Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Walking Uphill

Today, I'm taking a break from the "BRT Spectrum" to write a note about walking uphill. Uphill that is, from the current Ann Arbor Amtrak station to University of Michigan Hospital's main entrance. I did this because I've thinking about the walk for many moons, but never actually did it.

Why worry? Because the many people who work at or visit the Hospital (UMH) will be expected to do this if the Ann Arbor station stays at its current location.

You see, the other option is to put the station right by the hospital - the largest single employer, and the fastest growing, in the county. But a number of people in Ann Arbor believe the land next to the hospital would be better off as a park - which it was several decades ago.

My concern is the environmental impact of having a station that's too far to walk to and from. But is it really? Today is December 24, Christmas Eve, so not many people are working (except in hospitals). Traffic was light at 9:30 AM when I set out, but the wind was bitter, sweeping 14 degree air out of the West up Fuller Road at my back. In spite of the uphill trudge, I managed a brisk pace. The warmth of the main hospital entrance was very welcome after 18 minutes. Following a brief warm-up, I headed back down. The sun had finally crested the tops of the hospital complex, the sky was clear, and the temp was up to what felt like a balmy 16. The wind had also moderated, and I only got a couple of frigid gusts as I topped the rise above the Gandy Dancer restaurant. But it took 20 minutes, where I had expected a downhill 15 - the sun must have relaxed me.

OK, so I've never been athletic, and I've even slowed down a bit over the years, but I enjoy walking and do it quite a bit. I guess my walking speed is pretty average, and 20 minutes is a good round number for the time it would take. Google Maps (below) makes the distance 0.9 miles, and walking time 18 minutes, pretty darned close to my reality.
(Click the image to enlarge it)

So how many of the people commuting to UMH would be likely to walk 18 minutes from the train station and 20 minutes back at the end of the day? Thirty-eight minutes out of the day is pretty steep for most twenty-first century people. And many of the folks working at hospitals do so on their feet for eight or more hours every day. I'd say it would be a rare person who'd be willing to give up their car and commute by train+foot to their job if this were California. Factor in Michigan weather, and the number drops even more. And in spite of the efforts of Ann Arbor City Council, we didn't make it to Walkscore's "Top 10 Most Walkable College Towns" (linked below).

Planners often refer to the quarter-mile (400m) limit to people's willingness to walk to transit. (This is said to be somewhat farther in Europe.) Kaid Benfield, of the Natural Resources Defence Council, posted a thoughtful blog (linked below) in July of 2012, in which he discusses various reasons why people are willing to walk longer or shorter distances. I'm afraid the walk from the current station to the hospital doesn't do well on any of the scoring methods he mentions.

Jarrett Walker has an extended discussion of walking distances (linked below) in which he cites the Transit Capacity and Quality of Service Manual, providing this graphic:
(Click the image to enlarge it)

This is interesting because it shows variation in the percentage of people willing to walk in different North American places. Calgary, Alberta, has the most intrepid walkers; citizens of Edmonton - quite a bit further north in the same Canadian province, are willing to walk considerably less far. (Is it that much colder...?)

What's really important is the difference revealed between Washington, D.C., residents of different income levels. Not surprisingly, low income people are willing - or are obliged - to walk quite a bit further than their more fortunate neighbors. Half of them are willing to walk 225 meters, while half of high income people are only willing to walk 100.

What does that say about where we locate the Ann Arbor train station for commuter rail? The distance between the station and the hospital's main entrance is 1448 meters, which vanishingly few people are willing to walk - even in Calgary. Of course, lower income people might walk that far if they had to, but - if the D.C. figures tell the truth about this - higher income people would almost certainly not. Rail commuter service would be subtly pushed into being exclusively for lower income people.

But wait - isn't the current station closer to downtown, anyway? Well, yes. Google puts it 0.7 miles (1125 meters) from the station to the Blake Transit Center (which I'll use as "downtown" for consistency with the WALLY station study). 1125m is still way beyond the distance most people are willing to trudge. So either potential station location is too far for most people to walk downtown.

Unless the train station is moved closer to UMH, practically nobody would walk. They'd have to be bussed. Sounds simple, but I'm told there are serious problems with that option. Depot St. and Fuller St. are narrow, and would be difficult to widen because of the topography and buildings around it, making it difficult for buses to turn around. They would have to go around several blocks, rather than run directly between the station and the hospital. Also, Depot is quite congested during morning and evening peak periods, so both buses and walkers would have difficultly crossing without enforcement of some kind - which, in turn, would cause traffic backups. Fuller Road in front of the hospital, on the other hand, is broad: 4 lanes with left-turn lanes at the hospital entrance and a turnout to reach the place where the station could be built.

All this adds up to one cold, hard fact. Depot Street is not the place for a commuter service station, much less an intermodal transportation center. The hospital location is, with hundreds of buses passing every day, both from the transit authority and the University's student and hospital transportation systems. If the station remains on Depot St., even with a new building and parking facility, rail service will not be a realistic option for most people. Instead, they'll continue driving their cars. The City and the University will continue to build parking structures to store the cars in. City transportation staff will continue tearing out their hair to try to accommodate traffic increases. Drivers will become more frustrated and their commutes will become longer - but without realistic options, that's how it will be.

Just like it is now, only worse.

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