Ford’s depot positions Detroit, Dearborn for transit corridor

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Rebuilding Michigan Avenue from Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood to Dearborn to accomodate Ford Motor Co.’s autonomous vehicles “will take longer than anyone sitting around the table will expect it to take,” one transportation expert said. Photo credit: Larry Peplin for Crain’s Detroit Business

DETROIT — Bill Ford’s grand vision of developing a “transportation invention corridor” along Michigan Avenue and I-94 that stretches from the Michigan Central Station in Corktown to Dearborn, Willow Run and Ann Arbor is going to require some grand thinking and probably a pile of public and private money.

Mobility is about to go from being a buzzword to a real situational challenge that confronts Ford Motor Co.’s bid to deploy autonomous vehicle technology from a train depot built when some Detroiters were still getting around town by horse and buggy.

Ford has already deployed its Chariot rideshare vans along Michigan Avenue to shuttle employees between its Dearborn headquarters and its first Corktown building — The Factory — in what could be the precursor of having self-driving vehicles running along the avenue in the coming years.

“They may not start off immediately as autonomous shuttles, but they eventually will be AV shuttles,” Bill Ford Jr. said in an interview with Crain’s Detroit Business and Automotive News. “Don’t know if those will be Chariots or not. Haven’t put too fine a point on it. We’re talking four years out now.”

But, barring a major economic calamity, four years will come faster than most might expect as the auto industry undergoes rapid change.

Rebuilding Michigan Avenue between Corktown and Dearborn and beyond to include two lanes dedicated to autonomous vehicles would be a tremendous undertaking involving local, state and federal government, as well as businesses along the corridor.

“The challenge is going to be that this will take longer than anyone sitting around the table will expect it to take,” said Kirk Steudle, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation and one of the thought leaders on planning for the advent of self-driving vehicles.

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If done right, Michigan Avenue from Detroit to Ann Arbor could become the country’s first truly connected corridor for the start of an era — possibly a long one — where robotic vehicles driven by artificial intelligence will share the roads with humans behind the wheel. It’s not unlike the early 20th century when Henry Ford’s Model Ts were sharing the cobblestone with horse-drawn carriages.

If Ford Motor wants its autonomous vehicle technology to serve as more than an employee shuttle, the company is going to have to engage government officials, residents and businesses along Michigan Avenue as well as the SMART and DDOT bus systems in designing an integrated transportation system.

“That’s the stuff that has to come into consideration,” Steudle said. “While a particular company wants to move employees from one building six to seven miles away to another building, the general public still wants to be able to move on the transit line along (Michigan Avenue).”

Trains still there 

And then there’s the original purpose of the train station — trains. 

The tracks are all still there. Freight trains roll by every day on their way to and from the Michigan Central Railway Tunnel under the Detroit River.

It could still function as a train station and create a direct link to Detroit Metropolitan Airport and the immaculate and seemingly underutilized John Dingell Transit Center on Michigan Avenue in Dearborn, which could be used for commuter rail to Detroit or Ann Arbor. The Dearborn bus and train station is just under two miles from Ford’s Glass House headquarters.

Bringing trains back to Detroit’s 105-year-old depot is an idea that Bill Ford said he’d “love” to see, but he noted it’s “not really within our control.”

“If we ever do get regional transit here, which I’m a big proponent of, you can image the AVs talking to the trains, talking to the buses and all of the transportation systems working together,” Ford said. “In that respect, it would actually help our development if we had trains coming in.”

Train service to the depot and autonomous shuttles that connect workers and visitors to downtown also would help fulfill Ford’s promise that the renovated Michigan Central Station’s concourse will be open to the public and that the hulking building won’t become “a corporate island.”

Connections along the way

Rapid transit along Michigan Avenue could connect the University of Michigan’s research labs with autonomous vehicle testing at the American Center for Mobility at Willow Run, Ford’s headquarters in Dearborn and the brain hub in Corktown, where Ford is making plans for up to 5,000 autonomous vehicle tech workers.

Commuter rail could bring the airport into the mix, helping fuel Wayne County’s aerotropolis district and residential development along the I-94 and Michigan Avenue corridor.  

MDOT’s Steudle notes how it took a decade to plan, develop and build the QLine on Woodward Avenue, a project that was fueled by business leaders and the philanthropy of the Kresge Foundation as the streetcar was seen as a catalyst for redevelopment along the north-south corridor.

Ford’s plans for linking Corktown to Dearborn could be a similar catalyst for redevelopment along Michigan Avenue, where the storefronts in southwest Detroit remain predominately blighted and boarded up.

“The challenge is, while four years is a long ways away, it really is a short time horizon for all of the pieces that have come together to make this happen,” Steudle said. “You can’t wait for two or three more years and then decide let’s do something in the last year. You really gotta be talking about it now.”

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