Defining the role of government in the new mobility ecosystem

“New mobility” is a term that is sweeping the globe and a concept that is revolutionising how people get from point A to point B and everywhere in between. It is the convergence of mobility on demand (MOD), Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) and transportation demand management (TDM) and it means big changes for governments and transit agencies.

Defining the role of government in the new mobility ecosystem

Modified AV pod that will be used for the New Autonomous Mobility Vision for Michigan – the pod had to be stretched to accommodate a wheelchair and the ramp had to be created to fit the pod

The once stable public transit industry is now a dynamic, fast-paced, ever-changing anomaly. The Michigan Department of Transportation’s Office of Passenger Transportation (OPT) had our role within the public transit industry down to a science for the past 35 years – we provided subsidies for operating and capital, guidance regarding equitable provision of service, and technical assistance to help transit agencies comply with state and federal regulations. The public transit agencies designed and implemented their service plans. Our roles were clear and distinct. But when the flood gates of innovation and technology opened on this once stable ecosystem, many transit providers felt overwhelmed and confused by all the new options. There were new players popping up every day – new applications and service models, new equipment and expectations from the public. The local transit agencies did not have the resources to research what might work for them or the discretionary funds to risk implementing a new technology or innovative service model that might fail. Many private tech firms and mobility start-ups were struggling to prove the effectiveness of their products with limited funding available for such demonstrations. Throughout this struggle, one thing has remained constant: large mobility gaps continue to prevent people from receiving the goods, services and independence they desire and deserve.

We knew OPT had a role to play in this new mobility ecosystem, but we weren’t sure what that role was. As we contemplated this, our governor and legislature designated new funding for a special mission: use technology to solve mobility gaps for seniors, persons with disabilities, and veterans. To tackle this mission, we forged a close partnership with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s PlanetM initiative staff. PlanetM represents the collective mobility efforts across the state. Together we devised a plan to bring the key players in this mission together – public transit agencies, start-up and established tech firms, new-mobility providers, advocates for and members of vulnerable populations – and challenge them to form teams and propose solutions for mobility gaps. Thus, the $8 Million Michigan Mobility Challenge was born, and two new roles emerged for OPT – facilitator and risk taker.

Deploying the challenge

Holding a one-day workshop was the first outward facing element of this initiative and proved to be the most important. The primary goals of the workshop were to explain the Challenge, provide an understanding of the mobility gaps that exist for each targeted group, and facilitate partnerships to solve those gaps. After describing the general rules and premise of the challenge, we invited two panels to describe mobility gaps from their perspective. The first panel consisted of managers from diverse public transit agencies who shared their challenges in providing services that meet the needs of the targeted populations. The second panel consisted of advocates for and members of the targeted populations describing their struggles using public transit. We ensured that the panel members and audience represented a wide variety of disabilities including invisible disabilities such as autism and cognitive impairments.

The remainder of the day was spent in facilitated small-group discussions. Representatives from the tech firms were invited to rotate between six break-out rooms to meet with representatives of each targeted population. This provided time for the firms to gain a deeper understanding of the mobility gaps and to ask questions to determine how their product, with or without modification, could help solve those gaps. The discussions were key in the formation of partnerships.

Selecting pilot projects

Shortly after the workshop, we issued the $8 Million Michigan Mobility Challenge call for projects soliciting grant proposals for pilot projects to solve one or more mobility gap for seniors, persons with disabilities and/or veterans within a defined geographic area in Michigan. The pilot projects were judged on their innovation, coordination efforts, ability to supplement existing transit services, proposed evaluation process/metrics and sustainability. We received over 40 proposals requesting over $27 million of funding. After evaluating on the criteria above, geographic diversity and target population served, we selected 13 projects to fund.

Below is a brief description of each project is provided below, including the primary tech firm(s) and the lead agency for the project:

Bosch – SPLT/public transit providers in Grand Traverse, Benzie and Allegan Counties

Utilise the enhanced SPLT Rides platform to reduce ride cancellations through “triple verification”, increase ease of access through a mobility app and enhance interoperability between rural county systems. Also create a ride-sourcing app to use for volunteer-driver transit programmes.

Routematch/Huron Mobility Initiative

Utilise Routematch’s independent Mobility (on-demand trip planning system), Pay (automated fare payment) and Amble (trip scheduling and management) mobile and online technologies to improve customer access and coordinate regional transportation services for three rural counties (Huron, Caro and Sanilac) with demand/response service.

Q’Straint/Ann Arbor Area Transit Authority

Demonstrate the use of Q’Straint’s Quantum automated wheelchair securement system on large, urban fixed-route buses. This allows those using wheelchairs to secure their device independently.

Kevadiya/Flint Mass Transportation Authority

Vets to Wellness programme to improve access and increase transportation options for veterans in a mixed urban and rural, multi-county region (Genesee, Lapeer, Shiawassee) using a highly-coordinated, regionally based approach. Innovative technology, including a veterans-focused portal on both the website and app; expansion of fare payment capabilities; interactive voice response system for scheduling rides through the telephone; and utilisation of a dynamic, automated vehicle scheduling software will be used to improve the rider experience and create efficiencies in the transportation network.

SteadyFare/Hope Network Transportation Services

“Expanding Mobility Access” project to remove transportation barriers and improve access to jobs for those with mobility challenges. Customised mobile app to allow ride sourcing-like operation of Hope Network’s Wheels to Wellness services.

Feonix Mobility Rising/Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority/What3Words/SUMA

Create a fixed-route and paratransit “first and last feet” technology integration using What3Words sophisticated mapping platform. This will allow passengers to find the exact location to board their bus which is especially helpful for those with visual and cognitive challenges.

LookingBus/Capital Area Transportation Authority

Takes an existing fixed-route transit system and introduces a technology-based solution to improve service certainty for seniors and persons with disabilities. LookingBus technology, including location-aware smart sensors, will allow seniors and individuals with disabilities to alert oncoming fixed-route bus operators of their presence and make reliable connections. The technology also informs customers (while on the bus) of their approaching stop, eliminating the fear of being dropped off in an unintended location.



Delivering goods and services to people who are homebound with an autonomous lead robot and self-powered trailer utilising remote and hybrid autonomous driving capabilities, machine vision, facial recognition and natural language processing.

Southeast Michigan Integrated Platform for Paratransit Services

All public transit agencies within the Regional Transportation Authority boundaries will work with Menlo Innovations to design a procure a desired system to integrate online booking and trip management to create a “one click” experience for ADA paratransit services across the region.

Team Grand Rapids:  Interurban Transit Partnership and Via Transportation

Utilising Via’s dynamic ride share app for paratransit services in Grand Rapids to improve rider experience by shortening trip duration and reservation lead time. They are curtailing the rider app using Artificial Intelligence (AI) to improve routing algorithms which allows their system to

Michigan Universal Vehicle Ecosystem Pilot

P3, MUVE and multiple transit and community service partners in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (UP). Utilise a ride-share and community-building platform in the central UP that will focus on increasing accessible transportation options and efficiencies to decrease isolation for those with mobility challenges.

New Autonomous Mobility Vision for Michigan

An accessible autonomous electric shuttle at Battle Creek VA Hospital providing trips between campus housing and medical buildings (partners: Pratt and Miller Engineering (project lead), Western Michigan University, University of Michigan, Kevadiya Inc., Robotic Research, Comet Mobility, Easterseals)


Indoor Wayfinding. Deploy and test mobile indoor navigation system using an innovative patented technology in the Battle Creek Veteran’s Health Administration hospital and improve the accessibility of the app for the visually impaired by integrating techniques such as VoiceOver (iOS) and TalkBack (Android). This will assist those dropped off at the front door to navigate to their final destination within the building.

What’s next?

Each project will be monitored and evaluated so that best practices and lessons-learned will be fully documented and made available to inform future use of the technology or innovation. The projects are in varying stages of deployment and their progress can be tracked on the $8 Million Michigan Mobility website.

Technology and innovation are changing the once-stable public transit industry and we hope to ensure that the change is positive. In our newly defined role, we plan to assist public transit agencies in defining their new role and ease their transition into the new mobility ecosystem by sponsoring well-planned and thoughtfully evaluated demonstration projects that guide their path to the future. We believe that the new partnerships, new roles and new technology will improve mobility options and lead to an improved quality of life for everyone.


Jean Ruestman is the Administrator of the Office of Passenger Transportation for the Michigan Department of Transportation. She has worked for MDOT for over 28 years. Her interest in the convergence of public and private partnerships in the shared mobility ecosystem, as well as the impact automated vehicles and infrastructure will have on transportation services led to her involvement with the Transportation Research Board (TRB) and her role as co-chair of the standing committee on Emerging and Innovative Public Transport and Technologies. She is the project lead for the $8 Million Michigan Mobility Challenge, and last year was promoted to her current position where she will guide the state’s oversight and involvement of public transportation programmes in the quickly-evolving era of new mobility.