Book Review: Women Driven Mobility by Katelyn Davis and Kristin Shaw

I finally obtained a copy of Women Driven Mobility, a new book by Katelyn Davis and Kristin Shaw, two adoptive Detroiters who work in the mobility space. I met Shaw at an environmental event and later realized that we had met many moons prior at the Cobo Center (or TCF, or Huntington, whatever she is called these days), where she had led a project to install a pollinator habitat on the roof. It is strange how things work like this in a town with about fifteen people working in sustainability. It’s a relatively fast read, jam-packed with detailed surveys of the entire landscape of transportation, and it’s also, of course, a hometown product! 

The authors have left no stones unturned as they seek out a broad range of pretty interesting programs, projects, and, generally, humans– women, specifically- working on some of the most pressing issues facing the mobility and transportation sectors.

The book impressively features an introduction by Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, whom I’ve often criticized owing to her administration’s lackluster approach to mobility solutions that don’t involve cars– plus for her role in the state’s bipartisan obsession with doling out corporate welfare to the auto industry with little regard for the hundreds of thousands of Michiganders who don’t own or have access to a car. This is perhaps a foreshadow of the book’s overall tone, which is pretty “ra-ra cars,” but it’s perhaps a step in the right direction that the governor is paying mind to a handful of mobility issues beyond, say, truck manufacturing.

…even avoiding explicit discussion of structural issues, you usually get a much more well-rounded perspective on something if you’re looking at the perspectives and work of an underrepresented demographic in an industry.

If you bought the book looking for structural critique or solutions, you might be disappointed; there’s little discussion of why or how these spaces are so continually and egregiously dominated by men and bro culture, but there are some fascinating tidbits spread throughout. A flipped script would be Emily Chang’s Brotopia, which certainly highlighted specific women, but focused more on the structural bro’dom of Silicon Valley. I would view that book as an essential companion to WDM, since so much of the new mobility space is tech or tech-heavy. (Perhaps Chang is a bit less afraid to piss people off? It seems like a very much Midwest vs. West Coast cultural schism. But I digress.)

Michigan, The “Too Many Roads And Too Little Critical Inquiry State”

I tend to think that, even avoiding explicit discussion of structural issues, you usually get a much more well-rounded perspective on something if you’re looking at the perspectives and work of an underrepresented demographic in an industry (and what they’re producing). But I still found myself wanting a bit more. Shaw and Davis tout the great work of community outreach and sustainability (n.b. a giant stormwater tunnel) surrounding two massive highway expansion projects in Metro Detroit, for example.

The problem with these projects, however, isn’t that they don’t have enough community input, or enough stormwater tunnels. The problem is that neither of them are actually good projects, and they should be called out as such. The so-called “modernization” projects of I-75 and I-94 were rubber-stamped at most levels of government and professional engagement, even after a myriad of municipal officials and residents voiced their opposition. The freeway expansions will cost several billion dollars each, are not unlikely to both experience massive budget overruns over their next two decades of project lifespan, and are likely to increase congestion, increase VMT, increase liminal air pollution, and increase traffic violence.

If they can’t be called out, they should be omitted entirely, regardless of how many community meetings or how big the stormwater tunnel was. I’m gonna die on that hill because more cars are bad, and “cars in a slightly less awful way” isn’t innovation– or even mobility, for that matter.

Critique Beyond Ideological Purity

Am I glad that there are more women working on these projects? Globally, vaguely speaking, absolutely. But more specifically, not if there’s not a really robust conversation around why these projects are bad projects. That doesn’t mean that we should demand ideological purity. It would be hypocritical for me to come at Shaw, for example, for working for a company– one of whose other employees is highlighted in the book, too- for her company’s cozy relationship with the fossil fuel industrial complex, just as people don’t (generally) hold it against me that the company I work for buys some electricity that comes from coal while I’m talking about decarbonization. Or just as one of my best friends doesn’t hold it against me that I have had a really hard time completely kicking my reliance on Amazon (or, for that matter, the fact that I have a pretty high carbon footprint for someone who doesn’t own a car, since I have been flying a lot in the past year!).

Of course, I try to have a sense of humor about all of this myself. I’d at least like to think that anyone who has risen though the ranks has the gall to actually call out things like injustice and bullshit when they inevitably arise. I have witnessed a lack of substance in my profession and adjacent ones in Michigan especially because no one seems prepared to challenge the supremacy of the automobile, and if you are, I guess you should apparently be prepared of having a very hard time finding employment. I’ve been in meetings where people will shout from the rooftops about “innovation in mobility,” but it turns out they really mean “cars but different.”

MDOT: “Making VMT Reduction A Mobility Goal Is Punitive, Combative, And Might Hurt People’s Feelings”

Is Incrementalism Enough To Solve Broad, Global Problems?

There are vague inklings of this critique spread throughout, but it’s largely pretty tame. I appreciated some notes in the conclusion from Jessica Robinson from Assembly Ventures and the Michigan Mobility Institute. Robinson mentions a couple of examples that I think the book could use a lot more of: one is an instance of “gender-based budgeting,” in which she cites a study from Sweden that found that allocating winter street plowing by density was more likely to disproportionately benefit men than women. Robinson, however, gives only parenthetical mention to public transit. This isn’t surprising, given that Assembly is all-in on “EVs as mobility.”

There’s another section earlier in the book where the authors interviewed a designer with Karma Automotive, a subsidiary of a Chinese conglomerate born of the ashes of Fisker Automotive, which made the previous iteration of the Karma. She cites the interest in sourcing sustainable, locally sourced leather to finish the interior of the car. It’s like, great, I guess? Sustainable leather in an unaffordable, ultra-luxury vehicle– that is itself (a car) one of the least environmentally friendly things in the entire world? Yeah, I mean, electric vehicles are as much as several times better than ICE-powered ones. But that doesn’t make a transportation paradigm that is reliant on single-occupant vehicles any less unsustainable.

Conclusion: It’s Complicated?

Shaw, who is a personal friend, demanded that I give this book a fair review, so perhaps I am pushing too hard here. The book is, without question, a great read for anyone interested in understanding what’s happening at the cutting edge of technology in mostly-car-mobility and mostly-car-mobility-infrastructure. It would have been an invaluable resource for me as I wrote my thesis in the spring of 2021, which is 237 pages of really exciting academic prose on what the future of public-private partnerships should look like in considering the nexus between transportation and electric infrastructure. Indeed, there were even a few projects Davis and Shaw mentioned that I also had cited in my paper.

It would be a bit reductive if I were to write off the book simply because I don’t think they did enough to offer a structural critique of misogyny, gender disparities in pay and representation, or the generally starkly gendered realm of cars and trucks and infrastructure. I’d love for them to do more of this, of course. But in Michigan, it’s pretty hard to keep your job and making such radical comments like “maybe VMT reduction is a valuable policy objective.”

In other words? It’s really complicated and we can’t pretend there are easy solutions. But for a good snapshot of what’s going on across the industry, this is a valuable read.

You can buy this product on Amazon or, substantially cheaper direct from SAE. (★★★★)

Only the fanciest members of Detroit’s mobility scene tour MCity in Ann Arbor in September 2019 (File photo).

Nat M. Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP, MBA, is a city planner and energy professional based in Detroit, where he writes about infrastructure, sustainability, tech, and more. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he attended Grinnell College in Iowa, the Kogod School of Business at American University, the POCACITO transatlantic program, the SISE program at the University of Illinois Chicago, and he is also a StartingBloc Social Innovation Fellow. He enjoys long walks through historic, disinvested Rust Belt neighborhoods at sunset. (Nat's views and opinions are his own and do not represent those of his employer).

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