A New Ann Arbor Train Station: Time to Weigh In

Recently the prospect of a new train station in Ann Arbor has supplanted the library lot has the most talked about and controversial local civic issue. With public comments on the Environmental Assessment Report due today, November 2nd, it’s time to weigh in.


The report mentioned above was released by the city and Federal Railroad Administration back in in September stating the preffered alternative is to build a new train station and adjacent parking deck on a parking lot in Fuller Park. The history of a new station in Ann Arbor is exhaustive and has been covered impeccably by Ryan Stanton of the Ann Arbor News as well as by fellow blogger Vivienne Armentrout at Local in Ann Arbor (who may be the most informed person in town on this issue).  There’s also a great take by Doug Kelbaugh, Dean Emeritus at the Taubman College of Architecture & Urban Planning over at All Aboard on Depot Street.

Given the depth of information available on the subject, I will attempt to just briefly summarize the situation to date.  The vision for expanded rail and a new station in Ann Arbor goes back a long way, notably to John Hieftje’s Mayor’s Model for Mobility in 2006 that was partly the basis for the City of Ann Arbor’s Transportation Plan, adopted in 2009. This laid out a plan for a new intermodal station on Fuller Road to serve Amtrak and commuter rail to Detroit with a link to a seperate proposed light rail route, what later became the Ann Arbor Connector. The University is obviously a major stakeholder and it was suggested that the project be combined with additional parking for UM, predominantly health system students and staff. In the interest of brevity (highly recommend Vivienne’s article linked above for the full tale), the plan fell through, the university built a new parking deck on Wall Street, commuter rail as part of the RTA Master Plan failed at the ballot box in 2016 and the Connector is in limbo due to the enormous cost. So here we are trying to decide what to do with a decrepit existing Amtrak station with more questions than answers. On to my take.

I have something of a unique viewpoint on the train station in that I take Amtrak all the time. Like all the time. I took the train from Ann Arbor nearly 50 times in 2016, I’m taking it today. I even started a spreadsheet this year keeping track of my trips and times so that I had good anecdotal data for posts like this (average delay of 15:37 in 2017 thus far). It’s an imperative link for my job and provides connectivity and productivity that cannot be replicated with other forms of transit at this time.

That said, do we need a new station? Probably? The current one is small and seriously dated, not ADA compliant and the parking is a joke. There are plans to add service that should continue to increase ridership and Ann Arbor’s station is both the worst station on the line and the busiest. Should it be built in Fuller Park as a massive parking deck with sidecar station for a cost approaching $100 million?  Definitely not.


Look hard, there’s a station there somewhere.

The only real positives of Fuller Park over another site is the proximity to the hospital and potential connectivity to the Connector. The argument has been made that the hospital location is important for commuter rail which I find dubious. The line may never happen (I’ve harped on the foolishness of a line that connects A2 to New Center) and let’s remember this line is geared towards Ann Arbor area residents traveling to Detroit, much less so the other way around (there may be 10,000+ employees at the health system, there’s 20+ times that in the greater downtown Detroit area).  A platform could be built on Fuller Park if needed in the future. The Connector, ahem, connection, would be great but the prospect of that project is dim given the astronomical cost. Betting on that line seeing the light of day is a low odds gamble.


On the negative side, Fuller Park is, in fact, a park. While currently used for UM parking, it could and should be a public use riverfront park, not a massive parking structure. Also, while close to the hospital, it’s not close to anything else. There are no Transit Oriented Development opportunities, no neighborhoods nearby, no proximity to downtown.

The existing location on Depot Street has always been a train station, is near downtown and Lowertown, is on a major transit corridor via Broadway/Plymouth Road and offers some unique attributes with the DTE site next door. In short, if a new station should be built, it should go there.

The report gives a number of economic reasons for Fuller Park, a large one hinges on the expanding of the Broadway bridges (unnecessary in the short term) and the acquisition of DTE and Amtrak-owned land (estimated at $6.7M-$12M). How much should it cost to acquire Amtrak land for a new Amtrak station? I think a fair number is $0 but whatever it is, it’s low. What the report fails to take into account is that acquisition of environmentally contaminated land from DTE should also be cheap, in fact the opportunity to partner with DTE on the parking aspect of a future project on that land could very well be a net positive. While the new station needs more parking than it has now (often over capacity in my experience, the current lot is a muddy free for all), it does not need nearly 1,000 spaces unless a million transit positive things happen over the next 25 years. Parking in the short term could be tucked below Broadway and shared with a DTE project. Additionally, there are great opportunities for development and neighborhood connectivity with a transit hub. Fuller offers none of that.

We have a great opportunity here to build a new transit hub for Ann Arbor, a gateway to our town. Expanded train service with all new trains (currently on order) should result in increased ridership (side note: actual ridership projected to increase 19% this year from a construction addled 2016, up 45% over the past 20 years but just 0.5% over the past 10, true increases will require more scheduled runs, better service or higher gas prices). Building a massive parking deck in Fuller Park seems a move geared towards UM parking, takes over an existing park and offers no unique opportunities other than a link to a long shot Connector project.

Depot Street offers the chance to build in a historic location near downtown, create synergies on the DTE site and Lowertown and still connect to strong transit links via Broadway. Properly executed and phased, the project could start at less than half of current cost estimates and grow as needed with ridership and commuter rail links. Our transit future is uncertain with autonomous vehicles on the horizon so investments made now need to be incredibly prudent. Modest, phased construction at the current location is the best path forward.




The Uncertain Future and Huge Potential of ArborBike

Like some 1,000 cities around the world large and small, Ann Arbor jumped into the bike sharing fray back in 2014 with the aptly named ArborBike program.  Now entering its fourth year in operation the initial funding is starting to wind down and the future of the service is uncertain.


Three years in now, most have probably seen the bikes in motion but a quick refresh for the uninitiated: There are 13 stations around town housing 125 bikes, available for rent with a credit card to the general public by the day, the month or the year.  The system is owned and operated by the Clean Energy Coalition in partnership with the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority (“AAATA”), University of Michigan and City of Ann Arbor.  They have a website, pretty straightforward really.

The funding and future of the system however, is less straightforward.  The University provided the bulk of the funding for the first three years, committing $200K annually.  For 2017, they have reduced their commitment to $80K, dropping to $40K in 2018.  Other sources, primarily the Downtown Development Authority, City of Ann Arbor and the AAATA, have stepped up their support to fill in the gaps and ArborBike is operationally funded through the 2017 biking season.  Financing for 2018 and beyond is a big question mark but there are some (relatively) simple solutions in sight.

First, it’s important to understand that bike sharing is a form of transit.  Even in places like Chicago or London, most trips are not tourists poking around the sights, they’re residents getting from A to B (or maybe poking around the sites a bit themselves).  As a percentage, fare collection at ArborBike is already on par with other forms of mass transit and can improve with increased ridership.  Second, the system grew organically by 24.57% to 17,675 trips in 2016 according to Sean Reed, Executive Director of the Clean Energy Coalition and head of the service.  That’s with no change in service, bikes or stations.  It’s starting to take hold.  ArborBike needs the proper investment, marketing and partners to not only secure funding but absolutely thrive.  Here are three ways to get the system to take off in 2018.

University/AAATA Partnerships with Shared Passes

The fastest way to boost membership and revenue would be to include the service with the UM student MCard.  There are 44,718 students at the Ann Arbor campus, each is assessed a couple of small semester fees on top of tuition including $4.25 for Student Legal Services, $4.60 for Central Student Government and $32.50 for University Unions & Recreational Sports Improvements.  Adding a few dollars to that last fee and updating the technology so that the MCard could provide immediate access in an integrated system would result in explosive ridership growth and significant operational funding.  The same integration should be established with the AAATA, specifically with GoPass.  GoPass is the DDA sponsored program that offers heavily discounted unlimited use bus passes for employees working downtown, there were 611,353 rides in 2016.  That pass should include ArborBike, again with a unified card system if possible.

Expansion of the System

The system is growing but is limited with the current number and locations of stations.  I’ve covered this previously on the blog, the present stations are virtually all at final destinations.  They’re downtown, dotted around campus and at the hospital.  The problem is that many, I would argue most, people are traveling to those destinations from an area that does not have an ArborBike station.  Namely neighborhoods around town, heavily student areas to the south of campus but all over the core of our city.  Reed believes there is funding for additional infrastructure from the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program (“CMAQ”) and other sources if operational financing can be secured.  There are also some new examples of stationless bike share that might be an option.  The bikes are equipped with locks and GPS technology that would allow them to be dropped off and picked up anywhere within a certain boundary.  While the bikes themselves are more expensive, it saves money on kiosks and provides for greater flexibility.

Corporate Sponsor/Partner

The final piece of the puzzle is identifying a potential corporate sponsor.  Most of the larger systems are underwritten by an enormous company, think Citi Bike in NYC, Santander Cycles in London (formerly Barclays Cycle) or Biketown in Portland (Nike).  It’s possible that someone local could step in (Bank of Ann ArborBike anyone? they do love to help), the branding and advertising would be excellent but it’s a probably a pretty big check to write.  I think the obvious choice here is the closest Fortune 100 company to Ann Arbor, Ford Motor Company.  If that sounds crazy, you might be surprised to know that Ford is looking far beyond automobiles, embracing new technologies and all forms of mobility in a changing world.  They’re already sponsoring San Francisco’s program, bought crowd-sourced shuttle service Chariot and are opening an office in downtown Ann Arbor.  Seems like a perfect fit.


2017 will be a pivotal year for ArborBike, will the growth continue, will funding be secured, will it survive?  The suggestions above are easily attainable but it will take a number of organizations working together to achieve them.  Sean Reed says the five year goal is 100,000 bike trips and I believe that is absolutely within reach with the right expansion and partnerships.



On the RTA and Success in 2018

Back in November the proposed funding for the Regional Transit Authority Master plan failed at the ballot box dashing the hopes of transit proponents and supporters of regionalism across Southeast Michigan.  While certainly a setback, it provides an opportunity for the RTA to step back, reassess and tweak the plan and marketing for another vote in 2018.  Below are a few suggestions and considerations for the next go round.


First of all, planning an entire mass transit system essentially from scratch for a region containing some 5 million people across 4 counties is a massive undertaking.  The RTA staff and their consultants did an admirable job but there’s always room for improvement.

Refocus on Rail

The current plan relies on Bus Rapid Transit (“BRT”) in the primary corridors, namely Woodward, Gratiot and Michigan Avenue.  At first glance it makes a lot of sense.  BRT is cheaper and more flexible and those roads are massive, 100-120 feet wide through much of the city, up to 200 feet of ROW further from the city center and in the suburbs.  However, these are long corridors, Pontiac to Detroit is some 30 miles making this one of the longest BRT lines in the US.  There’s over 25 intermediate station stops.  Projected travel time is 70 to 80 minutes.  That’s an untenable commute for your average suburbanite with a choice.  BRT is primarily a substitute for light, city rail, think the Chicago L or the New York City Subway.  Those systems work mainly within the city itself, extending out to a few inner ring, city-adjacent suburbs.  To go further out you need to take a regional train, something faster with fewer stops.

There’s a lot of rail infrastructure in place already with clear rights of way in and out of downtown Detroit from a time when the area actually had a commuter rail network.  The trip from Pontiac took 60 minutes on the train (or 41 minutes express) over 50 years ago.  There’s rail going north to Pontiac, east to Mt Clemens and Port Huron, west to Ann Arbor and Plymouth and south to Toledo.  The RTA is only planning on the Ann Arbor service and I think that’s very disappointing.  A relatively high speed train from Troy to downtown Detroit in say 30 minutes or so (essentially possible in the 1940’s so hopefully manageable now) is a truly compelling commute option for your average worker or Tigers game attendee.  Twenty stops on the bus?  Not so much.  I would want to see the other radial routes as well but the Woodward main line makes all kind of sense to start with.  Lastly, and I’ve discussed this previously on this blog, the lines need to go into downtown.  A train to New Center is all but worthless and you’re not going to get travelers that have a choice.  I would love to take the train from Ann Arbor but I’m not going to drive, bus or Uber to the station here, hop the train for an hour and then take a 20 minute Qline ride on the back end to work or play.  That’s just not realistic.

Prepare for and Embrace New Technologies


I hear from transit detractors all the time that autonomous cars and other emerging technologies are going to eliminate the need for public transit.  That’s not true at all but it’s an objection that needs to be met head on and there are potentially some ways to utilize more tech going forward in the plan.  This is a plan where much of the infrastructure is 10 or more years away yet the tech isn’t all that strong by today’s standards.  Essentially buses with drivers, GPS tracking and signage and shared ticketing with a smartphone app, etc.  Basic things that most major cities have had for years.

This is the home of the auto industry and hopefully home to the future of autonomous vehicles.  Think to the future, think bigger.  Work with Ford’s Chariot service, plan for autonomous vehicles, cars, buses, trains.  Partner with the GM-backed Lyft service for first and last mile connections.  You want votes, aspire and inspire.

Highlight Property Value Increases

Not everyone is going to use public transit especially in the cradle of the automobile.  If you want to get voters on board in places like Macomb County you’re going to have to convince them there’s something in it for them.  With two years to educate folks, focus on what’s important to them.  It’s been well documented that proximity to transit boosts property values and while that was certainly a bullet point in the plan, perhaps it needs to be more of a focus.  Use studies, show heat maps to give people actual potential numbers to consider.  This goes back to my previous point about rail though, the impact of fixed rail transit on property values is much clearer than that of BRT.

Progressive Tiered Millage Rate

This idea is a little more out there and I don’t even know if it’s legal.  The RTA was asking for 1.2 mills from every property owner in the four county region.  I get the argument for regionalism and a working public transit system is good for everyone but it’s still really hard to convince someone living in rural Washtenaw County of the benefits of this system to them.  They’ll see little to none of the property value increases I mentioned above and they’re very unlikely users.  How about a millage that’s tiered based on proximity to service?  A little complicated to be sure and I have no idea if the math works, but something like 0.5 mills withing a mile of a regular bus route.  1.0 mills within a mile of a rapid bus or train line.  2.0 mills within a half mile of a rapid bus or train line.  If you’re more than a mile from any service you pay nothing.


The backbone of the RTA’s plan is solid and I think fundamentally a BRT-based system is a good place to start.  High speed rail in and out of DOWNTOWN I think is an absolutely necessary part of the service as is increased technology and autonomous vehicle elements.  The rest is just marketing.  The RTA has two years to make changes and improve their outreach and education, this blogger wishes them the best of luck.

The Promise of Commuter Rail to Detroit


The Regional Transit Authority (“RTA”) has been in the news for all the wrong reasons recently with politics as usual getting in the way of regional cooperation.  Essentially the counties of Oakland and Macomb are arguing they’re not getting enough service for their tax dollars and it feels like the old city versus the suburbs battle that has held back the Metro area for a generation at least.  Washtenaw County actually sees the least in terms of new service as Ann Arbor is somewhat removed from Metro Detroit and already has a robust transit system (in fairness, it will also be paying the least) .  That said, I support the RTA’s plan, it’s important for the region and connectivity to our major city is fundamentally crucial.  However, the planned connection via commuter rail has one critical flaw: the final destination is in New Center, some 3 miles north of where it should be in downtown Detroit.

Although Ann Arbor exists in its own little ecosystem, it actually benefits significantly from proximity to Detroit and the amenities and infrastructure that comes along with a major market.  A generation of Southeast Michigan residents, including many Ann Arborites, turned their back on Detroit seeing the relationship as a detriment as the city declined.  The winds of fate have changed and national movement back to urban areas is not lost on Metro Detroit as a whole swath of young suburbanites are discovering the city for the first time and apartments and offices cannot seemingly be built or renovated fast enough to fill the demand as people gravitate towards downtown.  In turn, many people are starting to see that what’s good for Detroit is good for the region and the state as a whole, and regional cooperation is finally taking hold.

One big step in that direction is the creation of the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan which began operation in 2013 as a joint effort between the counties of Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw to coordinate regional public transit.  The RTA released its $4.6 billion master plan in May of 2016 with plans to put the measure on the November ballot for voters to approve a funding millage (although that timeline is now in serious jeopardy).  Because the area is so far behind in terms of transit and regional cooperation in general, the plan is vast, spanning 20 years and hundreds of miles of new or improved service.  Requiring support from a wide range of people and geographies means it includes something for almost everyone; rapid transit bus, commuter rail, street car, local bus service, etc.  Ann Arbor is already blessed with a strong public transit system, the AAATA, so it will see some improvements but less of a complete transformation than some communities.  The main components include express bus service to Plymouth and the airport, a bus rapid transit line down Washtenaw between downtown Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, and commuter rail service to Detroit.

RTA Master Plan

Ann Arbor has always been intrinsically linked to Detroit, the university was first founded there in 1817 before moving out to the country in 1837.  The Michigan Central Railroad opened the first rail line connecting the two cities just a couple years later in 1839.  For 145 years trains regularly ferried passengers between the two cities, primarily operated by Penn Central and later by Amtrak on the Michigan Executive line.  The service was terminated in 1984 due to declining ridership, aging rolling stock and the State of Michigan’s decision to withdraw its support.  The prospect of resuming this vital link is exciting but the RTA’s routing plan may prevent the service from being successful.


The current RTA plan for commuter rail service relies on the existing rail line currently used by Amtrak running from the Depot Street station just north of downtown Ann Arbor to the New Center station at Woodward and Baltimore in Detroit.  The biggest issue arises right off the bat, the line carries passengers to New Center, a neighborhood some 3 miles north of downtown Detroit.  While the station will be linked to the CBD by the soon to be opened QLine streetcar on Woodward, that adds a connection and a 15+ minute commute to most jobs and points of interest.  New Center is a relatively strong neighborhood (and improving) with immediate access to Wayne State University and the Henry Ford Hospital.  The iconic Fisher Building is there as well as Cadillac Place, a massive landmark office building home to the State of Michigan offices.  There are certainly some jobs and noteworthy cultural icons in walking distance but they pale in comparison to the downtown area.

As the service is primarily targeted at people heading into the city for work, I tried to take a quick look at commuter data from Washtenaw County to Detroit using the U.S. Census data from their 2006-2010 CTPP package but the numbers weren’t great.  The data is old, really before the development of downtown Detroit took off, and the margin of error is high.  For example, there have been over 16,000 jobs added to greater downtown area since 2011, most of them in the CBD.  For what it’s worth, 5-10 years ago over twice as many commuters from the Ann Arbor area reported working in census tracts in the downtown area versus the New Center area.   For a more current but less scientific approach I also looked at local commuter van pooling services and their destinations.  Using vRide to find available routes I noted 2 potential routes to New Center and 26 to Downtown.

The work-related commuter data is compelling and that’s to say nothing of the cultural points of interest.  While there are many institutions in Midtown as well, the CBD is home to three major sports teams, several world class theaters and countless restaurants and bars.  Suffice to say, more people are visiting downtown Detroit than any other neighborhood and it’s not close.  And while the connection to the Qline is a positive, asking riders to complete another transfer while also making the travel time less competitive with driving is a serious detriment.  It’s clear to me that the rail line needs to eventually run downtown.  It also needs to run frequently and continue into the evening and on weekends to service pleasure seekers as well as worker bees.

For the first phase, the current routing makes sense.  Most of the infrastructure is in place and commuter service could be up and running in a shorter period of time with less cost to the taxpayers.  Long term, routing to downtown needs to be explored and I’ll throw out one suggestion.  The easiest right-of-way from the west into downtown is probably Michigan Avenue.  Seven lanes across at some points, there is excess capacity for vehicle traffic that could be taken up by railroad tracks.

Detroit Commuter Rail Routing Map

I’m suggesting the trains take the established Amtrak route, hopping down onto Michigan Avenue where the two meet between Scotten and Hubbard and then continuing in dedicated lanes to downtown.  This potentially gets in the way of the RTA’s plan for Bus Rapid Transit (“BRT”) in this corridor but I believe the two could work in tandem.  Additionally, the tracks could be used for an extension of the QLine down Michigan, it’s 2.7 miles to Campus Martius Park where it could meet that line, very similar to the 3.1 mile Woodward stretch.  In the short term the commuter line could end with a basic station on Michigan in between the Rosa Parks Transist Center and Campus Martius, perfect for making bus connections, hopping on the People Mover or picking up the QLine to go to Midtown or New Center.

I’m picturing something like Austin’s MetroRail which enters downtown at grade in the street and terminates in a very basic platform station.  It’s not ideal but the location is more important.


Obviously this is a very rough plan but a significant improvement over the planned service.  Although it’s a mundane, fact-of-life type of service in many metro areas, the prospect of being able to take a low stress and efficient train ride into downtown for work or for play is pretty exciting here in Southeast Michigan.  Let’s hope the RTA Master Plan continues to evolve and that the powers that be see the light in working on a route to downtown Detroit from Ann Arbor.




Improving ArborBike and a Bikeable Ann Arbor

Did you know Ann Arbor had a bike sharing progam?  Based on the 2015 usage statistics, odds are you didn’t, or simply chose not to use the program for any number of reasons.  ArborBike launched in 2014 and 2015 was its first full year of deployment.  Ridership did not meet expectations the first year but there’s reason for hope going forward, assuming a continued commitment from the city, the AAATA and the University.

ArborBike is actually owned and operated by the Clean Energy Coalition in partnership with the institutions mentioned above.  Perhaps you’ve seen the sporty blue bikes around town or in one of the 13 stations dotting campus and the greater downtown area.  Day passes cost $6, annual memberships will run you $65.


In theory, I love the idea of a bike share.  It’s great for the environment, eases strain on our notoriously lousy streets and promotes exercise and healthy living.  In fact, it’s hard to find fault with it except for the fact that like all other forms of transportation, it requires a public subsidy.  Last year the program cost $227K while only bringing in $41K.  The University is covering the difference in costs, up to $200K per year for three years as part of the initial pilot program.  Initial startup costs of some $750K came in the form of a $600K federal grant and $150K from the city.  In the grand scheme of things, not huge dollar amounts but this is public money, it’s important to see results.

Initial membership projections were around 10,000 for 2015.  Unfortunately the first year only managed to garner 4,474 riders between annual and day passes, a little less than half of expectations.  The question is why?  Is it typical for cities to start slow?  Do we not have enough stations?  Is there just not enough marketing and awareness yet?  Are we not a bikeable city?

To start to understand this, I took a look at a couple of comparable cities to see how we stack up.  Both Madison, WI and Boulder, CO have had bike share programs in place for several years and both systems were built out by BCycle, the same company behind ArborBike.  Below is the historic ridership data for each city.

Year Stations Bikes Trips Annual Passes Day Passes
Population: 2011 12 85 18,480 1,170 6,000
105,112 2012 15 110 25,354 869 8,269
City Area (Sq. Miles): 2013 22 150 30,314 807 8,698
25.7 2014 38 280 43,143 1,455 9,834
2015 38 280 83,850 1,539 15,382
Population: 2012 29 225 63,325 2,150 11,710
245,691 2013 35 290 81,662 1,843 15,367
City Area (Sq. Miles): 2014 39 315 104,274 2,622 18,651
94.03 2015 40 315 101,339 2,789 25,734
Population: 2015 13 125 14,189 82 3,820
City Area (Sq. Miles):

So we’re not too far behind Boulder for the first year although Boulder is a slightly smaller city than Ann Arbor.  There’s also some huge opportunity for growth, Boulder has exploded while Madison has put up big ridership numbers but appears to be tapering.  I wanted to look at some other metrics as well, notably station and bike density and per capita ridership.

Year Stations/ Sq. Mile Stations/ 1,000 Residents Bikes/    1,000 Residents Trips/ 1,000 Residents
Population: 2011 0.47 0.11 0.81 175.81
105,112 2012 0.58 0.14 1.05 241.21
City Area (Sq. Miles): 2013 0.86 0.21 1.43 288.40
25.7 2014 1.48 0.36 2.66 410.45
2015 1.48 0.36 2.66 797.72
Population: 2012 0.31 0.12 0.92 257.74
245,691 2013 0.37 0.14 1.18 332.38
City Area (Sq. Miles): 2014 0.41 0.16 1.28 424.41
94.03 2015 0.43 0.16 1.28 412.47
Population: 2015 0.45 0.11 1.06 120.48
City Area (Sq. Miles):

Looking at this data, our stations relative to the size of the city and number of residents was in line with the other cities and Ann Arbor actually had more than enough bikes.  Still, ridership was over 30% below Boulder and over 50% below Madison in the first year when looking at trips per 1,000 residents.

So our bike share infrastructure seems okay to start with, what’s the reason for the poor ridership?  Marketing and exposure is part of it, I believe the city and university could do more to promote the service.  But I think the biggest issue is actually the location of the stations and the lack of quality bike lanes and paths in the city.


Let’s start with the bike stations and their locations.  With the exception of the North Campus locations (numbers 6 and 7), the vast majority of these sites are easily traversable on foot.  Granted, they are located near major points of interest and economic drivers but in order to fully realize the system, I believe there needs to be some stations further afield in areas that are really more accessible by bike.

Potential locations for expansion that come to mind include Michigan Stadium, Burns Park, Veterans Park, West Park, Nichols Arboretum, Argo Park, Eberwhite, Gallup Park, Briarwood Mall, County Farm Park and Barton Nature Area. Many of these locations are well served by bike lanes and several are along the Border-to-Border Trail which is the city’s best scenic bike route that’s truly accessible from the downtown area.  While biking is a great way to get around, an ArborBike tour could make a top 10 list of summer activities for an Ann Arbor visit if it includes the river and the natural treasures of our fair city along with the urban sight seeing.


Perhaps most importantly, Ann Arbor needs better bike lane and path infrastructure.  The most recent figure I can find is that the city contains 71 miles of bike lanes.  Boulder has 160.  Beyond that, many of the so-called bike lanes are shared lanes, basically a painting of a bicycle and an arrow on the road in the same right of way as cars.  The League of American Bicyclists actually ranks cities based on their “bike friendliness” which includes percentage of streets with bike lanes, percentage of bike commuters, education, safety and a number of other factors.  Madison and Boulder both rank “Platinum”, Ann Arbor is certified as “Silver”.  UM is rated “Silver” as well while UW earns a “Gold” rating and UC is oddly not rated.  (Of note, A2 does rank as the only large city in Michigan to even gain as high as “Silver”).

With few exceptions, biking in this town is not nearly as simple, safe and accessible as the city purports it to be. Cyclists in traffic and bikes on sidewalks are common.  There have been several tragic accidents in recent years.  If we really expect people to bike this city, both locals on their own bikes and visitors on shared bikes, we have a long way to go in terms of promoting an inviting and safe environment.

The city needs designated bike lanes and more non-motorized paths like the planned Allen Creek Greenway.  Bikeable cities attract young people, are healthier, better for the environment and less congested.  ArborBike, supported by the proper infrastructure could be a huge success story for the city.  Ann Arbor has the opportunity to be a leader in the bikeable space but it will take an ongoing commitment from the citizens, the city and the university to achieve it.


How Does Ann Arbor’s Transit System Stack Up?

The Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) recently released a massive new transit database aggregating information from 805 transit agencies across the country.  This awesome new tool, dubbed AllTransit, offers a trove of data, analysis and maps about transit access, frequency and usage in all major (and many smaller) markets in the US.

Ann Arbor AllTransit Map - Bike Commuting.png

A map of central Ann Arbor overlaid with the percentage of bicycle commuters, just one of many data sets that can be easily analyzed and mapped.


The data points are numerous and the site breaks down its major metrics into six categories: Jobs, Economy, Equity, Health, Transit Quality and Mobility Network.  They put this vast data set into an algorithm to derive a simple AllTransit Performance Score, a number from 1 to 10.  They have rankings as well, perhaps it’s unsurprising to see New York City with the overall top score at 9.60.  Ann Arbor fares well, its score of 7.87 is good enough for 14th in the country for cities between 100,000 and 250,000 residents.  It ranks 36th overall with virtually all higher ranked cities being either a major urban center or a suburb of same urban center.

I wanted to pare down the rankings and take a quick look at how Ann Arbor stacks up against comparable college towns across the country as well against various cities in Michigan.

College Town Population Transit Use Percentage AllTransit Performance Score
Cambridge, MA 107,289 29.87% 9.5
Berkeley, CA 118,853 23.22% 8.7
Ann Arbor, MI 117,770 11.05% 7.9
Boulder, CO 105,112 9.90% 7.7
Charlottesville, VA 46,597 9.09% 7.4
Madison, WI 243,344 9.67% 7.3
Chapel Hill, NC 59,376 N/A 7.3
Eugene, OR 160,561 4.52% 6.2
Provo, UT 116,288 2.28% 5.2
Athens, GA 119,648 3.11% 4.0
Average 119,484 11.41% 7.1

Again, Ann Arbor stacks up well.  Cambridge and Berkeley may not be the best comparisons as they are essentially adjacent to major cities with highly established transit networks (Boston & San Francisco, respectively ranked #2 and #4 in the country in this metric).

Michigan City Population Transit Use Percentage AllTransit Performance Score
Ann Arbor, MI 117,770 11.05% 7.9
East Lansing, MI 48,648 6.02% 7.1
Detroit, MI 680,250 9.21% 7.0
Grand Rapids, MI 193,792 4.11% 6.7
Lansing, MI 114,620 4.59% 5.7
Flint, MI 99,002 4.16% 5.2
Battle Creek, MI 51,833 N/A 5.2
Saginaw, MI 49,844 2.16% 5.0
Royal Oak, MI 59,069 0.88% 4.8
Kalamazoo, MI 75,922 2.59% 4.4
Average 149,075 4.97% 5.9

Ann Arbor tops the list in Michigan and in fact, Ypsilanti would be #2 on this list with a score of 7.6, not shocking since the cities are intrinsically linked and share a transit system.  Somewhat surprised to see Kalamazoo at the bottom of this list, a city with a heavy student population and a fairly established bus system.

The possibilities for using this data for city planning, real estate development and affordable housing are endless.  It’s clear Ann Arbor is a leader in transit for its metro size but there are still many opportunities for improvement.  The city has no true high frequency service and the percentage of transit and bike-based commuting has plenty of room to grow.  Hopefully the upcoming service changes at The Ride and future projects like The Connector, North-South Commuter Line, Ann Arbor to Detroit Commuter Line and Washtenaw Avenue BRT Line will continue to make the city more accessible, efficient, environmentally friendly and welcoming to young and old residents.

A Downtown Park?

The idea of a park in downtown Ann Arbor has been around a long time but has come to a head recently with the ongoing discussions of selling the so-called Library Lot to a private developer for a mixed-use project.  Proponents of keeping the land for a park are even calling for a public vote in the fall.


For a variety of reasons, I don’t think the Library Lot should be a park.  It’s essentially mid-block, it’s not large enough to be the significant central park it should be and the parking structure underneath prohibits large growth vegetation.  Furthermore, the parking garage was built to house a building on top and it’s an ideal location for the dense project that’s been proposed by Core Spaces.  Backing away from it now would be a disaster and cost the city the $10 million it will receive for the land plus millions more in tax dollars for years to come.  Taking the decision out of city council’s hands is also a little ridiculous, we elect these officials to make city decisions, let’s let them do their jobs.  (More info on the planned project can be found here.)

However, I’m all for a downtown, central park.  I just think the Library Lot is the wrong location.  The right location is directly across the street.  I’m talking about the Federal Building.  This building, arguably one of the ugliest in Ann Arbor, is an awful use of one of the most prominent sites in the city.  Even more criminal is some of the beautiful buildings that were torn down to make way for it including the beautiful Masonic Temple.

The Federal Building was built in 1977, a closed off, low slung building with a large parking lot in the rear.  Essentially, a travesty of urban architecture during a time period that saw altogether too much of that.


The site it sites on is much larger than the Library Lot and would have access to Liberty, Fourth and Fifth.  The rear of the site could be sold to the AAATA to expand the Blake Transit Center with a desperately needed additional bus lane and perhaps more indoor waiting area space.  This would essentially be a western extension of Library Lane and would help take buses off Fourth.  The remainder of the site could be used for the park.

Downtown Park Map.png

The benefits are obvious, an expansion of the transit center, green space to counter two larger nearby developments and filling the need of a downtown meeting place that the community needs.  The big and even more obvious problem is what to do with the existing Federal Building.  I would suggest building a new, more functional urban building in one of a few locations.

In my opinion the best location would be the the site just two blocks north of here, the southeast corner of Fifth and Huron.  That property is owned by First Martin and has been held for an office development for a long time.  It’s directly across the street from City Hall and the Courthouse.  It’s also a location where modern architecture would not be too out of place if a new building went that direction.  Another good option would be the County-owned site at the southwest corner of Main and Ann.  That location is across the street from the Washtenaw County Courthouse and has direct access to the Ashley and Ann Parking Garage (which can be expanded to house an additional 375 cars if necessary).

Is this all a pipe dream?  Perhaps but it could be done and the results would be outstanding.  I would say the citizens of Ann Arbor that want a downtown park should consider using their time and effort towards this end, perhaps petitioning their federal representatives instead of continuing their pursuit of a park on the Library Lot.