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Detroit carmakers dream ahead while residents are stuck in traffic

Detroit ranks in the top 7 per cent for traffic congestion out of 300 US cities, with the average commuter spending 35 hours in congested traffic last year.


ERIC Jones has nearly given up on driving in Detroit. The 25-year-old mortgage banker lives less than one km from his office. He walks to work every day. If he must venture beyond his neighbourhood near Greektown, he uses Uber. It is nice, he says, to be able to walk to most places he needs, but he also feels stuck. A reluctance to deal with highway gridlock leaves him with few other options in the Motor City's car-focused transportation system.

"This is the first time I've driven in about a month," he said from the road in the Jeep Compass that he almost never drives. He was on the way to visit friends in the suburbs at 8 pm, and rush-hour traffic had not fully abated. "I don't know how people stand this every day."

Detroit ranks in the top 7 per cent for traffic congestion out of the nearly 300 US cities ranked by Inrix, a transportation research group, with the average commuter spending 35 hours in congested traffic last year. What differentiates Detroit from even more crowded cities - including New York, Boston and Chicago - is a near-total lack of reliable public transportation.

The neglect of mass transit stretches back into the 20th century, a result of the looming presence of the three remaining gigantic carmakers that have long made the Detroit area home. Now those same car companies want to change the way that the world moves by remaking themselves as businesses that provide futuristic transportation services, rather than just manufacture vehicles. But in their hometown, progress is slow-going.

The future of Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler may well depend on successfully shifting from manufacturing cars to selling "mobility services" - a catch-all term for improving transportation using technology that goes beyond conventional driving and car ownership.

In June, as a signal of its commitment to this vision, Ford announced its purchase of Detroit's long-abandoned Michigan Central Station, where it plans to employ 2,500 people by 2022 to work on autonomous technology, electric vehicles and car connectivity.

GM formed a separate autonomous vehicle unit, GM Cruise, and recently attracted a US$2.25 billion investment from SoftBank Vision Fund. Ford created a similar autonomy-focused business and structured it to take on outside investment.

Analysts and researchers believe that this will be the biggest shift that the car industry has seen in a century. Investment in mobility-as-a-service since 2014 has reached US$70 billion, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

But in Detroit, where the modern American car industry was born and where it is still based, that transformation is not visible yet. Few efforts are improving traffic, and new projects by carmakers are already hitting some snags. Coordination on matters of transit has never been Detroit's strong suit.

"South-east Michigan is not their growth market, so there's not a lot of incentive for them to put their lobbying heft behind the auto industry here," said Jeff Horner, a professor of urban planning at Wayne State University. "On the other hand, they may consider this area so auto-centric already that they don't need to worry about it. Their long history of existence here is what made the culture in this area so car-focused in the first place."

At the end of the 19th century, most workers in Detroit and throughout America relied on streetcars for their commutes. By the late 1930s, buses and the personal car started replacing streetcars. In Detroit, where the city's growth was fuelled by the growth of the car, the bus system became the only form of public transit. Even that was captured by the car industry. In 1949, GM and several suppliers were convicted of conspiring to monopolise sales of buses to local transit systems throughout the country.

Feeble transit options in the city still have repercussions for commuters. Evann Webb, a 25-year-old Detroit resident, has not given up her car but wishes she could. "If I lived closer to work, then I'd take public transit," she said of her 16 km commute. "But I would be too nervous about the timeliness of transit with where I live right now."

Carmakers are actively working to improve transit for US cities. They just are not doing much of it in Detroit. Ford has built a ride-hailing and delivery test program using autonomous vehicles. If Detroit residents want to check it out, they would need to catch a flight to Miami, where the Ford vehicles are delivering Domino's pizza and picking up passengers.

GM has rolled out a car-sharing service called Maven, as an alternative to traditional rental cars, as well as a related service called Maven Gig for people who drive for services such as Uber, Lyft and GrubHub. Maven has an exclusive partnership with the University of Southern California, and Maven Gig users can make longer reservations in California than in other states. GM is testing multiple versions of Maven in Detroit, said Annalisa Bluhm, a spokeswoman for GM's urban mobility division.

Ford and GM said that they are expanding services throughout the country, and are not focusing specifically on Detroit.

Current public transit options are so paltry that more Detroiters work from home - 3.6 per cent in the metro area, according to data from the US Census Bureau - than the 1.5 per cent who use mass transportation to commute. It is the largest metro area, Prof Horner said, without a comprehensive light rail system but perhaps the one with the most need for it. In 2012, more than 26 per cent of households in Detroit did not own a car, according to a University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute study.

City government points to the People Mover, a rail line looping around a small section of downtown tourist attractions, and the recently-finished Q Line, another rail line that covers about five km. New bike lanes and more thorough bus routes are also local priorities. But traffic on the freeway hits a standstill most days, and more than 84 per cent of the metro area population drives alone to work. In Cleveland, by contrast, that number is only 68 per cent; in the Boston metro area, it is only 66 per cent.

The Big Three carmakers might still be enlisted to help wean Detroiters off cars. The mayor's office added a division of mobility innovation about a year-and-a-half ago, said Mark de la Vergne, chief of that department. The city has a partnership to with the World Economic Forum to undertake a future-of-transportation study similar to one recently completed in Boston. The innovation office has collaborated with Lyft for a first-and-last-mile program connecting commuters to bus routes and is working with GM on a program to expand car-sharing services to neighbourhoods outside the city's core. WP

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