Friday, December 11, 2009

Pedistrian Killed on Michigan Avenue

Remember Wake Up Washtenaw's news note last month? "On average, each month more than 400 pedestrians are killed in America". It wasn't long before the statistical averages hit us in Washtenaw County. According to a report in The Ypsilanti Courier published Monday, December 7, thirty-five year old Shawna Pinson was killed shortly after 7 P.M. on Sunday, December 6. She was trying to cross Michigan Avenue near Wiard Road. There's a little convenience store near Wiard; perhaps she was trying to get something to eat for her three children on that dark evening (sunset was 5:01 PM). Her children are a boy age 14, and girls age 12 and 5. According to the Courier report, Ms. Pinson's family is "very cash-strapped right now and are searching for ways to bury their loved one during the holiday season." Assistance for Ms. Pinson's burial and holiday gifts for the children are being coordinated by her aunt, Kathy Augustiniak, 734-218-5131.

Michigan Avenue is five lanes wide at that point (two lanes in each direction and one for left turns) and the speed limit is 50 MPH. There is no pedestrian crosswalk at Wiard. The teenage driver of the vehicle that struck Ms. Pinson is quoted by police as having said the pedestrian was "suddenly in the roadway". Though the intersection is lit by two streetlights, there is no traffic control device there, and no median pedestrian refuge.

Our news brief on pedestrian deaths last month was based on Transportation for America's article, Dangerous by Design: Solving the Epidemic of Preventable Pedestrian Deaths (and Making Great Neighborhoods). Wake Up Washtenaw has proposed making Michigan Avenue through Ypsilanti and Ypsi Township a transit-oriented infill corridor, based on a plan drafted by the Ypsilanti Township Planning Commission in 2001. The recommendation called for three measures to address the observed issues, "High vehicle speeds" and "Unsafe to cross street at intersections":

  • Coordinate with the County Road Commission and MDOT to install safe crosswalks at key intersections and destinations
  • Institute traffic calming techniques to reduce speeds along the corridors
  • Promote a convenient and comfortable pedestrian environment by providing
    connections to neighborhoods and safe places for walking

This tragic death might have been prevented if the plan had been implemented over the last several years. It was approved on first reading by the Ypsilanti Township Board of Trustees in December, 2001, but according to the late David Nicholson, former Planning Director for the Township, the plan was ultimately turned down because a handful of businessmen stood up and claimed it would be bad for their businesses. (I can't find the minutes of the meeting at which this took place.)

Ypsilanti Township's motto is, "Putting Residents First". I've also heard township Supervisor Brenda Stumbo say, "We're all about jobs!" It's time to start looking beyond "jobs" to "life". Are we between a rock and a hard place financially? You bet. Do we need jobs? Sure we do. Is it acceptable to improve the jobs outlook by letting job-seekers be killed? Absolutely not! I don't know if Ms. Pinson was on the rolls of the job-seekers, but like so many in Ypsilanti Township, she was hard-pressed financially and may have been unemployed. Nobody would support the idea that local jurisdictions should maintain dangerous conditions to improve job prospects, but in effect that's what happened when the 2001 plan was not implemented.

Interestingly, the Township Board actually approved the zoning designations (B-5 and B-6) proposed by the Planning Commission in 2001, but no land was allowed to be zoned with those designations. It's time to revisit the plan and actually assign the new designations to the zones they were planned for. It's time to talk to the County and State about conditions on Michigan Avenue. No improvements will happen overnight, and no funds need be allocated to make it happen. Changes like these take a lot of time and coordination between agencies, authorities, commissions, boards, and landowners. We should have gotten started on this eight years ago, and although it's too late now for Shawna Pinson and her three orphaned children, it's not too late for the rest of us. It's not too late for the Charter Township of Ypsilanti to put residents first - even before jobs.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

WCC's Parking Structure: so discouraging!

On November 19th, I learned that Washtenaw Community College (WCC) is intending to build a parking structure. I've been researching the situation and becoming increasingly discouraged. Why?

Making room for more cars is a poor solution to a real problem. But equally important, it's a very popular solution. As you may know, I was a full-time faculty member at WCC for 24 years (1983-2007) and I'm teaching a couple of courses now, so I'm pretty familiar with what's been going on there.

The Ebb and Flow of Cars at WCC

WCC has a surge of cars coming to campus the first two weeks of class. Some of their drivers are doing errands such as registering for classes or buying books; others are attending classes; still others are simply using WCC as a park-and-ride where they can leave their car and take the bus to Ann Arbor. I admit it - I've done that myself from time to time, and talked to several others who do it regularly.

Because of the nature of community colleges, a lot of people enroll in classes but find they can't continue due to family or job responsibilities. Others are unprepared for college-level classes, but because of low tuition and high hopes, they enroll and try, only to discover that it's more than they can handle. The cumulative result is that the parking lot gets more and more empty as each term proceeds.

Another factor is the "recession rush". There have been several recessions since I came to WCC, and in all but one (the 2001 "dot com bubble bust") job layoffs have sent people back to the community college to upgrade their skills. The current recession is no exception - in fact, because of its severity, WCC has experienced a record boom in enrollment. That's why you may have seen photos of cars parked on the grass.

But after each recession, what happens? People go back to work and enrollment drops back down. Not as far down as pre-recession levels - apart from the boom-and-bust cyclces, there has been a slow but steady gain in enrollment over the decades. By midterm in every year since 1983, there has always been ample parking.

Why the Parking Structure is a Popular Solution

In The Voice, WCC's student-run newspaper, letters to the editor have applauded the parking structure decision by a large margin, compared to those who expressed opposition or even hesitation.

There are many reasons for this. One is the feeling that free, convenient parking is an American right. Donald Shoup's now-classic article, "The High Cost of Free Parking" (1997) explains in detail how free parking is mandated in new buildings across the US, which goes a long way to explain why the US has the highest per capita use of automobiles in the world.

But let's face it: for many WCC students, there is no way to get to the college without driving. We don't have a county-wide transit system, and for the many evening students, existing transit doesn't run late enough to get them home. I've often had evening students ask to leave class early so they can catch the last bus. Occasionally, I've given car-deprived students a ride home after class (against college policy!) so they could finish a test or group exercise.

After the first couple of weeks of a term, there has always been ample parking available, including the record-breaking Fall 2009 term. But it's only reliably available in the parking lot furthest from the classroom buildings, and people apparently hate to walk more than about two minutes from their cars to their classes. They seem to prefer circling the parking lot for 10 minutes rather than walk for 5. This term, I've have never had trouble finding parking 6-7 minutes from the building where I teach. During the first two weeks, I parked in EMU's stadium parking lot and took WCC's free shuttle bus back and forth every day. (WCC ran the shuttle for employees only during the first two weeks.) Yes, it added about 10 minutes to the commute, but it brought me to within a 2-minute walk of my building.

The proposed parking structure is to be built within a 1-minute walk of three buildings, and no more than 5 minutes from the furthest, so this is perceived as a great advantage over parking that's 6-8 minutes away.

Why the Parking Structure is a Poor Solution

There are several reasons why the parking structure is a poor solution to the problem.

First and foremost, the problem is mis-identified. The problem is not insufficient parking, it's lack of transportation options. If buses ran more frequently, to more parts of the county, and ran later in the evening, students would have choices besides owning and driving a car.

Even if we continue to focus on lack of parking as "the problem", the college doesn't have a permanent parking problem. As I outlined above, the college's main problem is the surge at the start of the term. The EMU stadium parking lot can easily handle the surge, and shuttle buses are a good deal less costly than a parking structure. They only need to be chartered for a couple of weeks each term, but a structure has to be funded and operated whether it's needed or not.

The college recently conducted a carbon-footprint survey. According to Dale Petty, the Electronics faculty member working on the survey, about 40% of the college's carbon footprint is attributable to people driving to campus. No matter what else the college does to reduce its carbon emissions, failure to address this aspect will leave WCC responsible a great, stomping footprint. Not only does a parking structure fail to address the issue, it encourages more people to drive.

How the structure is to be paid for is perhaps the worst aspect of the plan. According to material in the Board of Trustees packet for October 2009, the $11 million cost is to be paid for with a bond issue. But no millage is to be raised to pay off the bonds (it's pretty obvious the county wouldn't vote for such a millage!); instead, the repayment is to be made from the General Fund with the help of a surcharge to each credit hour. Initially, the surcharge would be $3, but that would go up to $4 as the debt load increases, before going back to $3 toward the end of the bond issue's life.

There are two problems with this funding model. One is that General Fund dollars should go to educating people, but the parking structure would suck funds away from education and put them into supporting our over-use of automobiles. The other is that everybody would have to pay the surcharge whether they use cars or not. Those who can't afford to buy and use a car would be compelled to subsidize those who are better off and can afford to drive. Such a regressive model should never be allowed at a community college.

In the final analysis, vehicle miles traveled have been declining nation-wide. The parking structure is a 20th century solution to a 21st century problem. The time to invest in parking structures was back in the 1970s. The parking problem will improve over time, not get worse; the cost of the parking structure will remain with us for many years, whether or not it's needed.

So What would be a Better Solution?

The first and best solution is simply not to build a parking structure. Continue use the EMU stadium parking for the surge.

It would be far less costly to pay people not to park in WCC's parking lot. A good start was made offering employees a free snack at the college coffee shop when they parked at EMU, and that type of incentive is just a start.

Now it's time to invest in transportation alternatives, which means the college should be working with AATA, send a representative to AATA Board meetings, support a county-wide transit system finanaically, as well as with lip service. There are consultants who can help identify less costly, more responsible alternatives. (I don't know who they are, but I know they're out there.)

Ultimately, no parking is free: it's very costly. Why should parking be free, when a bus pass costs $10 per term? A good start would be to require people parking at WCC to have a parking permit. At a minimum, that would keep people from using WCC as a park-and-ride lot. The permit could even be "free" - at least, at first. Offer registered students a choice: free parking permit, or free bus pass. That would level the playing field. Then, if a parking structure is built, a fee can be levied for parking permits. That would be a much fairer plan that putting a fee on every credit hour, regardless of a student's ability to drive.

WCC should be teaching the community about how to thrive in the "new, green economy". Let's teach by example.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Can we afford a county-wide transit system?

In a recent comment about the county-wide transit idea, "EOS" wrote to the Ann Arbor Chronicle (2009-11-03) saying, "the rest of the county doesn't want and can’t afford AATA". Deliberations at both Ypsilanti City and Township's governing boards indicate that we want AATA, but believe we can't afford it.

That may be because we don't know how much our cars cost us compared with public transit. Knowing that good transit is a good investment, I set out to calculate what a county-wide transit system would save. I'm considering the ability of households to save money by giving up one automobile, assuming they own more than one.

Using data from the Census Bureau, we find 134,187 households in Washtenaw County, and projecting from figures on page 28 of the WATS 2007 Transit Plan, we can estimate there are 22,706 families with zero or one car. These households may not be able to reduce their auto-related costs significantly, even with improved transit, so we'll remove them from consideration.

That leaves 112,980 households that could reduce their number of cars if we had good, county-wide transit. How much would they save each year? Based on car ownership costs and gas prices surveyed by AAA on November 9, 2009, APTA estimates the nation-wide average saving is $9,190 annualized for households giving up one automobile and using transit.

Supposing every household that could, would give up one car and use transit. The theoretical savings for Washtenaw County would be 1,038,286,200, though of course that is unrealistic. Instead, let's suppose 20% of multi-vehicle households decided to get along with one less. The resulting county-wide savings would be $207,657,240.

Suppose we were to offer residents to split these savings between them and county-wide transit, with 75% of that remaining in the households, and 25% going to fund transit. That would leave the residents with $155,742,930, and give the agency $51,914,310: 181% of AATA's 2009 budget. Could that amount fund high-quality, county-wide transit?

The cost per household would be $386.88, while the household savings would be $1,160.64: a 300% return on investment.

How can we afford not to do that?

OK, I know there are quite a few people who would dispute this on several grounds. I'll have a go at playing devil's advocate, then answering their points:

  1. Your estimate is based on everybody paying the tax, but only 25% of tax-payers using transit. Why should the non-users subsidize the users?
    Answer a: Non-users benefit by roads relieved of 20% of their congestion. It costs far more to expand the road system, both in dollars and in environmental damage; plus in many places there simply is no more land to build roads on. If the county's population grows (and it is growing), congestion will grow worse with no practical way to build our way out of it.
    Answer b: There is always a well-documented increase in business investment in areas offer good transit. Thus, investing in transit increases the tax-base, reducing the burden on individual tax-payers.
    Answer c: Even those who don't use transit regularly will be able to use it occasionally, for example, when their car is in the shop or to send their kids to soccer practice. The better the transit system, the more convenient it will be to meet those needs.
  2. Buses are not as efficient as they're cracked up to be, because they spend so much of their time driving around nearly empty.
    Answer a: Most bus efficiency figures are based on cost per passenger-mile, which takes into account the high and low times.
    Answer b: A serious effort is being made to get rail transit for Washtenaw County. Rail is even more efficient than bus, because of energy savings from steel wheels on steel rails, and because one operator can handle a vehicle that carries far more passengers.
    Answer c: When automobile efficiency is calculated, the cost of parking spaces should also be included, but often isn't. Each car requires roughly three parking spaces: one for home, one for work, and one for shopping, school, or entertainment. In addition to the construction and maintenance costs of each parking space, there is significant environmental impact due to the impermeable surface creating dangerous storm runoff, and because large parking lots force businesses to be farther from each other and from the street, increasing travel time, expense, and discouraging walking.
  3. That's a lot of savings! Aren't they going to come from other, established areas of spending, and hurt local businesses?
    Answer a: Some would come come from local business such as gas stations, car dealers, and maintenance shops, yes. But consider the increased employment in transit operation and maintenance.
    Answer b: A great deal of the cost of driving an automobile leaves the local area already, including finance charges (in many cases) and most of the cost of gasoline. With lower energy use per passenger mile, transit costs return a higher percentage to the local economy.
    Answer c: According to AAA, 23% of the average cost of automobile ownership is depreciation - the cost of a new car spread over its useful lifetime. Economists tell us the rapid depreciation of autos makes them a poor investment. That's true even in Michigan, when you consider that a relatively small percentage of autos that drive in Michigan are actually assembled here, and that their parts come from all over the world anyway. Using the savings figures I estimated, $155.7 million could be invested or spent in other ways that boost the local economy.
  4. All these figures are based on estimates. As far as I'm concerned, they're a crock.
    Answer a: Yes, they're estimates. Every business venture, before making an investment, makes similar estimates based on currently available figures, with a lot of assumptions thrown in. I've tried to make the figures and assumptions clear so you can reach your own conclusions. Please do so in a responsible manner.
    Answer b: This took me - an amateur - a few hours to figure and write up. We do need more accurate estimates, so more time and expertise is needed. That's probably why AATA wants to hire a consultant to prepare a proposal for county-wide service.

How Much do we Support Other Countries?

I've often wondered how much of my gasoline expense is going to support other countries, especially ones that don't agree with us or are hostile. I looked up some figures, made some calculations, and came up with this:


of my gas money goes to other countries this year. That compares with $72.73 in Federal highway tax, $104.35 in Michigan highway tax, and $83.79 in Michigan sales tax. That's a total of $260.87 in taxes to my own governments, only 39.1% of what I send overseas.

Curious? Concerned? Read on...

Suppose you own a mid-size sedan and drive it a moderate 15,000 miles each year - an average car driven an average distance. According to AAA, 11% of your cost is for fuel. They estimate a national average cost of $8,106 for car ownership and operation in that case, so the cost of gas for a year is $1,581.

Michigan's Attorney General (Republican Mike Cox) has posted a Web page giving the breakdown of the cost of a gallon of gas. It's based on the June 5, 2009 average cost of $2.89 per gallon of self-serve regular. Based on that breakdown, we pay 4.6% in Federal highway tax, 6.6% in State road tax, and 5.3% in state sales tax (which is less than 6% because the state doesn't tax the highway taxes). That's 17% in taxes, $260.87 annually for our average case.

Since the Attorney General's information lists only the wholesale price of gas, we have to dig deeper to find out how much of what we pay goes to the cost of refining crude oil, and how much is for the crude itself. I went to a U.S. Department of Energy page that gives a rough idea of that breakdown. Of the 2008 average retail price (the most recent), 69% was the cost of crude oil ($1,058.96 in our average case), and 7% was refining and profits ($199.51). Of course, that's as volatile as the the cost of crude, so we can use it only to get a general idea of where our money goes.

OK, so how much of our crude oil comes from other countries? According to another Department of Energy table, the U.S. imported 63.0% of its oil (2.9 billion barrels) through the end of August, 2009 (the latest figures available). So of our yearly gasoline payments, $391.93 goes for U.S. crude, and $667.03 goes overseas.

The sources of imported oil are listed by country in an on-line table. Now comes the fun part. I divided the source countries into three groups by their political stance toward the United States:

  • Friends (including our two biggest sources, Canada and Mexico):
    1.9 billion barrels imported, 40.8% of an average gallon of gas, costing the average motorist $436.06 yearly;
  • Questionables (such as Saudi Arabia, our fourth-largest supplier, which is politically aligned with the U.S. but has a repressive government and holds values very much at odds with ours):
    7.4 million barrels imported, 15.8% of our gallon, adding up to $167.48 yearly; and
  • Non-Friends (such as Venezuela, our third-largest source of oil - and the country where I was born! - whose leader Hugo Chavez campaigns actively to discredit and undermine the U.S.):
    sending us 3.0 million barrels, 6.4% of each gallon, costing us $67.50 this year.

Let me emphasize, this categorization of countries is solely mine, based on my news sources. If you'd like details, just ask.

It's of some concern that 22.2% of our gas money to enrich countries that are either questionable friends or outright unfriendly. That amounts to $234.97 we're paying each year in "taxes" that benefit shaky friends and unfriendly governments. And there's not a thing we can do about it.

Except one: reduce our dependence on imported oil.


We can wait for more efficient, non-petroleum-dependent cars to come out. May they come soon - and may they be affordable!

But in the meantime, there are tried-and-true ways for all of us: take public transit, walk, or ride a bike.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

An Incident in New York

For the last few months, I've been pondering a little incident in New York City. It was Memorial Day Weekend, and I was playing host to Felix, a friend from Mexico who had never been to the US. I'm not in the least a New York City guy, but this is my country. Felix had hosted me at his modest home in Oaxaca State, and now he was attending a United Nations conference of indigenous peoples, so I felt privileged to go to New York (by train, of course!) and show him around a little.

We had walked up Fifth Avenue, past imposing buildings, classic churches, and crowds of weekend tourists, to Central Park. I had been looking forward to sharing the park with Felix, but after ten minutes or so, he asked to go back to the streets. "I have plenty of trees where I live; I didn't come to New York to see more of them," he said. Of course, like any good host, I acceded to my guest's wishes and headed with him to the nearest park exit.

Felix and I had a good visit, and we both enjoyed the scenes of the city. We rode the A train all the way to Far Rockaway and basked briefly on the boardwalk by the sea. But his remark about the trees stuck in my mind like a bit of fiber caught between my teeth, and it wasn't until this morning that I was able to work it out in the shower (where my best thoughts often come!).

Felix grew up and lives on a rugged mountainside, cloaked in majestic trees. Right outside his family's front door are a coffee tree and a cacao tree. The scene is spectacular, uplifting, inspiring. Making a living there is tough, and they're isolated by lack of transportation and rains that turn the hillside into a slick mud-slope. Felix had to carry 50-kilo bags of cement on his back up the hill to build his house. I can understand why he doesn't totally "appreciate" the beauty of his spectacular mountainside retreat, and enjoyed seeing what it was like to live in a place where streets are level and well paved.

But I still felt disappointed that he hadn't spent more time in Central Park. It was certainly logical that he didn't want to "see more trees", and I couldn't understand why I felt let down.

Today's "shower insight" was this: you can't truly understand a city if you don't see - and appreciate - the parks along with the "concrete canyons". This is particularly true of New York City, where Frederick Law Olmsted began his career in park design, and with it brought the concept of green spaces into the heart of American urban design. In so many ways, Central Park is the "heart" of New York City, without which the totality of the city can't be appreciated. I feel the same way about Seattle, the loveliness of whose Freeway Park comes to mind often when I think of that city.

To me, the skyscrapers of a city are impressive and the trees are beautiful, but it's the sight high-rise buildings through the trees that brings me a true sense of awe. The contrast of the natural with the man-made is what expresses the full humanity of the city. Each without the other is insufficient for our needs. Humanity cannot reach it fullest potential living in a forest, beautiful as it may seem. Nor can it attain the heights of its capacity in a "concrete jungle".

I guess that's what I wanted Felix to see. I'm just sorry it took me so long to express it.

PS - I've decided not to blog more from the Moving Minds conference. There's another day-and-a-half, and some of the topics, like transportation security, are beyond my scope. I'm sure a few more good ideas are will to pop out, but I'm also sure the majority have surfaced. Now, on to action!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Moving Minds 2

There were a lot of ideas bounding around in the Michigan League today, but many ideas recurred or were expressed in different ways. Here's my take on them:

  • Coordination between modes of transport is essential, and there are many creative things we can do at points where modes intersect. People need to be informed where the intersections are, and what they can do at each one. In fact, looking at these nodes of intersection is a creative way to leverage scarce resources.
  • Sharing resources is another universal need. The waste of having millions of automobiles spending most of their time taking up parking spaces calls for lots of creative thought. The Zip Car model is one solution; the "slug line" (flexible carpooling, mentioned in last night's blog) is another.
  • Lack of information about public transportation is one of the biggest barriers to its use in the USA. There are many electronic solutions to dynamic information, like bus or train arrival times, but good signage and paper maps are the most reliable for static information like route maps. Electronic trip directions have a lot of potential, but in many cases haven't been perfected yet.
  • Culture and psychology are significant barriers. Presenting a positive vision of the future is the best way to inspire people and get them to participate in change; fear (of climate change or terrorism, for instance) produces only short-term gains, followed by long-term resistance to change. An example that came up many times was GM's Futurama, a vision of a future where cars and highways brought freedom and the good life. Futurama was presented at the 1939 Worlds Fair in New York, and inspired the generation that created the Interstate Highway System.
  • Psychologist Clotaire Rapaille identifies automobiles in the US as symbols of freedom, identity, and sex - extremely powerful forces in our lives. There is no way, IMHO, that public transportation can replace automobile's link to the identity and sexuality of many Americans, but I believe significant numbers of Americans now see cars being as much burdens as they are passports to freedom.
  • The needs of the developing world are similar to those of the developed world, but the solutions are not. An information-intensive system is very appropriate for places where smart-phones and computers are a small fraction of the average person's annual wage. A simpler, less costly system is necessary in places where that's not true, or where literacy rates are low.

Monday, November 9, 2009

MOVING MINDS: the next transportation infrastructure

Moving Minds is the theme of this year's SMART conference at the University of Michigan (UMich). SMART is "Sustainable Mobility & Accessibility Research & Transformation", a project of CARSS, the Center for Advancing Research and Solutions for Society at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. I'll be passing along the highlights of the conference for you, day by day.

New Mobility Primer Salon: Pecha Kucha style

This was our first session. What's Pecha Kucha? It turns out it's the Japanese expression for "yackety-yak" or "yadda-yadda". The idea is to present a creative idea through a short, image-intensive presentation. (PowerPoint on steriods?) The limit here was 5 minutes. Of course, this won't make much sense without seeing the images, but I hope this will give you an idea what to look into more... I'll revisit this and add links to all the presentations SMART makes available on the Web.

What floated to the surface of this intense session? With so much being presented, everybody will have picked up something different. Here's what floated my way:

Changes in population and energy availability make for an extremely complex mobility problem, or rather, series of problems. There are no magic bullets (though there may be "magic buses"!). Rather, the solution lies in a combination of ingenuity and telecummunications, taking into account the needs of the diverse humans who need access to jobs, food, and entertainment.

Want to sample tidbits? OK, here goes...

We seem to expect super-technical advances to solve our problems, but... Climate change, water availability, ecosystem health, population size, poverty prevenence, and urbanization are the mega-forces to confront. Interactions are complex, but climate change is the major driver. Climate refugees move to urban areas (slums) around the world, and all are poor, if not desperate.

ENERGY FOR TRANSPORTATION: Sue Nichols UMich Phoenix Memorial Lab.
Nothing is simple! What you love one minute, the next minute seems to have a lot of problems (the "Britney Spears effect" LOL!). Energy solutions need to be wholistic. Human nature resists change, and we get NIMBY, BANANA, and NOPE attitudes.

ACCESSIBILITY: Jonathan Levin, UMich Department of Urban and Regional Planning
Stats on who drives most shows per capita is related to population density. The purpose of transportaiton is not movement, but access. Accessibility = meeting our needs through mobility, proximity, or connectivity. Rather than measure vehicle miles traveled, a better measure of urban transportation is a rather complex formula encompassing distance and destinations such as jobs, entertainment, and life necessities.

SOCIAL JUSTICE AND TRANSPORTATION: Joe Grengs, UMich Department of Urban and Regional Planning
Social injustice: anything that holds back a person from reaching their full potential. People who live without cars in our auto-oriented world are largely invisible to us. What to do? Change land development patterns; measure accessibility. We need to see cities as made up of multiple worlds - not all from a dominant-group perspecive.

NEW MOBILITY AND INCLUSIVE GOVERNANCE: August Mathias, Advisor, National Confederation of Municipalities of Brazil
When government doesn't provide needs, people will take it into their own hands. the planning process should involve the people for whom the planning is being done, changing to a flexible, innovative, decentralized decision making process

TRANSIT-ORIENTED DEVELOPMENT: Deena Fox, Architect, Rossetti of Detroit
What is TOD? Walkability, connectivity, diverse and dense mix of uses, diversity of housing types oand price points; quality architecture, sustainable communities with good access to transit. Transit drives real esate development, producing a dynamic, memorable environment.

Mr. Polk was very impressed by Spain's commitment to high speed rail. They have invested $116B in HSR, or 1.5% of their GDP. An interesting fact: 0.1% of greenhouse gasses in Europe are emitted by trains, 3% by airlines, and 15% by road trafic.

BIKESTATION: Andrea White-Kjoss, Mobis Transportation
BikeStation provides sustainable "last mile"transportation linked to transit - bike parking, changing, showers, repair for bikes; e-accessible. Thirty bikes can park in the space of 1 car at their Washington DC Union Station site. "...not what it provides, but what it makes possible" - Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, about the DC BikeStation.

500,000 TONS: Robin Chase, ZipCar
There are 325,000 members of ZipCar, using only 6,500 cars. Each normal (non-Zip) car requires 3 parking spaces (work, home, leisure), while a ZipCar requires only one. Robin estimates there is a 93% reduction in automobile usage (emissions, fuel use, parking...) among ZipCar members, 40% of whom do not own a car, due to change in driving habits. Paying for the car by the hour encourages more efficient habits, resulting in saving 500,000 tons of carbon emissions.

their goal is to "make it easier and more rewarding for people to share rides." In the San Fransicso Bay area and the DC area, there are informal ridesharing systems known in DC as "slug lines". People line up in designated places, like the BART station in Berkeley, and are picked up by people with cars who can save time and money crossing Bay Bridge into San Francisco. Paul observed 116 carpools being formed in 1 hour in Berkeley. 9,000 people in Bay Area use flexible carpooling each day. In DC "Slug Lines", 2,000 riders per day get to the Pentagon. Trip Convergence is setting up a new project in Seattle, aiming for more efficient organization.

AUTONOMY: Jeffrey Adik, Intraduce, on personal transportation and goods movement.
This hyper-slick presentation pushed automatic vehicles. Lots of graphs of several mentions of the Department of Defense were thrown at the audience, but not much of a coherent or realistic program.

Goods movement is our teacher especially in Japan and Germany. Supply chain efficiencies; moving less stuff less far; reducing the impact of trips by using last-mile bike and foot couriers.

TDM AND TECHNOLOGY: Alan Huynh, University of Southern California, Urban Planning major
TDM = Transportaiton Demand Management, encouraging people to use alternative modes of transportation rather than build more highways. Alan spoke of the convergence of social media like Facebook, mobile technology, and Web 2.0 making transportation more personal; there are no cookie-cutter solutions, and it necessary to be sensitive to the culture of a region. But using technology can help bypass the mires of bureaucracy.

MAGIC BUS TECHNOLOGY PLATFORM: Adrian Fontino, Shepherd Intelligent Systems
Shepherd (SIS) is a spin-off of UMich; their system has been running 4 years on UM buses, now tracking AATA Route 6 (my route!!). They're working to solve what extensive research (and commonse sense) say are the toughest problems in getting people to feel comfortable using public transportation: Navigating unfamiliar cities; never know "when the damn bus will come!"; can't find the best way to travel from point A to point B via public transportation. Solution: great SIS algorithms for predicting bus arrival times!

EXCESS CAPACITY: Robin Chase reprise
ZipCar does for cars what hotels do for beds. Add open platform Web technology, and we'll get something like CouchSurfing for transportation! We need open devices, open data, open networks, engaging the common man.

GET DOWNTOWN: Nancy Shore, Ann Arbor Get Downtown
New Mobility hub network - people are what drive transportation; we need to help them integrate their transportation. Where do transportation modes intersect? (Parking, bus, bike storage, etc.) Those are hubs, and should be marked on maps along with bus stops.

THE PERSONAL VEHICLE: Dan Sturges, Intrago
Last-mile mobility, hybrid of personal vehicle and transit. 80% of people have trouble getting to a transit stop. Dan has designed several "Neighborhood vehicles"; A related venture, ItMoves, is working to provide a "mobility bundle" to help people get where they need to go by transit.

Lack of knowledge on the part of the public is frustrating. How do you multiply the benefit of transit? Raj proposes a quick checklist to engage designers in multi-modal transportation and prevent the many specialists from overlooking essential details unfamiliar to them.

This is a proposed standardized way to organize and retrieve mobility information, that can be utilized within applications.

Challenge: we spend a lot of effort building a product, but the user connection is often left as an afterthought. Usability guarantees the success. Enter, USER-CENTERED DESIGN, balancing needs of users, business, and technology. (This has been applied to lots of products, and we need to apply it to mobility design.) BTW, Ilona checked Google Maps, as we all do, to find the meeting venue: 100 Washtenaw Ave., Ann Arbor, MI. Try it - Google will take you to Ypsilanti instead!

HUMAN CENTERED DESIGN: Barbara Knecht, Institute for Human Centered Design, Boston
Meet the 21st century human for whom we are designing new mobility systems. Social sustainability! Not all humans are created equal, and as medical advances make a productive life for people who formerly would not have lived, we need to design mobility systems to meet their needs.

Rather than talk about the Kab Shuttle enterprise, Andrew delivered a sales pitch for investment in Africa. Not too credible in certain respects, but perhaps some South Africans are desperate to get non-Chinese investment?

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Inspiration from Rail~Volution

My last blog entry was such a downer (for me, at least) that I didn't send out a notice about it to anyone. If you haven't read it, now's a good time, because a) this will be an antidote, and b) I'm going to mention some stuff in it shortly. (Link to "Left Behind" here.)

So I'm in Boston now at Rail~Volution - "Building livable communities with transit". A couple of years ago, Megan Owens (of Transportation Riders United) recommended that I come to this conference, but last year I headed off to Japan instead. I'm glad I did, but this conference is "freakin awesome"! I don't feel any better about Michigan's situation, but I feel much more able to cope. I got good pointers from several people, I've seen lots of transit, a fair amount of transit-oriented development (TOD) and heard about much more, but most of all I've been inspired by the people and places that have made transit really work - and really bring prosperous development - in their cities.

It started with the first plenary session. Speakers included Michael Dukakis, former governor of Massachusetts and 1990 presidential candidate; Bill Millar, President of the American Public Transit Association (APTA); Ron Sims, Deputy Secretary (and COO) of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development; Peter Rogoff, Administrator of the Federal Transit Administration; and Derek Douglas, Special Assistant to the President for Urban Affairs. Big hitters.

Bill Millar is a wonderfully warm, loud and boisterous fellow, well placed at the head of APTA. He reminded us of all the great advances transit has made in the past year, including the opening of several new rail transit systems around the country, and of course the 180 degree shift in federal policy on transit with the new administration. This policy shift is also the reason why the FTA, HUD, and the White House were all represented here together.

You see, the President understands the close link between transportation policy, urban development, and quality of life. Sims emphasized the President's commitment to meeting diverse housing needs. Rogoff recognized that some metro areas are real pros when it comes to writing government grant proposals for transit, but many of the areas that need transit the most are newbies, and need help with the whole process. He will direct the FTA to shepard those areas through the process.

Douglas mentioned the President's commitment to more efficient ways of moving people around: the 50 major metropolitan areas of the country share one characteristic: congestion. The President has said that the US can't be globally competitive if we're burning up resources in congestion.

All of them stressed the essential nature of regional cooperation. Loners (jurisdictions that don't work with their neighbors) don't stand a chance of getting a government grant. And all the agencies - FTA, HUD, the Federal Railroad Administration, and the Federal Highway Administration - are committed to working together on grant approval. That's because of the realization at all levels of the interconnectedness of transportation and urban growth. What a waste of funds to build affordable housing where there's no transit. John Porcari, Deputy Secretary of Transportation, echoed all these messages when he took part in a panel today. At last, the federal government "gets it".

Today's plenary was an inspiration to persistence. Congressman Earl Blumenauer of Oregon knows how to work effectively over a long time period. As you may know, Portland is the "poster child" for light rail, streetcars, and smart growth; it's in his district. He is willing to work long and hard to get things moving - on rails or any other way that makes sense.

The final inspiration came from an unexpected source: John Cowman, Mayor of the City of Leander, Texas (population in 2000: about 7,000). I quoted him in my last blog entry. Yesterday afternoon I was on Boston's Red Line subway with a group going to see the Ashmont TOD site. I looked across the crowded car and did a double-take, seeing what looked like "John Cowman" on the conference badge of a very ordinary-looking fellow - in spite of his memorable name. OMG, I thought, is this the man I quoted in my blog last week without permission? If so, I'd better talk to him before he discovers it for himself!

It was indeed the Mayor of Leander. He turned out to be very friendly, and admitted to not using the Internet much, so I need not have been concerned about quoting him. He's very positive and projects an image of having succeeded almost by accident. Not at all, of course! He is a master of getting people to do what he thinks is right. He often says, "I just want to help," and "I just wanted to make things better."

He heard about smart growth from people at The Seaside Institute, and immediately recognized it as an opportunity to take his city from backwoods obscurity to sustainable prosperity. He campaigned successfully for the Austin-to-Leander commuter rail service I highlighted last time, and got Council to set aside a large area of town - 23,000 acres, or about 1/3 of the city - for TOD. How did he manage this in conservative Texas? (Well, maybe not as conservative as we thought?) A combination of political smarts, enthusiasm, a willingness to fight for his town, knowing his limitations, and what he calls "moxie".

Oh, and by the way...the employer coming to Leander is Valence Technologies, a maker of lithium-ion batteries and other green-energy equipment. (Michigan: are we green with envy?) According to The Statesman of Austin, Valence plans to employ 2,700 people by 2012, and 1,300 more by 2016, making 160,000 battery packs each year. Valence is an Austin company that currently manufactures batteries in China, but they've decided to bring their operation back home. Keeping local business in the area is the best way to grow our prosperity, according to many economists, because unlike outside companies they have roots and a stake in the community. And let me remind you: "the first words out of their mouth about why they selected Leander was, 'access to public transit.'"

I told Mr. Cowman how I impressed I was, and how much I wanted that kind of growth for my home town. He laughed and invited me to "come on down" and let him give me the "dime tour".

According to him, the best thing that had ever happened in Leander was a severe water shortage in the late 1990s, which forced the town to re-think everything about how they would operate. Michigan is in a pretty severe shortage now too - though it's not about water...

Bottom line from Rail~Volution for us in Michigan? Don't be discouraged. Use our misfortunes to re-think how we operate. Be humbly persistent, and very enthusiastic in our determination to turn things around. Use our resources, not limiting ourselves by thinking that resources = money and we don't have any. Use a lot of moxie!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Left Behind

Michigan is getting left behind. No, it's hardly the "rapture". As our state writhes in the grip of legislators who refuse to allow investment in our people or our infrastructure, population drops and industries leave. Planning Commission meetings in Ypsi Township are cancelled because there's practically no new development, and scant money to pay the commissioners for their time. economy is bad. But it's not like that all over the country. I subscribe to Rail magazine, ("Connecting Communities by Moving People") whose current issue features articles on five regions that have recently inaugurated new rail service. All are very much like what Wake Up Washtenaw has been proposing for the rail line north and south of Ann Arbor: (1) use a freight rail line that sees little freight traffic or has been abandoned, and (2) use diesel multiple-unit cars (DMUs). These paragraphs really jumped out at me in the article about Austin, Texas's, new MetroRail:

Leander Takes the Lead

Leander Mayor John Cowman is an enthusiastic proponent of Capital Metro's Red Line and of regional rail in general. He credits passenger rail with fundamentally changing the image - and future - of Leander (pronounced Lee-ann-duhr [li 'æn dr]).

"Our sleepy little hamlet, which many regarded as the laughing stock of the Austin region, [nothing like Ypsilanti, of course! - LK] has been awakened and rail is a key component in that change," says Mayor Cowman.

Indeed, the changes around Leander in the past decade have been significant. Since Cowman was first elected in 2003, the population of Leander has jumped from 12,000 to more than 30,000. [Probably half of them from Mexico and half from Michigan. - LK]

Today, significant transit-oriented development is underway in the town and the local economy has seen the arrival of several new employers. [Mostly relocating from Michigan? - LK] In 2005, Leander adopted a 23,000 acre transit-oriented development community plan that encourages more dense development as well as improved pedestrian and biking right-of-ways. [23,000 acres? WOW!!!]

"Recently, a manufacturing firm located itself here in Leander," says Cowman. "This brings hundreds of new jobs along with it, and the first words out of their mouth about why they selected Leander was, 'access to public transit.'"

For mayor Cowman and many residents of Leander, the approach of the Red Line is more than just a passenger rail link to Austin, it is an affirmation of the community's dedicated sales [...] tax to Capital Metro and [its] vote in 2004.

"We're energized by the train, we've been anticipating the day it starts serving Leander for a good while and it gives us a feeling that we did the right thing," says Cowman. "And since that vote, so many issues have cropped up like the economy and fuel prices that the train will help us manage." of course, nothing like this could happen here in Michigan, right? We're too dedicated to being left behind. No sense investing our dollars in a sinking state. *Sigh*


Sunday, September 20, 2009

Courage in Government

We don't normally think about "courage" in our local government leaders and "bureaucrats". A few US presidents (not many!) have earned respect as courageous leaders, but it does take courage to make decisions that may be unpopular even at the local level. I saw a movie (Amazing Grace, 2006) about William Wilberforce a couple of weeks ago. He was the English Member of Parliament who almost single-handedly led his country to abolish the slave trade in 1807, half a century before we did in the US. It took Wilberforce several decades of frustration, ridicule, and threats to overcome the resistance of powerful merchants who had made their fortunes on the suffering of Africans. the argument then, as now, is that it was bound to hurt business and cause unemployment. England was the first country in the world to outlaw slavery, and I highly recommend seeing Amazing Grace to learn what it took.

A couple of examples of courageous government decision-makers have come to light recently. Nothing as earth-shaking as the abolition of the slave trade, but little decisions that can have long-term consequences for all of us.

Ypsilanti Mayor Paul Schreiber

Last Tuesday evening, September 15, Ypsilanti City Council was faced with the tough decision of what to do about AATA service. You may recall that residents of the City of Ann Arbor pay their full share of AATA service, but residents of the other jurisdictions where AATA runs pay only part of their share. The rest is picked up by federal grants, organizations like U of M that subsidize their staff and students' transit use, and ...residents of the City of Ann Arbor. Having encountered objections to this arrangement from Ann Arbor, the AATA Board of Directors decided to ask the other jurisdictions to pay more, gradually increasing over a 3 year period until they are paying their share. Then the recession hit.

The outcome (so far) for Ypsilanti is a Council resolution asking AATA to reduce service to a level the city can pay. The resolution asks AATA to eliminate the Ypsilanti portion of Route 5, Packard Road, and cut back the last night run on Route 10, Northeast, and Route 11, Southeast.

At first glance, the impact might seem minimal. After all, by the time Route 5 enters the city of Ypsilanti on Cross Street, it is running only two blocks from Washtenaw Avenue, where Route 4 runs every half hour, and six blocks from S. Congress Street, where Route 6 runs every hour. Why can't transit-users walk the extra two blocks to Washtenaw, or perhaps a little further to Congress? Maybe they could, but eliminating Route 5 makes it much harder for Ypsi residents to reach the parts of Ann Arbor served by Route 5, but not by Routes 4 or 6. I believe the issue is much the same as with the elimination of access to Arborland: at a time when more transit service is needed for economic and environmental reasons, it is being eroded.

The same is true of eliminating the last runs of Routes 10 and 11. The east side of Ypsilanti is already underserved by these two routes, which run only once every hour and only in one direction, using circular routes that discourage and confuse potential riders. I've already mentioned in this blog the need for much better service to the East Michigan Avenue corridor, and here we are cutting it back. East Michigan is a place where there is considerable night-life, so cutting the last bus of the night has the potential to hurt business there. (OK, so maybe the business there is not the most upstanding. But cutting bus service certainly won't help that.)

Ypsilanti City Council's resolution also called for use of Federal (stimulus) funds to cover the remaining shortfall. A one-year solution at best. It's always easier to ask someone else to pay for what you want, isn't it?

And what of Mayor Schreiber? He cast the lone vote against the resolution, saying bus service is a high priority for many reasons (according to WEMU and Now, that took moral courage. Ypsilanti would have to come up with funds to pay for the service, and very few people in public office are willing to stand up for anything that will cost more money, even if it will save them money in the long run, as transit does. I'll come back to this shortly.

WATS Executive Director Terri Blackmore

The second courageous action was a decision made by the WATS Policy Committee, specifically the WATS Executive Director and the staff. If you've followed this blog for a while, you may recall reading about the Washtenaw Area Transportation Study, the county-level authority for allocating transportation funding. One of the big tasks WATS faces is the revision every five years of a 25-year transportation plan for the county. It's the result of analyzing all the county's transportation needs and dividing up available and anticipated funds for different types of projects. The new 25-year plan was finalized at Wednesday's WATS Policy Committee meeting (September 16).

To understand the situation, here is a look at the planned allocations. These two pie charts show the percentages recommended for different types of projects five years ago (in the 2030 plan) and now (the 2035 plan):

Here's a table comparing the allocations.

Improvement Type
Cost (000’s)
Capacity and New Road
Studies and Miscellaneous
Transit Capital

It's the Transit Capital that I'd like to draw your attention to, of course. Such a massive leap in percentage allocation! Naturally, Wake Up Washtenaw is in favor of this increase because we believe if shows an understanding of the true needs of the future, and it takes courage to put that into numbers. To make that increase, it was necessary to reduce the percentages recommended for bridges, capacity, new roads, intersections, traffic studies, non-motorized transportation, safety, and signals. There are a lot of people likely to be dismayed by each of those reductions - I'll come back to that in a moment.

First, a couple of notes: most important, the cost estimates don't represent existing money. They represent needs, and a reasonable estimate of what we should expect to pay. Coming up with real money is another challenge. Also, the Safety category wasn't listed in the 2030 plan, but the total in that plan added up to only 98.9%. It's just my guess that the missing 1.1% (in gray) was allocated to that category.

The Courage of their Convictions

Both Blackmore and Schreiber are to be commended for standing up and allowing themselves to be counted in potentially unpopular decisions. If you're a transit supporter, or an environmentalist, or a "smart growth" advocate, you may wonder why anyone would question these two decisions. Well, there are plenty of people who would:

  • Small-government people, whose position was well articulated by a friend of mine: the role of government is to legislate and regulate, not to provide services - that should be left to private business. They're not necessarily even the "tea party" shouters. The problem is, there are services that are necessary to community well-being which can't necessarily make money on their own; transportation is a prime example. These people usually insist that government does everything inefficiently, holding up one or two examples and ignoring the many recent cases where private business has cost us more money than anything else.
  • The folks who want to let somebody else pay. These are the people who want all the benefits of civilization without paying for it. They're the ones who vote against any and all taxes, and then complain loudly when their cul-de-sac isn't plowed by the County immediately after each snowfall.
  • Car-worshippers: "You'll have to pry my cold, dead hands off my steering wheel before I'll give up driving, so why should I subsidize someone else's public transit ride?"
  • The complacent: whether because they're comfortable now, or because they don't believe there's a storm over the horizon, they just think things will continue indefinitely the way they are now.
  • Those who believe public transit is the wrong answer: many people believe transit is simply too expensive and underutilized because of the spread-out nature of our cities and suburbs. They're right as far as that goes, but don't see one step further: that we're spread out because of publicly-funded roads that made it cheap to spread out - for a while.
  • Most elected officials: unwilling to risk voting for anything that might jeopardize their re-election or campaign contributions, no matter how necessary the measure may be.
  • The highway/developer/real estate lobby: the many businesses that make (or made) a good living from the automobile-based economy, and you may be sure that even now they have enough money to mount a powerful campaign against anything they believe will threaten them.

With all these groups opposing spending more for public transit, it takes courage to stand up and insist that we find the money for it. According to the September, 2009, calculations, riding public transit saves individuals $9,147 annually, but even a fraction of that to pay for transit would be opposed by most of the groups I just mentioned. In the future, citizens looking back will wonder why doing the right thing was so hard, just as we do when we look back at William Wilberforce's effort to abolish the slave trade. (If you're not sure why transit is "the right thing", take a look at the June 9 blog, which recaps the advantages.)

And of course, a hearty Thanks! and Well Done! to Paul Schreiber, Terri Blackmore, and the staff at WATS: Ryan Buck, Eric Bombery, and Nick Sapkiewicz!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Highball for HyRail?

It's gone under several names: HyRail, Hydrogen Superhighway, and Interstate Traveler. It's been accused of being "sci-fi". It's a transportation system, it produces and distributes electricity and hydrogen fuel. It won't cost the government a penny, but it will provide millions of jobs. It's the brainchild of Justin Sutton. Unfortunately, it's still a dream.

What is it really? In a nutshell:

  • Transportation: maglev vehicles of various sizes will travel along pairs of rails containing superconducting magnets
  • Energy: a central conduit covered with solar panels will generate power to move the vehicles, while extra power will be converted to hydrogen using electrolysis; the hydrogen will be used to generate electricity to run the system during the dark hours, so it will be entirely self-powering
  • Distribution: pipes in the conduit will carry water for electrolysis, hydrogen to storage, fiber optic cables for communication, and large amounts of electricity using the supercooled pipes needed for magnetic levitation
  • Where: along existing rights of way - highways or railways; the tracks are elevated maybe 15-30 feet above the ground
  • Financing: Revenue is expected from generating and distributing energy as well as from farebox, and will be shared 50/50 with right of way owners; the economic model looks very promising
  • Environment: produces zero greenhouse gasses, and being elevated, has a very small footprint on the ground
  • Vehicles: can be made by any company that meets the ISO specifications now being drafted
  • Speed: the goal is to top out at about 180 MPH.
  • Manufacturing: could be anywhere, but Interstate Traveler LLC is based in Michigan, so Justin says they'll be starting in Michigan.

What's not to like about this plan? Absolutely nothing, the way Justin tells it. Several Michigan legislators are supportive; State Senator Valde Garcia (R-Livingston) and State Reps Bill Rogers (R-Livingston/Oakland) and Mike Huckleberry (D-Montcalm/Ionia) held a hearing on the energy implications of the system this morning at the University of Michigan. All were positive about the proposal. Politically, it's a sure win: no tax money to be allocated, but possible revenue and jobs to be gained.

I was skeptical when I went to the hearing, and remain skeptical after attending. Not opposed in any way. It all sounds so good, I just have to ask, is it too good to be true? The concepts are great. The math seems solid, both the physics and the finances. The assumptions appear conservative. The graphics are cool.

But there are no prototypes. Nothing has been tested against reality. Computer models are fine, but they're talking about lots of stuff that has never been put together before. Solar panels are reliable; hydrolysis has been used a long time to make hydrogen; superconducting magnetic levitation is in commercial - but limited - use; elevated guideways have been used reliably in many places. But these technologies have never been put together, and never on this scale. There are no working models or prototypes of the proposal, not even a quarter kilometer of track has been built, let alone tested.

So a lot of up-front work still has to be done before this will rise to a confidence-level that will attract private funds. Justin is avoiding public funds, even for R&D. More power to him! But can he attract funds from cautious private investors without anything more than cool pictures and computer models? That's the big question now.

Good luck, Justin!

Check out the company's Web site for yourself. What do you think?

Friday, July 3, 2009

Creative Environmental Stewardship

This ought to get a prize for creatively using unlikely combinations of elements to benefit the environment:

Elephants and Sweet Potatoes to Feed Osaka's Closed-Loop Project to Mitigate Heat Island Effects

The mayor of Osaka, Kunio Hiramatsu, announced on February 18, 2009, that the city will carry out a closed-loop project using sweet potatoes and elephants in fiscal 2009. To mitigate the urban heat island effect in summer, the city aims to green the rooftop of City Hall with sweet potato plants and use the plant vines and leaves that are usually disposed of for feeding elephants in Tennoji zoo. The elephant's dung is then used as fertilizer to grow sweet potatoes.

This is from Japan for Sustainability, whose Web site and newsletter note lots of other creative solutions to ecological issues. I recommend it!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Wally inches forward; Arborland shuts out AATA

There's good news and bad news. For every step forward we take at least one step back. First, the good news.

Wally Inches Forward

Wally, the proposed commuter rail line from Howell to Ann Arbor, is coming slowly closer to reality. Today's coalition meeting noted these steps forward:

  • An archeological investigation was conducted at the proposed Hamburg station site to insure than no Native American grave sites or artifacts would be desecrated. That was necessary because it's within a mile of a known Native American burial ground. The only artifacts found were two nails and a bolt, less than fifty years old, so the Hamburg station has the go-ahead.
  • The plan calls for using bi-level commuter rail cars sold by Chicago's Metra agency when then got too old to be worth keeping. After a competitive bidding process, a contract has been awarded to Great Lakes Central Railway to refurbish the cars and make some of them ADA compliant. The idea is to assemble the cars into sets that will each include at least one car with a wider door and space for wheel chairs.
  • The boarding-platform height has been determined: 8 inches over the top of the rail. This will allow plans for stations to be started.
  • Surveys are in progress to determine what people want and how they feel: the phone survey for Livingston County areas near Wally was completed last week; the one for Washtenaw Wally areas is this week. An on-line survey of interested people will be available soon. I'll send you the link when it's up.
  • The PR consultant suggested a unified approach to getting information out - especially the reasons we need Wally. It involves two co-chairs, one from each county through which Wally will pass (Washtenaw and Livingston). There was a long discussion of how that effort would be organized, the upshot of which is that nothing has been decided yet.

Arborland Ejects AATA

If you live in the area, you've probably heard by now: Arborland's management is shutting out buses beginning July 1. AATA has used Arborland as a transfer point for thirty years. I remember riding to WCC when I first started teaching there in 1983, transferring at Arborland. Routes 4, 7, and 22 call there, and AATA counts about a thousand boardings there every weekday.

Apparently AATA has been in negotiations with Finsilver Friedman, Arborland's owners, off and on for a couple of years. A significant number of passengers are known to park in Arborland's convenient lot, hop on a bus, and retrieve their cars several hours later without spending a dime at the mall. Store owners - reasonably enough - objected to parking spots being taken in that way, so AATA posted signs to direct bus users to use only spots away from the stores. They even offered to put AATA staff at Arborland to shoo passengers away from parking in places too close to the shops. Finsilver Friedman simply refused to renew. AATA has explained it in a press release on their Web site.

Let's be clear: Finsilver Friedman has every right to restrict their parking lot to paying customers, and AATA is not a paying customer. That said, it's a stupid move. Really dumb. Rumor has it their email inbox is over quota from all the complaints they're getting. They're not answering any of them. They won't say why they're refusing AATA's permission in spite of efforts to accommodate the mall's needs. My private theory about their reticence is that they don't like the kind of people who are supposed to ride buses. They want Arborland to be seen as an upscale kind of place, but "everybody knows transit riders aren't the right kind of people." Articulating that would leave them wide open for accusations of stereotyping, prejudice, and even *gasp* racism, so silence is golden.

With more and more people flocking to public transit, you'd think mall management companies would welcome buses. You'd think they would consider ways to integrate bus-riding and shopping. Perhaps bringing the buses closer to the shops, rather than keeping them at arm's length on a concrete island surrounded by parking lots and driveways. Maybe even putting stores like Hiller's and cafés like Starbucks right next to the bus transfer points, so people could easily pick up a latte or a gallon of milk while waiting for their bus.

Instead, the buses will be stopping in traffic on Washtenaw Avenue, at least for now. Most people wanting to transfer will have to cross Washtenaw at one of its busiest points. AATA is urging people to cross at the Yost signal (here's the diagram). But the arrangement of the intersection is maximally inconvenient for that. Let's say you're on a 4 or 7 bus heading toward Ann Arbor, and you need to get to North Campus or the VA Hospital. For many years, it was just a question of getting off your first bus, waiting for the 22, and getting on. Beginning July 1, You'll have to get off, wait for the light to cross the west Arborland drive, wait again to cross Washtenaw, and wait again to cross Yost before boarding. Tell me nobody will try to dart through traffic on Washtenaw, especially if they see the 22 about to leave. Tell me everybody will wait for three changes of the traffic signal, even if it means missing their bus and waiting another half-hour in the rain.

AATA has been in touch with MDOT to try to remedy the situation. Washtenaw is a State Highway, so MDOT has to approve any changes. You may have noticed that MDOT's budget is disappearing fast, and AATA's revenues are shrinking rapidly, so tell me how long you think it will take to get funding to make any changes.

There may be a bright spot, though. With those nasty buses gone, and plenty of parking available for upscale customers, Arborland's revenues will be going up, right? So the City of Ann Arbor will benefit from a huge increase in tax revenues, won't they?

What to you think?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Transit Oriented Development's Advantages

OK, maybe it doesn't seem cool to blog about someone else's blog, but this is one that's really worth it. It's Todd Litman's blog on Planetizen, "Comprehensive Evaluation of Transit Oriented Development Benefits." Todd is the executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.

One interesting fact that came to light in his study is that TOD increased transit use somewhat, but most of all increased walking, and decreased vehicle miles traveled (VMT, the standard measure of automobile use).

Let me give you a quote of the main TOD advantages he cites, then urge you to read the entire blog entry:

  • Congestion reduction (30-50% reductions in per capita annual congestion delay are typical between transit-oriented cities and comparable size automobile-oriented cities).
  • Road and parking facility cost savings (worth hundreds of dollars annually per capita).
  • Consumer savings and improved affordability (often totaling thousands of dollars annual per household).
  • Improved safety (residents of transit-oriented communities have about a quarter of the per-capita traffic fatality rate as residents of automobile-dependent sprawl, taking into account all traffic deaths, including pedestrians and transit passengers).
  • Improved mobility options for non-drivers (non-drivers benefit not only from improved public transit service, but also from improved walking and cycling conditions and more compact and mixed land use).
  • Improved public fitness and health (transit users are four times as likely to achieve the target of 20 minutes or more of walking per day as people who do not use transit on a particular day).
  • Increased local property values and household wealth (improved accessibility and transportation cost savings tend to be capitalized in higher land values, which appreciates over time).
  • Energy conservation and emission reductions (residents of transit-oriented communities tend to consume 20-40% less transportation energy than they would in more automobile dependent communities).
  • More dollars circulating in the local economy (expenditures on vehicles and fuel provide less employment and business activity than expenditures on other consumer goods, and much less than expenditures on transit service).

Interesting? So go see what else Todd has to say!

Thursday, May 21, 2009


Lou Glazer said it. The Fortune 500 say it. Arts and culture really count. Yesterday, Tamara Real from Ann Arbor's Arts Alliance made a presentation at WATS (Washtenaw Area Transportation Study) to highlight that importance.

Just a minute. What does WATS have to do with the arts? More than we might guess, apparently. Here's the connection...

A recent survey looked at the hiring criteria of Fortune 500 companies, and found that they're using a rather unexpected predictor of success for their young applicants: their involvement in creative and cultural activities in high school. The reason? They've discovered drama, music, and art develop creativity and problem-solving ability. Sure, the math, science, and language - all that is important. But what businesses are looking for is adaptability, problem-solving skill, ability to think their way through novel situations. And what they've found is that so-called "cultural activities" are the best way to tell whether someone will demonstrate the necessary quickness on their feet.

The obvious application of this is for our schools, facing tough decisions about what to cut in lean times. Usually the first things to go are arts and culture programs. "They're optional, aren't they?" Of course, the best answer is, "Don't cut anything: invest in our kids!" - but these aren't the best of times.

So where's the tie-in to transportation? Well, it seems schools are cutting back on school bus transportation to museums, music venues, and other "enrichment" activities. Since many of the kids don't have their driver licenses, or perhaps the family lacks a spare automobile, they don't get to the arts and cultural things they need to make them attractive to employers. Well, I guess they're fine for flipping burgers or scanning UPC codes at the registers.

And the thing is, other parts of the country - and other countries - offer their citizens convenient , reliable, frequent public transportation, which their kids can use to enrich their lives and their résumés. So in addition to not cutting our school budgets, investing in public transportation can help our kids catch up with the rest of the world. Not to mention giving a break to the hard-working moms and dads who now try to ferry their kids around everywhere. It's a transportation connection I hadn't thought about, so here's a big THANK YOU to Tamara, Angela, and Cindy from the Arts Alliance.

AA-Detroit Commuter Rail

SEMCOG'S Carmine Palombo was at the the WATS meeting yesterday morning. In addition to explaining the Transportation Asset Management program, he had a quick report on east-west commuter rail progress. "It's like those Christmas presents you give your kids sometimes," he said. "When they open the box, they find another box inside. Inside the second box is a third, and so on. I keep thinking I've opened the last box, and finding another one." So what's the next box - "The last one, I hope!"

SEMCOG and Canadian National Railway have agreed on usage fees, and are now discussing scheduling and dispatching - in other words, who gets to send their train through first. This one is really critical, folks. Without priority for passenger trains, reliability is down the tubes. Without reliability, you lose most of your commuters. Without commuters... curtains for the whole project.

Good News from the AATA Board

At last night's AATA Board meeting, Chairman David Nacht (who had just announced proudly that he rode his bike to the meeting) got a question from a concerned Ypsilanti resident: "I heard service to Ypsilanti will be discontinued, and I just wanted to find out when that will be discussed." Nacht's answer: "We are not planning to discuss cutting service to Ypsilanti at this or any other meeting. We will stand by our POSA (Purchase of Service Agreement) partners."

AATA had requested an increase in the service fee to all districts outside of Ann Arbor, because they pay for only part of the cost of their service. Ypsilanti was the first to say they wouldn't be able to up the ante, but of course the townships are financially just as badly off. So here's a big THANK YOU to David Nacht for his willingness to be flexible.

Thank you also to Ann Arbor residents, who are subsidizing the outlying areas through their millage payments. Please be patient with us. Washtenaw County can either be a successful whole, or a bunch of squabbling, failing jurisdictions. Though we don't all have equal financial muscle, we will all fail equally if some of us fail. Let's be ready to support the unified county transportation plan as soon as it's unveiled.

Brief Summary

This summary of Michigan's transportation system from an official who is in a position to know, but shall remain nameless to protect his or her effectiveness: "Things suck, and they're getting worse. I try to keep the message that simple to get the point across to our legislators."

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Washtenaw Avenue Talent Corridor

I have to let you know about the Washtenaw Corridor project. I mentioned it back on April 7, how Anya Dale is leading the planning effort to get transit-oriented development going on Washtenaw Avenue, between AA and Ypsi. The goal is to have an area that attracts young, college-educated people who want a vibrant, walkable neighborhood with good public transportation.

So we had a meeting today, discussed what to do next in three areas: Planning/Zoning, Transportation, and Marketing. It's time-consuming because we want ideas from all the people and groups represented. I can't tell you what was decided, because nothing was decided - we just brainstormed. Anya Dale and her team at the County have their work cut out for them, trying to get it all to make coherent sense.

You know, these things seem to go so very slowly, but really it's necessary to do it "right". In this case, "right" is with public participation. I was so pleased to see not only "the usual suspects", but people from the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice. "The usual suspects", bless them, are representatives of local governments, AATA, planning agencies, businesses, and chambers of commerce. They're the ones who make this kind of project go. But the Interfaith Council: they're on board because Michigan without transit-oriented development is an unjust place.

Yes, unjust.

In case I haven't said it often enough, communities that require automobiles to live in can become traps. "Need a job, son? Drive over and see us!" But... "Don't have a car, son? Get a job!" Trapped.

The result: we're compelled to live for our cars, and people with low-paying jobs are compelled to pay for their cars just to get to their jobs, whether or not they can afford health care, decent housing, or even food for the kids. This is the American Dream, according to some. How quickly that "dream" becomes a nightmare when you're laid off, you can't pay off your credit cards, car payments, and mortgage. That's why the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice is taking part in the project.

Slow as it seems, this is making the best progress of any transit-oriented development in the county. Thank you, team members. Thank you, Anya Dale, for managing the project. Thank you, Mandy Grewal and Dick Carlisle, for championing it.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Need: Dire.
The Great Opportunity: Rail.

We had a Town Hall Meeting, organized by State Rep. Pam Byrnes (D-Washtenaw) to talk about transportation. Rep. Byrnes assembled a panel of three to tell us about the current situation and what we're looking at in the near future.

The panel:

  • Terri Blackmore, Executive Director of the Washtenaw Area Transportation Study

  • Ronald K. DeCook, Director of the Office of Governmental Affairs, Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT)

  • Mark Schauer, U. S. Representative for the 7th District of Michigan, which includes western Washtenaw and Jackson.

There's good news and bad news. Let's start with the bad.

Doom and Gloom

Terri started out explaining how short of money we are for even maintaining our roads, let alone paving or widening anything. Michigan won't have enough money to match the Federal highway funds that will be available in 2011. For every dollar Michigan residents pay in Federal gasoline tax, we now get 92 cents back. In 2011 – unless we do something to raise more money – we'll get much less.

Big graphs and a map provided by the Washtenaw County Road Commission showed the condition of our roads. I'm going to skip the fancy graphs and just give you the figures:

Roads Eligible for Federal Funds

Other roads*





























* This table is changed from the original posting; Terri Blackmore explained the difference to me, and I think this is a clearer way to explain it.

OK, so by the most liberal standard, we have 520 miles of roads in“Poor” condition. If you live here, you know exactly what that means. Of those “poor” roads, how many miles can the county afford to repair?

Next fiscal year, we can afford to repair 90 miles.

Is this system broken, or what? Is this the United States, or Haiti? Folks, we've got to invest in our community! We've got to spend some money on our own state, if we expect anyone to move here and start a business. What this says is, we don't believe in ourselves.

A Ray of Hope

Ron DeCook next took us through the TF2 Bill Request. That's the legislation recommended by the Transportation Funding Task Force. I'm not going to go into the details. If you're interested, go to the MDOTsite and download one or more of the PDFs. Here are some highlights:

  • They're recommending that we ask the legislature for a “good” transportation funding system. They also spec'd out a “better” funding system, which they don't think is realistic to ask for, given the economic climate. They didn't even spec out what might be considered “the best” system, which they thought was a waste of time to even think about in Michigan. (After all, Michigan funding for transportation – including highways, marine, air, rail, and transit – ranks 47th out of the 50 states. What can we expect?)

  • Revenue will be increased gradually over the next five years. The current system of gas taxes will be changed so that rather than basing it on the number of gallons sold, it will be based on wholesale price – but the system is complicated, and includes a cap of the equivalent of 34 cents per gallon, and a provision never to drop, even if the wholesale price falls.

  • In addition to gasoline, registration fees (license plates) will gradually move up over the next few years. Counties that vote for it can add a fee to driver licenses which they can use to fund transit.

  • Truck and aviation fuel taxes will also be increased. Amazing fact: the tax on aviation fuel is 3 cents per gallon. That was determined in 1926, when it was 10% of the cost. It has never been raised.

  • Only 9.2% of the revenues will be dedicated to transit, rail, light rail, etc. Apparently the Michigan constitution prohibits more than 10% of gas tax money from being spent on transit, but not even that much has been allocated since 1997. I feel strongly that 9.2% is not enough. Sure, we need to repair our raods, but we've been neglecting public transportation even more. With climate change and peak oil breathing down our necks, we need to make a bigger effort than that.

  • Public-Private Partnership (PPP) is an important part of the new plan. This includes public-private operation of roads – that is, making some highways tollways and having a private company responsible for operating and maintaining them. The company would be answerable to a publicly appointed board of directors.

  • A pot of $50M would be available to help start new transit projects.

  • Tax Increment Funding (TIF) would be made available. This is a system used in many other states to capture the great increase in property value that comes with rail transit, and use the added value to help fund the transit itself.

  • Grants would be administered so as to encourage regional cooperation – something sorely needed in Michigan.

So those are the recommendations. They have to pass the State House andSenate. I asked what the bipartisan support was likely to be, and Rep. Byrnes said it was mainly there. There were members of both parties on the Task Force. I've heard the Chamber of Commerce is backing it. There are very few opponents, but unfortunately they are in very high positions in the Senate. So we need to push.

What can we do to help? Ron: if you see negative articles or letters in your newspaper, ANSWER THEM! Explain the need for basic transportation infrastructure. Make constructive suggestions. And I would add, check the on-line news and blogs. Comment on them, too.Terri: Support Partners in Transit, the soon-to-be-official campaign to fund a county-wide transit system in Washtenaw.

The Great Opportunity

The notice inviting people to this meeting said it was all about fixing roads and bridges. We sure need that, but if you've been following this blog, you know I'm not likely to be satisfied without transportation alternatives. I was all set to stand up and shout (well, in a polite, well-moderated way). I didn't need to.

Pam Byrnes stood up to welcome us, and said we need transit to be economically competitive. Terri Blackmore stood up and said we can't have roads that work well without transit that works better, to relieve congestion. Ron DeCook stood up and said the public surveys had taken MDOT aback: young and old alike were clamoring for transit. Mark Schauer stood up and said getting high-speed rail for Michigan is the greatest opportunity for recovery, and the most important thing he can do for the citizens he represents is to bring high-speed rail from Chicago to Detroit.

Rep. Schauer would like to put a train in service that goes from downtown Chicago to downtown Detroit in 3 hours. With this, he issued a challenge: can you demonstrate any other way to get from downtown to downtown that fast?

Now I've got to reflect on that a bit. Can we do it in a train?

To run those 281 miles in three hours, the average speed would need to be 93.7 MPH. I believe that's doable on the existing right-of-way, based on the numbers I've crunched using Japanese non-bullet-train schedules. But it would not be easy. Here are some things that need to be done:

  • Amtrak or the State of Michigan would have to own and dispatch the track from the state line to the Detroit station. Otherwise, freight traffic will get in the way and make schedules unreliable.

  • Serious work would have to be done in northern Indiana to relieve rail congestion. (Everybody concerned is well aware of this.)

  • Of course, the rails, crossing lights, and signal system would have to be upgraded to the level they are now between Kalamazoo and the Indiana line – pretty expensive, but not impossible, and Amtrak knows how to do it.

  • The roadbed and rails would have to be upgraded: cleaning and re-leveling the gravel ballast under the tracks, putting in new ties – perhaps concrete rather than wood, and of probably new rail.

  • Existing trains would not be able to do it, so new trainsets would have to be made to order.

Let me explain that last . Amtrak has been using the rail line between Kalamazoo and the Indiana state line as a test-bed for moderately high-speed trains in the Midwest. The target speed is 110 MPH, and to make it safe, they have installed special signals at grade crossings, and Positive Train Control (PTC) in the locomotives and track. The locomotives now in use, the General Electric P42 “Genesis” model,is rated for a top speed of 110 MPH. Gradually and quietly, Amtrak has been increasing the speed, careful to make sure all the crossing signals work right and the PTC system works reliably. When I rode the line with my GPS a couple of years ago, they were already running at 90.

I suspect Amtrak is now reached 110. Last Sunday, Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman rode from Chicago to Kalamazoo in Amtrak's executive railcar, attached to a regularly scheduled train. I have a guess he wanted to be among the first to travel on the line at 110. Just a guess.

So if the trains already run at 110, why would new trainsets be needed to get from Chicago to Detroit in 3 hours?

  1. The track from Kalamazoo to the Indiana line has lots of long, straight stretches. East of Kalamazoo, there are a lot more curves on the line. The trains have to slow down to negotiate the curves comfortably, and wouldn't be able to achieve the needed 93.7 MPH average. But there's a solution: trains that tilt can go through curves much faster than those that don't. Many modern trains designed to run on curving lines have an “active tilt” system. They are quite common in Europe, Japan, Australia, and other places, but the only one in the US is the Acela. To achieve an average of 93.7 MPH, the trains would need to tilt.

  2. Running between Chicago and Detroit without stopping is an option, but not a practical one. On current Amtrak service, it's the stations between Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo that have the most boardings (Ann Arbor has the most). But with the current cars, an Amtrak conductor has to open the door and stairway, put out a step-stool, and help people up and down some pretty steep steps. Only two doors can be open at any station because that's how many conductors are in the passenger cars. This means the train has to stop for a long time at each station, bringing the average speed down. California solved that problem with their San Joaquin and Capital Corridor trains by having doors are the same level as the platform (which also makes them ADA-compliant) and having all doors open automatically, under the control of one conductor. That way, the station stops take only 1-2 minutes, rather than the 5-10 needed with the current equipment.

  3. The cars used now are 30-40 years old. Amtrak hasn't had the money to replace them, and even repairing ones with serious problems has been a challenge. But in order to run in 3 hours between Detroit and Chicago, you need reliable equipment. Not much sense having trains that can do the 3-hour run, if they're broken down half the time.

OK. End of reflection.

Bottom Line

Congressman Schauer tells us the vision for transportation – in the House Transportation Committee, on which he serves, and in the White House – is for an integrated, intermodal system, a holistic solution involving roads, rail, air, and water. It is to be a system that takes into account the seriousness of climate change, the high cost of congestion, and the coming high cost of energy. It is to be a system that provides livability, BUT streamlines that complex funding process, which more often than not slows down progress.

I left the Town Hall Meeting feeling optimistic.