June 09, 2020
We recently spoke with Jessica Robinson, co-founder of the Detroit Mobility Lab and the Michigan Mobility Institute. Jessica is also an ambassador through our Text a Detroiter platform and has answered questions about living car-free in Detroit. We interviewed Jessica to get more insight on the topic and to hear about her experience getting around the city without a car for the last eight years.
Jessica’s foray into the mobility space was somewhat of an accident. In 2012, she moved to Detroit from the West Coast where she worked for car-sharing company Zipcar, one of the few companies hiring during the last economic crisis. Before starting her role opening new markets for the company, which brought her to Detroit, she was a location manager for Zipcar vehicles in San Francisco and spent a lot of time around cars. “When I moved, I was so sick of my car and thought Detroit has buses, I’ll have my bike, I can walk, and I’m bringing Zipcar,” Jessica said. With these options, she decided she was ready to try living without a car.
When it comes to the perks of not owning a car, Jessica emphasizes the social aspects of moving to a new place and interacting with people outside of a vehicle. “It has allowed me to meet people and connect with the community in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to just driving down the street,” she said. It was important for Jessica to connect with people outside of her day-to-day circle, and she enjoyed seeing the life of the city without being glassed-in inside of a car.
There were a lot of practical reasons that helped her make the decision to move without a car. “For most of my adult life not having a car, I genuinely still think I’m saving money overall. There are definitely months where I probably pay as much in various services as I would on a car each month, but I have flexibility.” There is also a level of convenience where she doesn’t have to worry about getting her oil changed, parking, or finding a designated driver on a night out.
How to Go Car-Free in Detroit
If you’re interested in going car-free in Detroit, Jessica broke down the process to help you make the decision:
We also asked Jessica about the challenges you might experience without a car in the region. “Early on if you don’t have a car and being a newcomer, it can feel a little isolating, so I tried to get out and explore and meet people in different neighborhoods,” Jessica said. Getting on a bike to explore different neighborhoods was an important way for her to get out and explore different parts of the city. “I didn’t want to be stuck downtown and think that downtown is all there is in the city.”
Jessica also said it can be challenging to shop for larger items you might need from big-box stores outside of the city, especially when you’re moving. “You’re going to have to go out to the suburbs and that involves a car of some sort, whether you’re driving it, using car share, or carpooling with a friend.”
Sometimes, it’s going to feel like you’re stuck. “If you’re coming from a city that has transit and you’re used to getting around that way it will feel a little different here in Detroit. You will find those services here but maybe not as frequent as you’re used to,” Jessica said. There are also limitations with services like Zipcar if the car is not available when you need it. Some of these limitations mean that trips take a little more planning. “I think you can actually get pretty creative with your planning, you run errands and visit a friend who lives in the suburbs in the same trip, you combine things a little bit differently than you would with a car.”
How Things Have Changed Since Jessica First Moved to Detroit
While Jessica was able to move to Detroit and live car-free eight years ago, there have been a lot of positive changes to getting around Detroit car free in terms of the culture and improvements to the services and infrastructure. “When I tell people I don’t own a car most of the time they say, ‘Ugh how can you even do that?’ But increasingly since I’ve moved here there are more people saying, ‘Oh, I don’t either’,” she said. The bus service has become more frequent over the last few years and has incorporated major technology upgrades like smartphone payment options. “I love that I can pay my bus fare using a smartphone and buy a monthly pass that way, that’s changed my life.”
While Jessica mentioned that cycling was an important way for her to explore the city, Detroit has made huge strides in the last few years building a network of protected bike lanes that make the experience safer and helps drivers be more aware of cyclists. “I used to ride down Jefferson to get to Belle Isle and it used to be a little scary, but there’s a protected bike lane now.” Detroit’s bike sharing service MoGo has also launched since Jessica moved to the city, and car-sharing services like Uber and Lyft were just opening at the time. Mogo has expansion plans in place this year to bring the service to five suburbs and the city’s northwest side in June. The Joe Louis Greenway will also start coming to life in the next year or so, offering a new path for recreation and transportation around the city.
Local Considerations vs. Industry
When asked how local questions about getting around the city without a car factor into her work in the mobility industry, Jessica says we are setting the standard for the industry. “We love the design of cars and we already have our senses tuned to these questions of transportation, so we as a region can be smarter about these bigger industry questions.” She is especially interested in the way the services developed in our region can be reflective of the community challenges around access in Detroit, whether it’s elderly folks that have trouble getting to the hospital, or people in the community that need better access to food. “I really want to be a part of a future where the neighborhood that you live in doesn’t limit your access.”
If you are interested in staying in tune with conversations like this about transportation and mobility in Detroit, the Detroit Mobility Lab is building a consortium of members, individuals, and companies in the industry that care about this movement. While bringing a community together in person at this time is difficult, they are starting by building out the consortium digitally. Find out more about Detroit Mobility Lab and join one of the upcoming webinars or panel discussions here.