Exploring The Everyday: Mark de la Vergne Is Reimagining What The Future of Public Transportation Looks Like

Exploring The Everyday is an interview series exploring interesting individuals or companies who are trying to make an impact on the lives of everyday people. You can learn more about this series here, or read our past interviews here.

As technology and innovation charge ahead, and our lives become full of smarter and more efficient products, one can’t help but wonder why our transport infrastructure isn’t keeping up. There’s talk of self-driving cars and high speed rails, but why has the transportation sector been slow to adopt this new technology?

We sat down with Detroit’s Chief of Mobility Innovation, Mark de la Vergne, to learn a little bit more about the transportation challenges he faces in Detroit. As you’ve probably guessed by now, there are a handful of reasons why the transportation sector has been slow to adopt newer technology, but the biggest one is the fact that there needs to be cooperation from both the government and private sectors.

One of the biggest challenges Mark sees happening in Detroit and across the country is how access to transportation ultimately affects income and poverty levels. One Harvard study found that commuting time was the single strongest factor for someone successfully escaping poverty. The longer an average commute was in a county, the worse the chances low-income families had of moving up in society. And Mark is no stranger to this concept. Through his work he talks to individuals around the city of Detroit and hears stories of commutes that take hours all the time.

He’s interested in not only making transportation more efficient and accessible to everyone, but also creating long lasting infrastructure that benefits all in the community. With technology continuously improving, betting on the wrong thing in a sector like infrastructure can be costly. But one thing is for sure, Mark is betting on the future being bright.

Let’s start off by talking about transportation as a system. What goes into planning infrastructure and innovating for the future?

As a core principle, any person or business who wants to move themselves, or things, will want to make it as easy and affordable as possible. Around 100 years ago, we initially built rail all over our cities for streetcars to get people around. Then, the development of the internal combustion engine came, and we built roads and highways. We’ve been getting people around pretty much the same way for over five decades now, between cars, buses, and trains.

We did a lot to try to enhance that system as best as we could, and now, cities are facing two challenges: one is the cost of keeping everything that has been built up to this point up and running. Fixing crumbling roads is a huge one for us here in Michigan. We’ve had someone run for governor who’s whole campaign message was “Fix the Damn Roads” because the infrastructure has just not been taken care of properly.

People are acutely aware of this breakdown in infrastructure because they’re blowing tires and the city is spending hundreds of dollars every winter on pothole damage. If you look at New York City and their crumbling subway, and the Gateway project, we can see it’s not so easy to keep up with the costs to keep those systems up and running.

The second challenge is that there are a lot of new transportation methods thrown into the mix.

You can lump anything from bike sharing, to scooters and all sorts of new devices, and the future of autonomous vehicles together. Ten years ago, everybody who worked in the space was pretty much trying to figure out what you can get out of the system and how to essentially build more capacity. Whereas now, the only known is that there is an unknown coming.

The challenge is figuring out how to make all these new innovations work together. From who drives a vehicle, to how vehicles are powered. I don’t think of it exclusively as either a public or private sector challenge, it’s a really unique time where everybody needs to come together to start to figure out all of these big issues.

The word scale necessarily hasn’t been something that’s in a government sector lexicon when you’re talking about infrastructure.

There’s multiple sort of seismic shifts happening in kind of the Transportation Mobility sector all at once. How do we, the United States, address moving infrastructure forward given that we have a huge system built out already that we need to maintain and keep running?

That’s the big question we need to answer over the next 10 years. Innovations that have happened in the space up until today were part of a closed system. For example, you innovate on a vehicle and then you sell that vehicle to a person. You’re using that innovation as a way to market your product, but you didn’t really rely on anything else.

A lot of innovation coming out around autonomous and connected business is very infrastructure dependent, and not just physical infrastructure, but data infrastructure. Things that we’ve never had to tackle before, like, how does this all work together as one system.

I think this is where there is a lot of work that needs to be done between the public and private sectors, and not just a ‘city versus city’ thing, where one city says, “we’re the most innovative because we did this pilot”, but how all of this begins to work together. For us, we look at city, then region, then state, then federal, and each one of those components has a big part to play in how we can actually accelerate innovation to scale.

The word scale necessarily hasn’t been something that’s in a government sector lexicon when you’re talking about infrastructure. When building out a network of roadways or buses, you don’t say, “how do we scale this to work everywhere?” So, the big challenge that the public sector faces now is how to really understand what their role is in accelerating infrastructure innovation and then how to figure out how it actually gets done so that it’s seamless across the entire country.

People talk about “smart roads” of the future, where an autonomous vehicle could communicate with a stop light or the vehicles nearby to coordinate actions. For people who are not following the communication protocol stuff, what is the impact that “smart” communications technologies like DSRC or 5G would have on the transportation industry?

I am not a DSRC or 5G expert, but there’s two different spectrums of how vehicles and infrastructure can talk to each other. One of which is DSRC, which is more infrastructure heavy because it requires us to place things on traffic signals, and it also requires that the vehicles you have DSRC modem within it. There’s also the potential to use 5G in the future when 5G is available and rolled out, but we just aren’t there yet.

The different vehicle manufacturers have their own points of view on whether DSRC or 5G should be the choice of how connected technology is rolled out.

And so, from a from a government standpoint we have to begin to learn and figure out how to understand how this can actually have some benefit to our overall system, but at the same time, know that we don’t want to invest in something that could potentially be a technology that no one uses in five to 10 years. So, it’s a really hard place and it’s not just the DSRC and 5G debate, there are a lot of infrastructure decisions that need to be made that we spend a lot of money just digging up data on.

Like, should we put in the bike lanes or more options for ride hailing services? Are we laying enough conduit? Are the pipes that we’re putting in big enough to handle everything we’re going to need in 20 years?

We are trying to future proof as much as possible, but at the same time make decisions on what new pieces of infrastructure we feel like are going to achieve our goals, especially around safety. This is the hard position that everyone is in right now.

Let’s talk about some of these kind of big innovation waves that are hitting the transportation industry. Obviously, things like autonomy, electrification, shared mobility, are impacting how consumers experience Transportation Mobility. I’m curious given your background transportation systems and planning, if we were to fast forward maybe 10 or 20 years or more, how do you see smart roads, or other infrastructure things happening at the system level being part of the acceleration of autonomy? Or, do you think the autonomy development technology path is going to be primarily focused on the vehicle side.

I don’t know the answer to that question, but I think that the challenge getting there is consensus around DSRC vs 5G on the industry side.

I can make a bet and basically say we want to just go all in on DSRC and possibly be betting on the wrong thing or we’re just going to wait it out and potentially not get any of the benefits of things that are going to happen in the next 2 years.

There has to be a lot more coordination between industry and government to figure out how this is all going to work, what’s necessary to make all of this work, and then how is this going to get funded and if it’s going to require a heavy infrastructure rebuild. This is going to have to be a new world of industry and government working much more closely together.

We are trying to future proof as much as possible, but at the same time make decisions on what new pieces of infrastructure we feel like are going to achieve our goals

Detroit is unique in a couple of ways. As a city, you’re going through some demographic and fiscal challenges but also having a real urban redevelopment renaissance. How do you think about the next 10 to 20 years of transportation innovation in Detroit?

Transportation is a very personal experience and regardless of what mode you take, there are frustrations and ideas about what could be made better. What we’re trying to focus on, is making sure that whatever solutions we come up with, are available to every single person in this city.

So, whether you have lived here for 50 years or whether you just moved here, if we create something new, it needs to work for everyone.

We see a lot of pitches from companies that are oftentimes developed around someone’s specific problem. And if that idea can’t scale to work for every person in the city, it’s not something that we’re going to consider as a solution that’s going to help people out.

However, if we see an idea that we feel like this is definitely something that can help everybody out but might not necessarily work on the business side for a private sector business, that’s where we start thinking through how this could be the solution that we think is going to help.

There’s two car sharing companies here in Detroit, Zipcar and Maven, but they’re mostly focused in the greater downtown area. That’s not to say that there aren’t people who could really benefit from car share outside of downtown, but that’s where the companies have cars in order to make a profit.

Right now, we are running a pilot program with Maven that partners a neighborhood group with a car share vehicle that ensures that Maven will see usage in an area that may not seem profitable.

This is not an initiative that a company would just take on by themselves and launching our own car share service involves a lot investment that we just can’t replicate in the public sector, but we think that we can help create a business model that will work for both parties. The partnership takes our ability to match community organization owners with a private company like Maven, or maybe something like scooters, to best serve underutilized areas.

What about the fact that Detroit is the home to the Big Three automakers the United States. I know you do a lot of work interfacing with those companies. How does that impact what you guys are working on or thinking about in sort of the next again five 10 20 years of transportation?

We’re in a unique spot that we can have a lot of conversation with a lot of the people that are focused on thinking through the future of how people get around. What we’ve seen in our experiences with GM, Ford, Fiat-Chrysler, and also the Tier 1 suppliers, is that we’re facing an unknown future so we should all be learning from each other.

We’ve been very fortunate to be able to share with the companies some of the challenges that we need to address, what’s important to us in regard to things like autonomous vehicles, but also being able to learn from them.

Some of the challenges we’ve discussed are around why they haven’t been able to deploy car sharing beyond greater downtown. And because of these discussions, I’ve learned tons about insurance and understanding their product development cycles and how they’re thinking through data.

So, it’s been a really great opportunity to work together and share in this world that we don’t know what’s going to happen in six months. At least we can bounce ideas off of each other and really learn and hopefully create ideas for the future.

The big message that we try and get out to people is that there’s a huge opportunity to just make life better for people.

Do you think that it’ll work? You’ve been in both the private sector and now on the government side so from your perspective, should we be optimistic about the ability of private sector and public sector working together to help shape this?

You hope that eventually, if there’s one voice, or at least a majority of voices on the industry side saying, ‘this is what we are going to need in order to make all this work’, then the federal government will move towards that in order to make the future better. You have to hope that eventually we’ll get there.

It’s probably going to be really hard, and there will be lots of people with very passionate positions on how we get there. But it’s going to have to get there. The challenge is the process and getting there as well as making sure that we’re giving as much benefit to people live here and pay for all this.

The big message that we try and get out to people is that there’s a huge opportunity to just make life better for people. I have many conversations with people who live in the city that have much different experiences of getting around, and most times I just leave that conversation amazed what people have to do to just simply get to their job.

Whether it’s those people that take two buses or have to walk an hour at 4:00 in the morning, to just hearing the challenges of a mom who has to drop their kid off at two different places in the city, and then catch the bus to go out into the suburbs to work. I always walk away from these conversations being amazed of people, but also with a huge desire to figure out how to make this better for those people, and everybody else who’s facing similar transportation challenges.

And it’s not just Detroit facing this issue. People struggle to get around all across this country. We’ve talked to hundreds and hundreds of people.So really, what I try and do is figure out ways that we can share those stories so that I can get more people thinking about how to solve problems here.

And you know, we get we get a lot of pitches where people come in and show us their solutions and how happy everybody will be, but it’s likely that a lot of these ‘solutions’ were created for the people who developed it. For example, a high income engineer from San Francisco is not going to have the same transportation challenges as a single working mom in a low income neighborhood.

There’s definitely bias in how technology and innovation is developed, so being able to articulate a lot of the challenges that we’re facing here, and be able to say ‘it’s great that you’re solving this, but we think that you could also be solving this and we want to try and solve it with you’ is necessary.

And I think that the concept of design thinking is not something that transportation systems in the past have been developed through. The private sector is just beginning to question how they can really understand what their customers want and how they’re going to use their services. That philosophy needs to be extended to how we develop transportation in the future.