Left behind by knowledge economy, small cities look to transportation future


SAGINAW, Mich. — In a formerly abandoned newspaper building converted into a pop-up marketplace boasting nearly 40 eateries, residents of this city 100 miles north of Detroit talk with pride about the transformation of its downtown.

Not long ago, locals avoided the neighborhood of the SVRC Marketplace because of one of the highest rates of violent crime in the U.S. Now, thanks to improvements in public safety and investments in the city’s downtown, cars pack the parking lots with residents craving international cuisine and trendy nitrogen-cooled ice cream.

And city officials mulling more ways to position the region as forward-looking are eyeing one of today’s hottest technologies: self-driving, connected cars.

Future transportation technology “is another way to demonstrate our innovation and makes us attractive to young people,” said JoAnn Crary, president of Saginaw Future, an economic development organization. “This shows the vibrancy of the community as a place where they’ll want to be.”

Needed: partnerships

For small and midsize cities such as Saginaw — those with populations between 30,000 and 200,000 — transportation innovation means more than cutting commute times. Becoming a hub for connected and autonomous vehicles can boost a cash-strapped region’s technological infrastructure, lure companies to its backyard and help regions left behind by the knowledge economy recast themselves for the 21st century.

Federspiel: Hopes for fewer accidents

“There are things that smaller or medium- sized communities can do to be part of this realm,” said Valerie Brugeman, senior project manager at the Center for Automotive Research and lead author of a report on how the Saginaw region can grow its transportation sector. “They don’t have to sit and watch.”

But they can’t do it alone. To compete with bigger cities with bigger budgets such as Austin, Texas; Columbus, Ohio; Detroit, Phoenix and Pittsburgh, these communities need regional and industry partnerships to woo companies developing connected and autonomous technology.

While large urban areas are turning to carpooling, ride-hailing and other mobility models to deal with increasing congestion, Saginaw, like many other Rust Belt cities, has lost population. The city is home to nearly 48,000 residents. From 2010 to 2017, the population declined by nearly 3,000, or 5.5 percent, according to the U.S. Census and the American Community Survey.

Saginaw now features international cuisine.

Fewer people means less economic activity and less city revenue from income taxes. Three in 10 Saginaw residents remain under the poverty level, double that of the state overall.

A 2017 analysis from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy reviewed 24 similar small and midsize cities in the Midwest and Northeast, and found that depopulation resulted from a long-term decline in manufacturing, aging populations and persistent economic stagnation compared with the nation overall.

“There are just less people,” Crary said. “We’re trying to bring people back home and retain the college grads by making this area attractive.”

In addition to developing downtown, city officials are introducing new housing options, considering installation of electric vehicle chargers and shifting road planning to create more walkable communities — all to woo educated millennials who experts say want more from their communities than low tax rates and affordable housing.

A Saginaw bake shop offers sweet treats.

One of Saginaw County’s largest employers and taxpayers is Nexteer Automotive, a Chinese-owned steering supplier whose work in advanced safety and autonomous technologies spurred city leaders to investigate how to support connected vehicle pilots.

Deploying these vehicles means upgrading infrastructure such as traffic lights, improving broadband access, accommodating public testing needs through road closures and dedicated public resources for private use and reporting traffic information for use in high-definition maps.

Outsized benefits

Letting companies turn a city’s backyard into a public r&d lab isn’t cheap or easy, but communities can reap large benefits from opting in.

For example, drive south from Saginaw to Marysville, Ohio, a city of 24,000 people northwest of Columbus that has realized these benefits through the good fortune of location and collaboration. More than 30 years ago, Honda built U.S. manufacturing operations nearby, opening the doors to a supplier base that has boosted the region’s economy.

Honda has partnered with Marysville, Ohio.

In recent years, city leaders have endorsed pitching the city as a mobility hub.

“Marysville has been selected as being a test pilot for connected vehicle technology in a rural environment,” said Terry Emery, Marysville city manager. “From our standpoint the big key is the collaboration and partnerships we’ve been able to expand upon.”

The city works closely with neighboring jurisdictions, Ohio State University, Honda and the nearby Transportation Research Center to ready the region for deployment of connected vehicles. Together, the various coalitions and councils can lobby for state and federal grants that foot the bill for infrastructure improvement.

The Marysville area remains largely rural.

In 2016, the Ohio Department of Transportation granted the region $ 15 million to install fiber optic cable along a 35-mile stretch of U.S. 33 running through Marysville, part of a $ 100 million initiative to improve the corridor — comparable to the city’s biennial budget expenditure. As part of the grant, the city uses a portion of the cable for public services, including installation of Wi-Fi in Marysville public parks.

The corridor has also become an attraction for businesses to locate r&d offices.

Business has thrived around Marysville.

Public perception

In Saginaw, until self-driving cars are zipping around, the benefits of these technologies will be largely invisible to residents crowding the SVRC Marketplace on a rainy Wednesday afternoon. But research indicates resistance would be minimal.

“What struck me was that there was no concern over this technology,” said Brugeman of the Center of Automotive Research, who interviewed stakeholders across the city one week after a self-driving Uber vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona. “They were not afraid of the future.”

In CAR’s report, researchers advised officials to focus on achievable projects that directly affect talent attraction and traffic improvement.

For example, increased data on road conditions and high incident areas could improve safety. Currently, the county and local police file traffic reports to the state, which compiles them and issues an analysis of problem areas annually.

The Marysville area is a rural test ground for technology.

“That’s slow, methodical, so we will and should have more up-to-date data from these traffic signals and hopefully we will see a reduction in accidents,” said Saginaw County Sheriff William Federspiel. “So that should reduce accidents, which would reduce injuries, which will reduce fatalities, and that’s a good thing.”

But the proof wary citizens might need would be in the people — preferably young, educated professionals — that might come to Saginaw.

“You’re creating a tax base for the county, for the school system, adding people to go to the businesses, theater and marketplaces,” said Phil Karwat, Saginaw’s public services director. “If there are more people here, you create a better place to live.”

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