The event also highlighted a new service called MetroEZRide that's scheduled to launch this October. The provider will fill holes in the existing public transit system.

“We mean to create a system that’s a public-private and faith-based partnership that will get people from the ends of those bus lines to the places they work,” said spokesman Jason Robinson.

MetroEZRide will make use of church facilities and vehicles to transport passengers. Riders will be able to access the system through a network of safe neighborhood pick-up and drop-off points. Fares will be paid using an RFID cashless pay system. Initially, the service will limit itself to assisting people who work for a list of designated employers.

A Detroit Rider’s Assessment

Detroit resident Dan Gellasch is a social worker who relies on Zipcar and Uber to meet with clients and travel to U-M’s Ann Arbor campus where he is a PhD candidate. Sizing up the “Innovative Transportation Index” report--and noting that he and friends have lost jobs due to unreliable bus service--he says it’s important to put the new services in context.

“It's really good for what Detroiters have gotten used to,” he says with a wry smile, “the level we’ve gotten used to.”

Zipcar is a membership-based service, owned by Avis, that allows users access to their fleet of cars for a monthly or yearly fee. After making a reservation, members go to a Zipcar lot, unlock their vehicle with a special card and drive off where they need to go. They’re then charged an hourly or daily rate for renting the vehicle. Fuel, insurance, maintenance and parking costs are covered by their monthly fee. 

Uber is an app-based service that connects prospective passengers in designated coverage areas with drivers using smartphone technology. Users enter their location into a smartphone, dispatching a driver who picks them up. Fees, including an automatic tip, are paid using credit card information stored in Uber’s customer database. 

Gellasch says he’s satisfied with both services, although he feels Uber drivers should be better compensated. Since he doesn’t have a daily commute, he says combining Uber and Zipcar with public transit options makes more financial sense than owning a car.

“It seems like a lot of money on the front end, but, if you're budgeting for a car anyways, it actually comes out to being about $1,500 less a year even if you’re totally wasteful with it -- calling Uber for everything, using Zipcar to go anywhere you want,” he says.

“They’re not necessarily the most down-home grassroots tools,” he adds. “It's not like a co-op sharing thing that I'd like to see, but you can be somebody with no bank account, no credit and use these services.”

Up Next

More plans are in the works for tech tools supporting transportation options in Detroit. There is currently not an app for purchasing virtual bus tickets or a municipal bike share program. In January, however, a new real-time DDOT app was released that allows users to find bus stops, learn about arrival times and track buses. Although a public bike sharing program doesn’t currently exist in Detroit, Wayne State and other partner organizations recently conducted a feasibility study, which recommended building 35 stations and providing 350 bikes.

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