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Overcoming urban mobility’s 10-foot hurdle

If we want to solve things like traffic, bike safety and transit deserts, we need a new type of city planner—someone who understands how people move. On this episode of No Parking, Bryan and I sit down with one of the most popular and respected people in the mobility space, Jessica Robinson, who co-founded the Detroit Mobility Lab and Assembly Ventures and chairs the Michigan Mobility Institute.

In a world of armchair theorists, Jessica is the real deal. She was one of car-share pioneer Zipcar’s marketing managers 10 years before “mobility” captured the Zeitgeist, after which she became director of Ford City Solutions, now known as Ford Smart Mobility.

Most importantly, she’s an avid cyclist. I wouldn’t trust anyone to solve urban mobility unless they’ve ridden a bicycle next to traffic in an unprotected bike lane.

“We really have two problems today,” Jessica said of the mobility field. “One is we see not enough people entering the industry. We also see those that have been around for some time, or even new entrants, don’t have the skills they need to be successful for the types of jobs we see in the future.”

The challenges aren’t limited to public officials. Jessica saw problems with private mobility investments long before I did, and she wasn’t afraid to say it: “I think scooters have shown that there was a need that wasn’t being met. I don’t think the current form of deployment is going to stick around. I don’t think anyone likes piles of scooters on their corner.”

One of her solutions? A partnership between the Michigan Mobility Institute and Wayne State University to offer an 18-month Master of Mobility degree, starting in 2021.

“We’re at this point where we need a new type of engineer: the mobility engineer,” she said. “If you look back in history, we did not have mechanical engineers before we had steam engines. We did not have aerospace engineers before people flew. What we’re hearing from employers is they want people that understand the context of what they’re designing and driving, and we think that’s through mobility engineering.”

Unlike those who think technology is going to eliminate jobs, Jessica is optimistic. “We think that there’ll be a tremendous number of jobs created for everyday workers we need to support fleets, autonomous delivery or otherwise. We want to make sure we’re developing that training to help people take those new jobs as well.”

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