When COVID-19 hit Detroit this March, the city’s Health Department delivered projections that as many as 450 people living in city shelters would come down with virus. Two months later, those numbers are only at 154 people — all of whom have been admitted into the city’s isolation shelter — and no one experiencing homeless has died of COVID-19, to the city’s knowledge.
“We attribute that to our ability to get people out of shelters that were symptomatic,” explains Donald Rencher, director of the Housing and Revitalization Department. “Mobility was a huge part of that — we couldn’t have done it without transportation.”
Safely transporting Detroiters experiencing homelessness to designated emergency shelters and hospitals was the result of a partnership between the Housing and Revitalization Department and the Office of Mobility Innovation, an office established in 2016 by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan to coordinate multimodal transit like bike share, scooters and autonomous shuttles. The office took on an unexpected role in light of COVID-19, spearheading partnerships to provide transit options not just for shelter residents, but also residents without cars to access COVID-19 testing.
“It’s required creativity,” Mark de la Vergne, chief of mobility innovation, says of the city’s response to transit needs during COVID-19. “There aren’t decades of best practices we can rely on.”
Still, the mayor started the Office of Mobility Innovation with creativity and innovative partnerships in mind. One key effort has been the Detroit Mobility Innovation Initiative, which launched in 2018 as a public-private partnership to address local transit issues through innovative pilots. A pilot partnership with Lyft, for example, tackled the “first mile/last mile” transit problem for night shift workers by providing subsidized rides to and from their bus stop.
In the early days of COVID-19, the Office of Mobility Innovation became a key collaborator with other city departments to brainstorm rapid responses to different challenges. “We’ve been able to react quickly and push to get stuff done,” de la Vergne says. “Not worrying about silos, just being able to make sure we could deliver systems that people needed.”
The first collaboration the office participated in — which came together in a matter of days — was establishing curbside zones and distributing signage for restaurants that had to quickly shift to a pick-up model. The next priority was opening a drive-through testing site, which materialized at the former Michigan State Fairgrounds after about a week of planning.
The Office of Mobility Innovation’s role was to figure out how the one-third of Detroit residents who do not own a car would access testing. The office worked with Intelliride, the city’s paratransit provider, as well as local taxi companies. Drivers were concerned, however, about the safety of transporting residents who may be sick.
To address those concerns, the office decided to use only vehicles with a separation between the front and back seat. It also committed to providing PPE to both the driver and passenger. Finally, the city opened two cleaning sites where vehicles are sanitized after every ride.
City officials also took note of specially-equipped vehicles modified by Honda in Japan and reached out about acquiring similar vehicles for Detroit. Early this month, Honda delivered 10 minivans retrofitted with plastic barriers and modifications to the ventilation system that are now part of Detroit’s testing fleet.
As for booking a ride, “we tried to make it literally as easy as possible for folks,” de la Vergne says. Detroit residents booking an appointment simply tell the call taker they do not have means to get there. They are then connected to the car service to reserve a vehicle. Rides cost $2, though they are provided free for city residents unable to pay.
“We are getting information out to residents without our traditional means of face-to-face interaction,” de la Vergne says about outreach. That means using the city’s cable public access channel and distributing information through church newsletters, social service organizations and social media.
The safety protocols developed for testing-site transit were replicated for the partnership with the Housing and Revitalization Department. After positive cases emerged in one shelter, the Office of Mobility Innovation helped schedule buses to get people who tested positive into alternative shelter. “Transportation and mobility has been part of our entire strategy,” says Rencher.
The Office of Mobility Innovation also helped facilitate transit for shelter residents experiencing symptoms and being discharged from hospitals. Unlike the drive-through testing model, in which transit is requested by Detroit residents, this system is operated internally under the Housing and Revitalization Department. Shelter employees, street outreach teams and hospital providers have the phone number to arrange pickups, according to Rencher.
These initiatives solve urgent needs of the city, but de la Vergne knows there are huge challenges ahead when it comes to public transit and COVID-19. “It’s gonna be hard for people,” he says. “Our next phase will be thinking through what service looks like this summer and what else we can do to help people out.”
The goal of the office, he says, is to understand resident challenges of getting around the city as the pandemic continues. The office coordinated with the city’s HR departments, two major hospital systems and a large grocery company to find Detroit residents interested in alternative mobility options. Roughly 120 people have participated in a basic intake survey.
The creativity that’s guided the office so far will inform future work, de la Vergne says. “Once we start providing additional programs, we’ll be in constant discussion to understand what’s working or not, so we can adjust on the fly and perfect it through data and users of the system.”