Howes: Could ride-sharing be Detroit’s transit future?

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Romulus — On Election Day, metro Detroit voters will be asked to approve a $4.7 billion transit plan expected to unspool over 20 years. Talk with Mudassir Sheikha first.

He’s the co-founder of Dubai-based Careem, the largest ride-sharing company in the Middle East and North Africa. Instead of pumping billions into buses and commuter rails, he says governments across the regions are preparing to leapfrog familiar 20th-century modes of public transportation by exploring ride-sharing as a more cost-effective substitute.

“Where I come from,” ride-sharing is “not really disruptive,” he said this week at the World Mobility Leadership Forum. “You’re creating it for the first time. In our world, you don’t need the buses and the trains. You need the car to come pick you up. There’s another way of building public transportation because of what’s available now.”

Exactly. And it gets closer to reality with each passing month, each new application of technology, each step forward in what is shaping up to be the biggest disrupter of everyday life since wireless phones revolutionized communication. Actually, to regular users of Uber and Lyft, it already is.

That raises an important, if politically incorrect, point around here: could the home of the automakers that put the world on wheels, the companies moving steadily deeper into the next-gen world of ride-sharing, electric vehicles and self-driving cars, do some leapfrogging of its own?

If transportation is on the cusp of the most revolutionary change since Henry Ford produced the Model T — and expert after expert, including ol’ Henry’s great-grandson, insisted this week that it is — should metro Detroit make a multibillion-dollar, generation-long financial commitment to a mid-20th century transportation technology of buses?

It’s a question worth asking, even it if rankles business and political leaders backing the Regional Transit Authority’s plan for rapid transit. They rightly see a metro area poorly served by public transportation, in part because regional tensions and proverbial who-will-pay-for-it questions repeatedly scuttled previous efforts advanced in more contentious times.

The opportunity is not lost on Mayor Mike Duggan. From his office window, he says he can see two huge parking structures, each built upon the financial assumptions that drivers owning or leasing their own cars would use them five days a week for some 50 years.

But what if ride-sharing replaces most urban transportation by 2025, as a Lyft Inc. executive predicted this week? What if self-driving cars become reality? What if the vehicles deliver people downtown to work in the morning then head out Grosse Pointe, or Dearborn or Southfield to take the elderly to the doctor or the market — and keep moving throughout the day?

What happens to the investment, public and private, in parking garages that would sit a lot more empty than they do today? That could precipitate a wholesale rethinking of land use, from downtown to some suburbs, if it isn’t already.

“You say the city made a terrible mistake when it took out the street cars in the 1950s,” the mayor told the moderator, Gabe Klein, a former head of public transportation in Chicago and Washington who co-founded CityFi. “I don’t want to be remembered as the guy who made the wrong decision in 2016.”

Put another way: automakers like General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co. aren’t the only entities trying to make smart bets on the future of mobility and what it will look like. Governments, too, strapped with finite resources, outsized needs and a general (though not absolute) antipathy to increased taxation, need to make wise calls on infrastructure for the next 50 years.

Leveraging new transportation technology, perhaps in public-private partnerships, could be one way to get there. It could increase access for everyone from the working public and weekend partiers to the elderly and the disadvantaged, whose barriers to landing and holding a job include their inability to afford a car or get to work.

“We are seeing less and less funding from governments for infrastructure,” said Anne Berner, Finland’s minister of transport and communications. “We have to turn the system around ..., rethink how we invest in infrastructure in the future.”

Next-generation mobility may be too far in the future to hold off — again — on beginning to implement an overdue transit plan for one of the most poorly connected major metropolitan regions in the country, a cruel irony for the Motor City.

But the future of ride-sharing, and self-driving vehicles not too long after that, may provide the automotive connective tissue to pull it altogether. That’s why the mayor’s team is studying the possibilities for a single mobility pass that could be used on everything from the People Mover and QLine to buses and maybe ride-sharing companies.

They see the future coming, too, and it includes a lot more than a private car driven by its owner.


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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.