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Working Papers | December 11, 2020

Avenues of Institutional Change: Technology and Urban Mobility in Southeast Michigan

Russell Glynn, Kevin X. Shen, Mario Goetz


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The rules of the game in urban mobility may be shifting. App-based technologies have transformed daily travel, and advancements in automation and machine learning have brought visions of a self-driving vehicle future. In Southeast Michigan, the historic center of American automotive manufacturing, the “new mobility” revolution may be big business. However, while a coalition of business interests has latched on to mobility technology as a vital economic development lifeline, high-profile political initiatives and novel experiments on city streets have thus far done little to improve everyday mobility for the region’s residents and workers. In this working paper, we argue that improving the region’s transit system must be an essential component of strategies to distribute the benefits of future growth in the automotive sector and beyond. We show how, in the evolving political economy around transportation decision-making, an attraction toward top-down, technological fixes to long-standing accessibility constraints may elide the possibility of deeper institutional reform. Through historical analysis and a slate of semi-structured interviews, we identify a set of institutional barriers that detract from efforts to better serve disproportionately Black and low-income Detroiters, particularly those without a personal vehicle. Technology alone cannot remedy the mobility constraints these people face, and will perpetuate existing inequities absent institutional change. Innovation can facilitate incremental improvement, and experiences with new technologies may indeed hold the kernel of system-wide reform. Channeling the heightened attention to everyday transportation challenges toward systemic change marks a significant opportunity for improving lives and fostering a more competitive workforce.

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