I have a confession to make. I haven’t been to the Auto Show in a few years. Okay, maybe over a decade. Like any child growing up in the environs of the Motor City, the Auto Show was the social event of the season. We’d drive downtown, park in a far-flung surface parking lot where men bundled in heavy coats against the Midwestern January cold waved us to the right spot with brightly colored flags, and take the crowded People Mover between the skyscrapers to our destination. Cobo Hall was vast, bigger than any place I had ever been, full of people, fried food, and of course – cars – ones where I was allowed to hop in the driver’s seat and full of that glorious new car smell.
As I got older, the appeal lessened for me, not being from a “car family,” but I still understood the event’s significance, a local holiday used to mark the passage of time. A major attraction that showed Detroit was still the Motor City.
Growing up in Metro Detroit has had an indelible impact on who I am and the things I care about. I understand the American love of the automobile–its link to self expression, freedom, our collective itch toward expansion, how good it feels to sing at the top of your voice while driving–but I also understand what it’s like not to be able to get around without a car. After a car accident reduced our family to one vehicle, I spent a lot of time riding the SMART and DDOT buses with my dad. Mobility without an automobile in Detroit can be difficult, and it remains so today.
But we are also in a time of innovation in mobility technology. After having studied transportation planning in graduate school, I’m interested in the strides automotive companies are making towards sustainability. How will autonomous vehicles play a role in our future? Will we move in the direction toward a “drop off society” where circling shared autonomous vehicles makes it unnecessary for all to own a private vehicle? Or will people accept longer commutes by no longer having to be active at the wheel and will our communities continue to sprawl? Are electric vehicles the answer if we are still generating power by burning fossil fuels? What role can public transit play?
Questions about the relationship between the built environment, mobility, and sustainability are the ones I am most compelled by, and why I am so excited to be able to visit the North American International Auto Show during press week this year. I am eager to see the ways automotive companies and their affiliates are addressing the pressing concerns of climate change, and how they are marketing to a generation of millennials that are driving less.
You can follow me at Greening Detroit on Facebook or here in our news section during the NAIAS where I will be looking for answers to these questions and more!
Julianna Tschirhart is a native Metro Detroiter and graduate of the Master of Urban & Regional Planning program at the University of Michigan with a concentration in transportation planning.