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U.S. Rep.: Detroit ‘destroyed’ by the car

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — A Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives said Monday that automobiles have “destroyed” — but also “enriched” — the Detroit metropolitan area.

After addressing an event at the Brookings Institute about the future of self-driving cars, U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., said Detroit is “exhibit A” of “an area that was designed to fail” because of its “indiscriminate planning and design” and reliance on automobiles that are operated by individual drivers because of lack of a “decent mass transit system.”

“I’ve spent enough time in Detroit to know that it’s hard to imagine living there without your own individual car, but that’s in part because Detroit is probably the best example of a city that was destroyed by the automobile,” he said.

Blumenauer, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, said it is “fun for me to watch what’s going on” in Detroit now, citing construction of a streetcar line in the city’s downtown area and the potential for self-driving cars to further improve mobility for non-drivers in the Motor City.

“They’re building a streetcar. There was an effort to have a transit system. There will be urban revitalization,” Blumenauer said. “And if we’re able to have autonomous vehicles and more application of Uber and Lyft-type technology, it will free people from the cost, the burden and the problems of individual automobile ownership and in fact you may be able to skip some of the transit fixed-route solutions and go to something that is more decentralized and works better.”

Blumenauer added that Detroit and other cities will have a chance to reshape their landscapes now with self-driving cars.

“I think the way the automobile destroyed Metropolitan Detroit, while it enriched it, I think we are on the verge of looking at ways to revitalize and reshape American communities that all to a significant extent were designed by the automobile century, but now there are other choices and opportunities and I think it’s going to affect where we live, move, work, the nature of the communities, the economy,” he said.

“We’ve got a chance to reorder priorities in the communities. We can be more purposeful in dealing with the transportation network and how it fits together, unlike the automobile age where we just sort of backed into it.”

He warned that self-driving will likely come at a cost: the loss of millions of jobs that are currently attractive in the commercial driving sector.

“There are 12 million people — probably more — whose livelihood depends on the manufacturing, design, sales, care and feeding of the automobile,” Blumenauer said. “Probably the largest source of employment for men with less than a college degree is driving those vehicles, and that’s going to be profoundly changed.”

Emily Kolinski Morris, chief economist at Ford Motor Co., said it’s unlikely self-driving technology will be universally adopted in the early years.

“The take-up rates are going to vary depending on what kind of environments people are living in,” she said. “You can just envision the county map of the election results that we all were just staring at in November. Those places that are near urban centers are places that an autonomous vehicle is going to be an attractive alternative.”

Ford has promised to deliver a self-driving car by 2021. The company has said its initial autonomous cars will likely be used for ride-sharing fleets, however.

Kolinski Morris said Ford and other automakers are having to reorient the way they think about auto sales with the advent of self-driving cars.

“We’re very used to thinking in terms of unit vehicle sales. Something that we have to think about in this world is to think more in terms of the demand for miles traveled by vehicle,” she said. “It’s important to remember that the second word of autonomous vehicle is still vehicle. We’ll still talking about something that has probably four wheels and looks like some sort of box.

“If you think about let’s say the same or a higher number of miles traveled per vehicle being demanded ... ultimately you get to a vehicle stock that’s going to be utilized at a faster or slower rate,” Kolinski Morris concluded. “You’re going to be turning the vehicles over faster if there are fewer of them. Ultimately I think it’s still a very vibrant industry.”

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