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Michigan Mobility Institute Executive Director Jessica Robinson. (Photo by Chris Frost)
Monday, December 2, 2019

By Chris Frost



Oxnard-- The conversation with Michigan Mobility Institute Executive Director Jessica Robinson, Co-Founder of the Detroit Mobility Lab, continues with a 6x gap in employment as mobility moves into the future.


Robinson kicked off the Oxnard Speaker Series in grand style Nov. 13 and talked about the changing transportation landscape as it moves forward.


She said even if the public bends the curve and closes 2 or 3x of the 6x curve, everybody needs to work on the employment challenge together.


"At the Michigan Mobility Institute, we are focused on the development of people for these jobs," she said. "We're doing that by bringing the industry closer to education than we've seen in a while. If you think about engineering, we didn't have electrical engineers before we had electrical systems, and we didn't have aerospace engineers until we tried to fly. We are at the dawn of a new kind of engineer, a mobility engineer. That's someone who has a technical background but also understands the context of how these services will be deployed in the environment they operate."


The mobility institute focuses on two areas; she said, the creation of a new center for enhanced mobility in a partnership with a college in Detroit. 


"We're working with an engineering school to revamp the curriculum and offer these new degrees," she said. "Everything from mobility itself to connected autonomous systems. We'll be launching a master of robotics program in the fall of 2020."


The group needs a new approach, Robinson said, and they've brought together some of the leading industry companies into an employer collaborative.


"They're joining and partnering together to solve the talent gap in the industry," she said. "It's okay that these are suppliers that are used to working together. The other pieces have competitors sitting in the room together, saying here is what we need."


She hopes that partners from around the world will be interested in bringing world-class education to communities.


She showed the crowd an image of services coming to communities in the next few years.


Autonomous shuttles, ride-sharing, same-day delivery, and smarter parking so that you can pay with your phone, is coming.


"There is potentially drive-thru ordering so you can pay for your order differently when there is no driver at the wheel," she said. "We think of this urbanist utopia and where mobility is going to take us."


She showed the crowd the same slide and asked them to look at it differently.


"The people here (in the picture) are not just consumers and users of these new goods; they are the ones with these jobs," she said.  "On the public side, you might have policy experts that learn to use data differently and doing urban planning to plan for these autonomous vehicles."


She saw safety drivers in the autonomous vehicles until they learned how to operate on the roads. 


"We are going to see a change in insurance, and that will mean there is probably going to be a new kind of insurance broker," she said. "There will be sensor technicians that will make sure a vehicle that goes through mud and has something splashed on it; it is clean and ready to go."


She grew up in a town that had a milkman, and she wonders if that service can start again?


She wonders what will happen when kids get in an autonomous vehicle, and she sees the day where there will probably still be someone in the vehicle.


"Whose managing this bigger freight that's moving around these inner communities," she asked. 


She spoke about Calvin, who is a Chinese American in San Francisco and owns his family's repair shop and has been a mechanic his whole life.


"I met Calvin when I was looking to park our shared vehicles in neighborhoods,” Robinson said. "What we found out is that Calvin had one of the most desirable locations in San Francisco because it was on a busy street and well served for public transit."


She said the location was being underutilized.


Calvin wasn't ready to give up, and they decided that Robinson would lease the parking spaces, and they both got what they needed.


"The next generation, his children, will not be working," she said. "His role will change from a mechanic to a landlord and eventually to a happy retiree."


From there, she spoke about Cory, who runs a startup company that focuses on safety for roadside workers working on the streets. 


When she met Cory, Robinson said her group was trying to help him accelerate his business growth.


"He started this work because he realized that emergency responders are more likely to die or be injured going to the scene or while parked on the scene of an emergency, due to the emergency itself," she said. "He said there must be a better way. They're working with the Department of Homeland Security to create a new protocol, so when your vehicle is parked, and the lights are on, or you're in route to a response, it will send an alert out through a number of services, including directly into your in-dash radio."


Cory would have never been part of mobility's future, Robinson said, except he saw a problem, and the people he cared about were being injured and killed.


She also talked about Alysin, who sits on Robinson's advisory board and moves the cutting edge of mobility technology.


Alysin studied electrical engineering and worked on the Chevy Volt at General Motors. From there, she moved on the General Motor's venture capital group that invested in the future of mobility.


"She left that company to found May Mobility, which is a low-speed autonomous vehicle that is moving people around today in Michigan and Ohio," Robinson said. "In the past 15 years, she's gone from learning how a vehicle is designed to deploying people."


She pointed out that private parking takes up a lot of space in the United States, approximately 25, 000 square miles, or the size of West Virginia.


"Do we want to continue building this space," she asked. "If we do, it's because our communities are clogged by congestion. One of the questions is, how do we change in the future?"


In Los Angeles, she said 13 percent of the city is parking.


"These are crazy numbers," she said. "Even in Detroit, our city council is actively talking about eliminating the parking minimum for new projects because we see such a shift in demand for the way our cities are built."


With that said, she pointed out it's not because of autonomous vehicles, and there are only three shuttles in the city.


"Increasingly, community members are using other ways to get around, as well," she said. 


At Northwestern University, she said the school has a parking garage that will be converted into a classroom when the university no longer needs the space.


"Yes, it costs more, and yes, it requires creativity to do it, but it is possible, and there are lots of examples of this happening around the country," she said. 


Housing, which is expensive in Southern California and takes up much of someone's budget, and Robinson said that housing and transportation are linked together. Many times, where people live and work dictates how people get around daily.


"With increased distance, many of us have few options," she said. "Communities are thinking about how to build housing closer to home. Increasingly, housing that's affordable for people who have good-paying jobs. The workforce housing of the future."


She cited a community in Breckinridge Colorado that realized their workers lived 50 miles away because they couldn't afford the housing in the city.


"They prioritized some creative indirect subsidies for a developer who wanted to build affordable workforce housing," she said. "They waved their inspection and permitting fees and did a project that was $! Million. When you talk about changing the economics of development, $1 million of cost for a developer is significant."


The project is multi-phased and multi-use, she said, and it started with single-family homes and added mixed-use and attached housing, as well.


The development also has live-and work-areas, she said, and of the 120 units built, 90 were allocated to local residents.


"They also capped appreciation on the property," Robinson said. "They also took into account if the median wage rose quickly, the value of those properties can go up."


The community is a 20-minute walk to downtown Breckenridge.


"One of the things we need to consider here when it comes to policy is a positive infrastructure to support the locations where we put housing," she said. "There is an organization called the Urban Land Institute, and they took a look at the cost of delivering all of the other infrastructures to housing, depending on where it's built."


For a one housing unit on a four-acre parcel, she said the cost to the city building the infrastructure for that parcel is $90,000.


"If you take that same anchor, slice into four, you'll get one acre," she said. "You put 30 units, which is relatively dense on that site, it's $10,000 per housing unit. There are some tradeoffs to consider, but those of you thinking about public policy decisions, there are some infrastructure cost benefits by focusing on this work."


Additionally, she said public transit is vital in the future of mobility.


She used Valley Metro in Phoenix, Arizona, as an example and how people get around using a mobile app.


The agency got a grant from the federal government and built a better app, she said, which allows patrons to plan rides and purchase tickets.


"What's cool is it's not just the tickets and public transit that works," she said. "It also connects to some of those private services, including rideshare. You can have a seamless trip based on any of our personal factors. Is expense or time the most important thing to you?"


They built the system on an open-data structure, so other transit agencies around the world can use what's made to bring out new systems into their communities.



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