This article is co-published by the Energy News Network and Planet Detroit with support from the Race and Justice Reporting Initiative at the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University.
Though many of us grew up expecting to see flying cars as the future of transportation, we’re not quite there yet. But as we struggle to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a Michigan group of multimodal transportation advocates believes that the future of mobility lies with options beyond electric cars — and they’ve assembled a group of stakeholders to prove it.
Transit Riders United’s recent event at Royal Oak’s transit center showcased leaders in various green mobility options, including transit services, transit network technology, and ebikes.
The event took place after President Joe Biden’s appearance at the grand opening of General Motors’ Factory Zero plant, the passing of a bipartisan infrastructure bill, and the House passing the Build Back Better bill.
“Our purpose was to both spotlight all the ways mobility can be green without electric cars and to urge state and federal leaders to invest more in these important modes,” said Megan Owens. Owens is the executive director of Transit Riders United, which has advocated for better public transit and mobility options in the Detroit area for more than two decades.
About 63% of Detroiters own or share a car. According to a recent University of Michigan Poverty Solutions report, those who don’t mostly rely on rideshare, public transit, or bikes to get around. While electric cars have been the focus, Transit Riders United and invited speakers emphasized that there are other options to consider that provide opportunities for everyone.
Robert Cramer, deputy general manager of SMART, Detroit’s area transit agency, emphasized his agency’s dedication to “combating climate change and reducing emissions” by replacing 120 vehicles with propane-fueled options. Cramer also touted SMART’s solar-powered bus shelters and soon-to-debut electric buses.
MayMobility, an Ann Arbor-based startup, showcased its services that target cities, universities, and other large-scale clients to fill transit gaps using autonomous shuttle vehicles. Omar Shaikh, a business developer for May Mobility, said the company’s fleet could help connect riders in areas with limited transit options.
“There’s a lot of neighborhoods in Detroit where the buses aren’t always going. A vehicle like ours could help bring people into some of the larger arterial streets where the buses do go down,” he said.
Shaikh also addressed some of the skepticism from new riders — and even himself — regarding self-driving shuttles. Each vehicle contains a safety driver who can control the car if needed and provides assurance and clarity to riders regarding any concerns of the vehicle’s operation.
“That’s also a part of why we had safety drivers — it’s not just so they can take over,” he said. “It’s also the human element of [asking] as we move to these different technologies: ‘What do you think about it? How do you feel about XYZ? What is your experience?’ We emphasize safety and comfort first before pushing autonomy.”
Perry Holmes, government relations manager with Bird scooters, said the company has decreased carbon emissions with more than 6,000 miles traveled by its riders in Detroit since its inception in 2018.
Owen suggested that the showcased alternative options are “great for the planet and the pocketbook” and encouraged metro Detroiters to consider mobility options for everyone.
“We want individuals to know that personal cars are not the only way to get around,” she said. “Everyone should give other modes of mobility a chance, even occasionally!”