Back to the Future—Ford Seeks to Invent the Next Generation of Mobility in Detroit’s (In)Famous Railroad Station

Autonomous vehicles, connected cars, and the future of mobility—these topics are top-of-mind throughout the auto industry today.  While Silicon Valley startups have made inroads in these areas, the traditional automakers have been eager to demonstrate their seriousness in taking on this challenge.  This week, Ford announced the details of one of the largest (and most concrete, in a literal sense) steps in that direction: the company has acquired the long-derelict Michigan Central Station, and intends to transform it (and the surrounding Corktown neighborhood) into a testbed and development hub for its next generation mobility initiatives.

The significance of this move for the people of Detroit is hard to overstate.  Michigan Central Station was built in 1913, but last saw train traffic in 1988.  Its closure was due in part to the rise of automobile and truck traffic made possible by Henry Ford and the rest of the auto industry.  For the past 30 years, the increasingly scavenged, decrepit, and vandalized hulk of the train station has loomed over Corktown and served as a potent symbol of the city’s decline.  Books and think pieces on “ruin porn” featured the station prominently, and next to the Packard plant, there seemed no redevelopment problem that was more intractable.  Today, the station bears a lot of scars from the past 30 years of neglect and mistreatment. If you live in Detroit, or if you’re from the area originally like I am, the fate of the train station is one of those topics to which people outside of the city continually return.

But while the train station has continued to lurk grimly in the background, the Corktown neighborhood around it has experienced a resurgence.  New restaurants, bars, and even a distillery have sprung up within walking distance of the train station.  That tracks with other success stories downtown, including the reopened Book Cadillac hotel, the Aloft hotel in the restored David Whitney Building, and the construction now underway at the old Hudson site on what will be the largest skyscraper in the city.  The “ruin porn” story never really reflected life in Detroit, but in the past few years the trickle of investment and rehabilitation in old buildings downtown has turned into a flood.

Ford’s decision to buy the train station, renovate it, and use it as the locus of its investment in the next generation of mobility makes sense in the context of this bigger picture, but it still carries huge symbolism in two important ways.  First, it shows Ford’s renewed commitment to the City of Detroit proper.  Ford’s headquarters is in Dearborn, just outside the city, and while Ford once had a presence in the Renaissance Center (now GM’s headquarters as part of its own efforts to renew and reinvent Detroit), the company has been largely absent from downtown for years.  Ford has emphasized that it is not leaving Dearborn, but by diverting some of the money that the company planned to use for a $1 billion overhaul of its suburban headquarters, the Central Station project plants a huge and very visible flag downtown, and signals a renewed commitment on the part of Ford to the urban core.  Ford’s decision has been met with a great deal of excitement in the city—so much so that the thief who plundered the clock from the abandoned station has decided to return it.

Second, and just as importantly, the investment in the station shows just how critical Ford thinks the next generation of mobility is to its future as a company.  As Bill Ford explained in laying out Ford’s plans, Ford and the auto industry are built on the promise of providing mobility to the masses—but as congestion increases, it’s harder and harder for companies to live up to that promise by just building cars.  The future, as Ford sees it, lies not just in adding autonomous capability to privately owned cars, but in rethinking how mobility is provided from top to bottom.  That includes smart roads, smart cars, ride-sharing, and mass transit.  Ford envisions the increasingly vibrant Corktown neighborhood as the kind of place that will draw top talent from around the country, and that the teams based in the Central Station and surrounding facilities will be able to leverage the urban environment to work together and design these innovative new systems.

Bill Ford and the company that his great-grandfather founded now seek to intentionally reinvent the city that the Model T and its progeny transformed in the last century.  In doing so, they are betting that their experience putting America on wheels will give them a leg up on the upstarts in Silicon Valley, and that in essence they will be able to disrupt their own industry.  The auto industry is hoping that this focus on smart technology will allow them to play the same central role in designing 21st Century mobility that they did in defining 20th Century transportation systems.

The irony here, of course, is that it was the automobile that both drove Detroit’s rise and helped transform it into the city that ultimately went bankrupt in 2013—criss-crossed by highways, with little or no public transit, and suffering from decades of divestment in favor of the surrounding suburbs.  In many ways, the Detroit of the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s was a city built by the car and for the car. This is the polar-opposite of what Ford now seeks to build in Corktown: a dense, mixed-use environment characterized primarily by the proximity of offices, shops, and living spaces.

It is too early to say what kind of vision Ford and the rest of the industry will come up with, or whether it will erase or simply modify the legacy created by millions of cars over the past 100+ years.  But whatever they develop, it seems somehow appropriate that this new vision of 21st century mobility will start with (and in) a renovated train station.

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