Growing up in the city of Detroit and the metro Detroit area, Shavon Edwards had the privilege of always having access to at least one family car. But the experiences of her relatives on the city’s east side showed her from a young age that getting around the city wasn’t so easy for all Detroiters.
“My granny needs to get to appointments very frequently. If she doesn’t have a ride, she pretty much can’t get there,” Edwards says. “A church member or a family member or one of her friends needs to take her. It’s not as accessible for her to take the bus because … that could take a couple hours. Because she’s older, and especially as it gets cold outside, that’s not always the ideal way to get where she needs to go.”
That’s inspired Edwards to join the numerous Detroit individuals and organizations working to improve access to mobility for all Detroiters. In early November Edwards co-organized a Detroit convening for The Untokening, a national collective that aims to center marginalized people’s voices in advancing mobility equity.
Shavon Edwards – photo courtesy of Shavon Edwards
Edwards, who works as a mobility strategist at engineering consultancy WSP USA, says there are gaps in Detroit’s mobility ecosystem that those who are intimately involved in the system often overlook.
“Mobility should be accessible to everyone, regardless of your [ability], your socioeconomic status, or where you’re going in the city,” she says. “None of that should matter. So we’re trying to fill some of those gaps and give people who usually don’t have the opportunity to talk about those gaps a chance to talk about them.”
Envisioning mobility in 2030
Design students at the College for Creative Studies (CCS) recently had an opportunity to engage with some of those Detroiters who usually don’t have a voice in mobility conversations – and apply their skills to creating solutions. That project, 2030 Detroit Equitable Mobility, was a joint effort by CCS, Ford Motor Co., communications agency GTB, and economic development organization Design Core Detroit.Two of the designs that resulted from the project will be featured in an upcoming exhibit at the Smithsonian Design Museum entitled The Road Ahead: Reimagining Mobility.
Design Core is the steward of Detroit’s UNESCO City of Design designation. Their partners in the UNESCO network originally inspired them to do a project focusing on mobility equity. Working with the project partners, CCS students designed three long-term mobility-related scenarios and solutions focusing on the sub-topics of health, employment, and education and socialization.
For example, students came up with the idea of a bus service offering onboard entrepreneurial training services for young adults who find themselves losing time – and personal opportunity – to a long commute.
In the second phase of the project, students engaged in co-creation sessions where they worked directly with Detroiters at nonprofit Focus: HOPE to identify their mobility needs and priorities. Ellie Schneider, director of advocacy and operations at Design Core, says that yielded some surprises for the students.
“Sometimes the way we’ve been thinking about what the challenges are isn’t necessarily the way residents would frame them,” she says. “There’s so much talk in the mobility space in particular about autonomous vehicles and things like that. These people can’t even afford to buy a used vehicle right now, or insurance for it. Talking about autonomous vehicles is not relevant; it’s not the right starting point.”
As a result, the designs that came out of the project’s second phase approached mobility in quite different ways. For example, one of them suggested utilizing vehicles, bus stops, or even buildings as a kind of community billboard system to communicate neighborhood-relevant news.
Maria Luisa Rossi, chair of MFA integrated design at CCS, says the students who worked on 2030 Detroit Equitable Mobility learned a lot about engaging users in the design process – which she says can be “quite a big challenge” for designers.
“We normally have a quite big ego, and you need to be able to serve as facilitator of this kind of conversation with the user,” she says. “What are their needs and what are their desires? I think what [students] learned was how to understand and how to empathize with people who are maybe quite different from them, and how to keep their own creativity serving the purpose of creating a good solution for the user’s needs.”
One design project suggested utilizing vehicles, bus stops, or even buildings as a kind of community billboard system to communicate neighborhood-relevant news.
Two of the designs that resulted from the project will be featured in an upcoming exhibit at the Smithsonian Design Museum entitled The Road Ahead: Reimagining Mobility. But Rossi and Schneider both express hope that the project will continue on beyond that. Schneider thinks it’s possible to fundraise for CCS faculty members to publish research on mobility equity, or for a student mobility equity design challenge.
“Then we really shift to a culture of design research, where these questions are ongoing and they’re not just limited to what can be done in a six-month window,” she says.
Similarly, Edwards and her fellow Untokening members are trying to create a broader discussion around the idea of mobility justice. Untokening Detroit, which took place Nov. 11, was the group’s third convening. It drew about 110 attendees from as far as Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and Toronto. Edwards says much of the conversation revolved around helping to improve the outlook for the future of Rust Belt cities through mobility.
Untokening Detroit co-organizer Heather Nugen views the failure of the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan’s 2016 ballot measure as a major sign that mobility equity has a long way to go in our community.
“Detroit needs to talk about mobility in a new way, and we need to engage some people we have not been engaging, because what we’ve been doing has not been getting us there,” Nugen says.
One major takeaway from Untokening Detroit was that those individuals frequently left out of mobility discussions include not only people of color, but people with disabilities. Nugen says that as Untokening leaders look to their next convening, they’re emphasizing the idea that “there’s no mobility justice without disability justice.”
Edwards says the convening was particularly helpful in allowing mobility equity advocates from different cities to compare notes on successful strategies. She was pleased to learn that Detroit’s scooter deployment guidelines have played a role in scooter policy discussions in Atlanta. The city of Detroit requires scooter companies to place a certain number of scooters in each of Detroit’s seven city council districts.
Untokening Detroit met on November 11 to strategize mobility solutions and celebrate Detroit’s advances in the space. Photo courtesy of Untokening Detroit.
“We helped shape that here in the city,” Edwards says. “We have scooters all the way down Gratiot, all over the place. That’s something that we’re doing right and can kind of set the tone for moving forward.”
That’s one bright spot in what mobility equity advocates see as a fairly bleak picture for Detroit. But Edwards strikes a hopeful tone about the city’s current lack of equity-oriented infrastructure. She notes that other cities may have existing systems or policies in place that can make it difficult for new endeavors to increase mobility equity. But in Detroit, she says, “we’re able to try new things and pilot things and not have a whole lot of restriction on them.”
“We’re able to start the culture shift with nothing in place,” she says. “Then we can see how the public reacts to it and make changes based on that.”
2030 Detroit Equitable Mobility from College for Creative Studies on Vimeo.
Video courtesy of GTB, Design Core, and College for Creative Studies.
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Photos, except where mentioned, by Steve Koss.