In Ann Arbor, a Boomerang of Transit Improvements Proposed

» One of America’s premier university towns considers how to improve circulation. But if all the traffic comes from the University of Michigan, shouldn’t it pay?

Like many small college towns, Ann Arbor has a peculiar relationship to transit. Though its bus services — both the one run by the municipality and that of the University of Michigan — attract some 40,000 daily riders, a huge number compared to the overall population of 115,000, almost all people taking the bus have some relationship with the university, either employed or studying there. That’s no surprise: with 30,000 mostly carless students and an equal number of employees spread out among three campuses and a medical center, people have to be able to get around somehow.

Daily travel on all modes between the North and Central Campuses of the University of Michigan already accounts for 50,000 trips — with a large transit share.

This year, a coalition of four organizations — the local transit authority, the city, the university, and the downtown business district — are sponsoring a review of options to improve the city’s public transportation. Though the study won’t be completed until the end of the year, the consultants have focused their attention for transit investments on a “boomerang” of a route heading from Briarwood Mall north to downtown, then northeast to the East Medical Campus. Along the way, it would pass through the university’s South, Central, and North Campuses, as well as the two medical centers northeast of downtown. Though the study has yet to highlight specific corridor, the choice of Plymouth Road and South State Street is virtually assured, simply because they are the major roads that follow the general boomerang pattern.

The review is comparing investments in bus rapid transit, streetcar, light rail, or “people mover” services.

Though the study is considering a roughly seven-mile route, it has already identified the fact that only the three-mile corridor between South and North Campuses is likely to merit anything more than typical bus services already offered. That’s because of generally weak demand from suburban areas for improved public transportation and extremely high demand for better services in the university population.

Indeed, while the number of trips made daily between the Central and North Campuses could merit investment in a grade-separated transit mode like light rail, trips outside of the university corridor apparently don’t even have the demand to merit articulated buses running in shared lanes with cars.

This situation puts Ann Arbor in a difficult situation, because it is clear that it is the university that is producing a strong demand for transit and yet the town is focused on implementing a service that would provide connections for non-university use; since both are sponsoring the study to consider improvements, a compromise between their differing interests must be articulated. At a recent downtown board meeting, city council member Sandi Smith expressed her concerns, according to the Ann Arbor Chronicle: She “had a problem providing support for a project that was essentially going to be a “U of M trolley.” …She stressed that if the feasibility study indicated that 70% of the ridership would come from the University of Michigan community, then the cost of construction should reflect that.” Should the city pay for a service whose benefits will go almost exclusively to students and employees of the university? Are the needs of the university any different from those of the college town itself?

For now, seemingly the only way to resolve this contradiction in interest is to make incremental improvements in the existing bus network, adding dedicated lanes in the sections between the University of Michigan campuses and sprucing up the route, perhaps with better shelters and signage, along the rest of the line. There is little ridership need for full bus rapid transit treatment, let alone light rail implementation, along the entire corridor.

Fortunately, that’s also the most affordable option, since Ann Arbor is far too small to be able to generate adequate local revenues to pay for something as complex and expensive as a light rail line. Yet the university, faced with an increasing population, may desire something more; with 50,000 daily trips between the two primary campuses alone, it may have no choice but to invest in some sort of rapid transit there. But such spending cannot come from the city’s treasury. If the university is ready to invest in vastly improved transit above and beyond typical bus services, it will probably have to do so alone.

Image above: Ann Arbor transit study area map, from AA Connector

27 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • dt

    Ann Arbor is an interesting case, as the vast majority of the daily ridership are student riders traveling on University buses between Central Campus and North Campus, or students living off-campus by .5-1.5 miles (of which there are many) traveling to classes on Ann Arbor buses for FREE with their student ID. At the same time, the Ann Arbor bus system, while route-extensive, is sparsely ridden, and has on-time issues that accompany a pretty rough traffic situation in and around Ann Arbor.

    Apart from the University itself, it is the University Health System–sandwiched between Central and North Campus–that employs tens of thousands of people in the region, many of whom travel from up to an hour away to work. The boomerang plan would allow people to get onto the system from Briarwood Mall–which is right off of the main E/W corridor I-94, or from US-23, the main N/S. Doing so could alleviate the horrible traffic in those areas and increase ridership among non-campus workers throughout the city who are currently very car reliant.

    With Ann Arbor pushing alternative transit, a N/S rail line that runs parallel to US-23 and a multi-modal transit hub at Fuller Rd. near the Medical Campus, it seems like the city realizes that they need to do something to solve their traffic problem. Luckily, they have a built-in student rider population that will make these types of initiatives appear even better in the eyes of the federal government and other funding bodies.

    So yes, this will be a heavy U-M ridden system, but I actually think that the notion that this would be a U-M trolley is incorrect. The current system works fine in that capacity. What this would do is open up the city’s main employer–the U-M Health System (which is a separate non-profit business, technically unaffiliated with the University) to potential transit riders from all directions AND provide student access to the city’s largest taxpayer: the Briarwood Mall. If this whole plan could come with a consolidation/elimination of other U-M and AATA routes, it not only would benefit students, but would stand to solidify transit as a viable option in the city which, right now, it frankly isn’t.

    Disclaimer: I was born and raised in Ann Arbor and attended the University of Michigan before moving to Baltimore, MD after graduation. I have no knowledge of the situation other than what is presented in the article and have no vested interest one way or another. Just thought I’d give my 2 cents

  • Tom West

    If the university is to pay for the costs, then it is only fair that it see some of the benefits. However, I don’t know how that can happen… can anyone suggest something?

  • Positroll

    Having lived both in Ann Arbor and Heidelberg, I have troubles believing Ann Arbor isn’t big enough for a decent street car line along this corridor, and there is lots of space in font of university buildings on State Street to place some rails …

    Heidelberg with 150.000 inhabitants got “normal” regional rail, 6 S-Bahn lines (though not all of them serving all stations), 6 streetcar lines, 6 rapid bus lines, 15 city-bus lines and many additional regional bus lines. http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nahverkehr_in_Heidelberg#Stra.C3.9Fen-_und_Stadtbahnlinien
    older but in English: http://world.nycsubway.org/world/de/rhein-neckar.html

    Most users aren’t tourists, btw …

    Yes, proper light rail in the inner city would probably cost too much for AA, but imO a modern streetcar system could combine a innercity strretcar line along the proposed boomerang with an interurban tramway like the OEG / Line 5R (that travels the Heidelberg – Weinheim – Mannheim triangle at up to 100 km/h and runs like a normal streetcar in the city) running e.g. to Ypsilanti, DTW and Detroit and back to Ann Arbor, then continuing on the same inner-city line to increase service …

    As for the university paying parts of it: doesn’t the city get most of its taxes from the university and its employees anyway ?? (I’m including the few high tech businesses that only came to AA to be able to cooperate with the university …)

  • dt

    The University is Tax-exempt, although they would get the benefit of taxing the higher property values that the University sustains. There is no city income tax. The University does make some Payments In-Lieu of Taxes for shared services (Fire protection, for example), but there’s not much. The city’s tax base is heavily residential, although that there is a pretty solid base of small businesses and start-ups that are there to take advantage of the high numbers of skilled workers.

    The University is essential to the city’s well being, but only because of the environment that the University fosters and the jobs it provides (leading to other spending in-town), not because of the taxes it pays. It is economic stimulus, in a sense.

  • Positroll

    Thanks for the clarification – as a student I didn’t pay taxes, only tuition (felt just as bad … ) ;-)

  • Eugene, OR is a city of similar size, dominated by a major university (the University of Oregon)–and it has a BRT line (EmX) that is currently slated for expansion. Granted, Eugene isn’t dominated by the U as much as Ann Arbor is, and the U of O is mostly contained within one campus; OTOH Eugene is a freestanding city (100 miles from Portland) rather than one orbiting a larger metropolis.

  • Positroll

    O.k., after reading up a little on the current situation re: AA transit (suspension of the Detroit – Ann Arbor commuter rail project – cf. http://detnews.com/article/20100427/METRO05/4270412/SEMCOG–Detroit-Ann-Arbor-rail-project-suspended )

    I’ like to slightly modify my idea:

    1) Normal streetcar in the boomerang; using low cost solutions as far as possible; cf.
    http://railforthevalley.wordpress.com/2010/06/16/light-rail-on-broadway-the-skytrain-lobby-ramps-up-the-costs-barstra-fights-back/

    2) Replacing the proposed commuter rail (for the time being) by Karlsruhe – style interurban heavy streetcars
    http://railforthevalley.wordpress.com/2008/12/14/karlsruhe-lightheavy-rail-track-sharing-system/

    running on normal rail track to Fuller Intermodal station
    – from Detroit (via DTW and Ypsi) and
    – the north (instead of Wally station)
    (with easy crossover to boomerang streetcar)

    3) In the morning, let the Detroit trams continue north on the Wally route and vice versa. During the day (students get up late … ;-), use most of them to add additional capacity to the boomerang line as needed to transport students around. In the evening, put them back to work on the commuter lines.

  • Lucy

    Does Ann Arbor have any prospect for growth? Would they like to create (at least) two town centers that anchor the streetcar? Streetcars can be valuable real-estate anchors.
    How much parking could be avoided if there were a streetcar? (Parking is expensive and encourages car traffic.)
    Some benefits of transit accrue to non-users, it seems likely that Ann Arbor taxpayers get some benefits.
    The split between partner agencies on capital projects always requires analysis of all benefits and all finacning mechanisms; Ann Arbor and U.M. should be able to walk through this process and build something useful.

  • @Positroll

    A Karslruhe type system only makes sense if you can use the same kind of vehicles (streetcars) all over the system. Because then you get the advantage of comparatively cheap downtown streetcar construction, coupled with reusing existing rail lines out of downtown, while at the same time needing only one kind of maintenance and one large order of vehicles — while at the same time getting a transit network that combines into town traffic with downtown traffic.

    Running streetcars on rail lines shared with other passenger rail and freight is almost impossible in the States given current FRA regulations. Instead of using signalling to prevent collisions, they require trains to be built like tanks so that if a collision happens, it doesn’t really matter all that much.

    Note that Karlsruhe is like 3 times, Heidelberg almost 50% larger than Ann Arbor. So it seems doubtful, given the car oriented development that happened there, vs the more transit oriented development in Germany over the last hundred years, that a system like this could attract enough riders to sustain itself at this point.

    Betting on BRT corridors for downtown (or just a couple of dedicated lanes) is probably a more practical idea for this city, but one could keep creative street car systems in mind…

  • @Anton

    You are correct, a Karlsruhe solution in the USA and Canada would be very difficult at this point in time. What needs to happen is legislation to permit the operation with TramTrain.

    I believe, with the state of the economy, that government will drag the railways, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century and I believe when the ‘railways’ see money spent on track improvements, etc., they will be less reluctant to modernize.

    In Karlsruhe, even the German DB operates trams on the TramTrain lines!

    In BC, Canada, the Rail For The Valley group are spearheading the “Return of the Interurban” on the former 120 km. BC Electric Line, using TramTrain and some important news concerning this developments will soon be coming.

  • poncho

    I still dont entirely understand how Kenosha WI built their entire trolley line (track, wires, carbarn, 5 restored trolleys) for less than $10 million, can this be replicated elsewhere such as Ann Arbor?

  • J

    Sounds like a case for BRT!

    A single corridor in the U area, grade separated, with stations and all that nice stuff. Many branches run through it, meaning 30 minute headways in the suburbs (running in mixed traffic) combine to provide 3-4 minute headways in the busiest area where the demand is.

    Technically, you can do it with rail, but bus provides the best cost option.

  • Max Wyss

    So, if Heidelberg is considered too big compared with Ann Arbor, why not compare it with Lausanne in Switzerland? Population around 120 000; two universities plus hospitals.

    However, Lausanne is situated on a rather steep slope, which makes transit sometimes a little bit tricky. But it has a light rail line, a suburban light rail line, an automated metro (on tyres because of average gradient of 11%, converted from a cog railway, converted from a funicular), several trolley bus and ordinary bus lines, plus a pretty busy mainline station with decent (30 minutes interval) regional service.

  • Positroll

    First things first: I’m no expert, so take my ideas with tons of salt …

    – @Lucy:
    Yes, AA is expected to grow quite a lot. It’s mentioned in the presentation on the site linked above: http://www.aaconnector.com/
    “Anticipated Growth – Between 2005 and 2035, Ann Arbor is
    forecast to gain 19,000 employees – a 15% increase.”
    “Transit Service Demand – Between 2003 and 2008 ridership
    on AATA and U of M buses increased by 38% to over 12 million passenger trips annually. Increased transit capacity will be needed to accommodate growing demand.”

    @Anton:
    – Ok, so use the same streetcars on the whole system (maybe you can even connect to the Detroit streetcar system and run a loop there, too?)
    – I see the FRA problem, but on the other hand the FRA is moving in the right direction – cf. the waiver they just granted for California HSR. So it might be worth exploring the possibility of a pilot project.
    As far as I can remember (it’s been some years), normal rail traffic on these lines was pretty sparse ….

    – Sizewise, yes, HD is a littel bigger, but as I said earlier HD has got 6 S-Bahn and 6 tram lines – so 1 line in the boomerang and one cross country should be possible …

    And then there is Detroit close by (way bigger than Mannheim). The big question is DO people in AA want to be closer connected to it or not? My guess: some yes, some no … (though all would probably like a train to DTW airport …)

  • Positroll

    Just looking at the map,
    http://maps.google.de/maps?hl=de&q=ann+arbor&um=1&ie=UTF-8&hq=&hnear=Ann+Arbor,+MI,+USA&gl=de&ei=gDgaTLDCLpKCOKPfmaIK&sa=X&oi=geocode_result&ct=title&resnum=1&ved=0CCQQ8gEwAA

    another advantage of a Karlsruhe style system would be the possibility in a later stage to (coming from Detroit) leave the railroad at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti and add streetcar tracks along N + E Huron Drive to St Joseph Mercy Hospital and Washtenaw Community College, then hop on the railraod lines again towards Fuller Intermodal Station (or even cross the river instead to Concordia University and then continue to VA Hopsital and UM North Campus…)

    P.S. Does anybody know whether there would be enough room for these tracks along Huron Drive ?

  • Here is another fact about the Karlsruhe TramTrain operation, just after the first few weeks of operation of its first ‘Zweisystem’ (two system) LRT, overall ridership on the former DB commuter rail route to Bretten, increased 479%

    BRT has one big problem, it is very poor in attracting ridership, especially the motorist from the car. Ottawa’s BRT/bus system saw an almost 15% drop in ridership for the first 10 years since the initial busway was opened.

    There is dichotomy between Europe and North America, where in Europe, transit planners are trying to make light rail cheaper and more affordable and in North America, the opposite is true – Seattle!

    Le Mans Trams for small cities.

    http://railforthevalley.wordpress.com/2009/10/06/french-delights-part-4-le-mans-trams-for-small-cities/

  • Chris

    I find this article interesting, since by their comments few people have ever actually been to Ann Arbor.

    1) There is no need for dedicated bus lanes between Central and North Campus, as there is not much traffic at any time of the day.

    2) Although the vast majority of employees of both U of M and the health system live many miles away, they are scattered in all directions, making any kind of rail transit investment unlikely to meet the needs of a great number of them.

    3) Plymouth Road would be a horrible spine for a streetcar system, as it would totally bypass by quite a distance any major trip generator. It’s kind of similar to the let’s-build-along-a-freeway-because-the-line-on-the-map-looks-good syndrome.

    4) I would have to imagine the existing university bus fleet is by far the cheapest transit option available, since it primarily uses student drivers making $12/hr.

    5) I think that a beefed up bus system operated by the city (the city and the university operate separate bus systems) would greatly improve transit options without adding a lot of cost. Currently the service ends at 11 PM M – F and 6 PM weekends. Just operating the service until 12 AM seven days a week would ensure that all students without cars would be able to access off campus services at all times. If Grand Rapids, MI can do it (part of their long range plan), then Ann Arbor could do it as well.

    I lived in Ann Arbor while going to school off and on for 10 years, most of which I was also a student bus driver.

  • Scott

    Yeah, I’d be surprised if they needed dedicated RoW. U of M should fund signal preemption, some nicer stations, nicer busses, etc. University of Minnesota has dedicated row because its in the middle of a metropolitan area, but the service vastly improved when they bought a ton of newer busses that were designed for BRT service. (many doors, less seats. articulated buses with 4 doors rock)

  • Positroll

    “I find this article interesting, since by their comments few people have ever actually been to Ann Arbor.”
    Well, this site would be pretty boring if one could only discuss the places one has lived in …

    “1) There is no need for dedicated bus lanes between Central and North Campus, as there is not much traffic at any time of the day.”
    a) You left out the word “currently”. The relevant question is, what will AA look like in 10-20 years from now.
    b) As DT said:
    “The boomerang plan would allow people to get onto the system from Briarwood Mall–which is right off of the main E/W corridor I-94, or from US-23, the main N/S. Doing so could alleviate the horrible traffic in those areas and increase ridership among non-campus workers throughout the city who are currently very car reliant.”
    The same is true for people living north of the North Campus and commuting to to the center , which is why there is a star on the boomerang map marked “park and ride” …

    “2) Although the vast majority of employees of both U of M and the health system live many miles away, they are scattered in all directions, making any kind of rail transit investment unlikely to meet the needs of a great number of them.”
    see above

    “3) Plymouth Road would be a horrible spine for a streetcar system, as it would totally bypass by quite a distance any major trip generator. It’s kind of similar to the let’s-build-along-a-freeway-because-the-line-on-the-map-looks-good syndrome.”
    Nothing seems to be decided yet. Where would you put it? How about going east on Fuller Road to VA hospital, north through the North Campus and then eastwards on Plymouth?

    “4) I would have to imagine the existing university bus fleet is by far the cheapest transit option available, since it primarily uses student drivers making $12/hr.”
    a) For students.
    b) Which is why UM doesn’t seem to keen to open its checkbook …
    c) Currently. But if gas prices go up a lot over the coming years, an electric streetcar might be way cheaper …

    “5) I think that a beefed up bus system operated by the city (the city and the university operate separate bus systems) would greatly improve transit options without adding a lot of cost. Currently the service ends at 11 PM M – F and 6 PM weekends. Just operating the service until 12 AM seven days a week would ensure that all students without cars would be able to access off campus services at all times. If Grand Rapids, MI can do it (part of their long range plan), then Ann Arbor could do it as well.”
    a) Currently that might help somewhat. But this plan seems to be about the long term.
    b) It’s a plan by the city – so students aren’t their prime concern …

    “I lived in Ann Arbor while going to school off and on for 10 years, most of which I was also a student bus driver.”
    Don’t worry, there will still be busses needed – one boomerang doesn’t cover the whole city … ;-)

  • Positroll

    Strange nobody mentioned it yet:

    GO BLUE!

  • transitnerd

    The city and the school share a symbiotic relationship. As one goes, so goes the other. They need to figure something out quickly. I don’t live there, don’t knw the situation logistically at all. Just saying, the two better work something out that both are mutually benefitted from.

  • Pat

    Like Chris I am an “authority” – born and raised in Ann Arbor. There are a few other wrinkles to throw into the mix:

    1) Football games
    2) Ann Arbor Art fair.

    While each for only a few days the crowds are huge:

    Football games in perspective: The U of M stadium can seat *every* resident of Ann Arbor. 106,000 people can fit inside the stadium.

    Ann Arbor Art Fair: 4 days in July, 500,000 attendees

    Ann Arbor is the only bit of culture in most of Michigan ( Lansing might be the other exception ).

    Ann Arbor also has a fairly attractive downtown, some nice oldish buildings, decent culture, ( I wonder if Hash Bash is still happening ? ) and tends to have other random cultural events.

    A light rail system to handle the crowds and to pull people back to the core would be the next step.

    Now if Amtrak could run specials connecting Columbus, OH ( Ohio State – “Oh how I hate Ohio State”) with Ann Arbor … feeding to a LRT taking people to the Stadium – that would be a money-maker!

    If I ever was to go back to Michigan, I would only live in Ann Arbor, that is how different A2 is.

    A2 adding a LRT would definite be a huge plus.

    I suspect A2 and UofM will find a way to work it out.

  • Chris

    The problem with Ann Arbor growing is that I don’t think it will be allowed. I remember even building 7 floor buildings in the downtown area caused a lot of consternation.

    On the other hand, since all of the trip generators are in a straight line I think it is possible that a light rail line could be successful. I would think it is important to have –

    1) Briarwood Mall
    2) A large park and ride where the State St Park and Ride / Tennis Center is
    3) Michigan Stadium / Crisler Arena
    4) Michigan Union
    5) CC Little building
    6) Cardiac Center / Hill Dorms
    7) Main Hospital
    8) New Railway Station on Fuller
    9) Pierpont Commons on North Campus
    10) EECS building
    11) The former Pfizer facility, ripe for development and satellite parking lots
    12) A giant park and ride near US 23 and Plymouth Rd.

    It’s very university dominated. I don’t believe that many people work in downtown Ann Arbor. Theoretically such a system might allow the replacement of parking structures in the dense central and medical campuses with new buildings that make a lot more money.

    Compare: between Central Campus and North Campus as many as 26 buses per hour operate all day weekdays; the busiest city bus routes operate 15 minute frequencies.

    Certainly rapid transit would be useful when there was a home football game and during the Art Fair, but is it worth the cost to provide something for 6 football games and a 3 – 4 day art fair per year? The art fair happens in July when school is not in session, so the existing infrastructure I feel handles it pretty well.

    • Woody

      You win a prize for mentioning the railroad station. IIRC, Ann Arbor is the busiest station on the Chicago-Detroit-Pontiac route that’s in line to get more HSR funding. The current schedule takes 4 1/2 hours from Chicago. The can probably get that down to 4 hours within five or six years with the work already funded in Chicago and Indiana. The passenger count will increase.

      Amtrak then takes an hour to get to Detroit. On the map that route looks wonderfully straight. I guess it’s through a built up area, with probably a zillion grade crossings. But one day it, too, could get upgraded, perhaps in a piggyback deal with the much discussed commuter rail.

  • mark

    I currently live in Ann Arbor, and I share some of Chris’s concerns about installing a new level or service. The trip generators described in the AA Connector study are all _more-or-less_ in the boomerang pattern, but there’s actually quite a bit of lateral distance separating them. I don’t see how a single ROW could serve all of them without zigzagging all over the place.

    I’m a strong transit proponent and would love to see AA put in LRT serving at least some of these destinations, but the only way for it to work would be for the city to commit to a lot more development. Given the huge NIMBY problem we have, I’m skeptical.

  • Positroll

    A few last thoughts on the lower leg of the boomerang (south of Huron Street):

    Looking at google streetview, when you get closer to downtown, South State St and South Main St have long stretches with parking spaces on both sides, but often without more space besides the street to put rails. Taking away all parking would seem too drastic atm.

    One “cheap” possiblity that came to my mind was the following: How about
    – running a streetcar line south on South Main Street and North on South State Street on a seperate ROW (in one lane formerly used for parking),
    – with a west-east connection on East Stadium Boulevard at the Big House
    – and a east-west crossover at Fuller Intermodal
    (well timed; tickets good for the second trip, too)
    (- and maybe a busline running in the opposite direction)

    – If you run trams every 10 minutes during the day, you could send half of them (need to be clearly marked) farther south on a extra loop to Briarwood and the municipal airport, giving that leg a tram every 20 minutes.

    – Station half of the trams at the municipal airport (there should be enough room for a yard), half at the northern end of the boomerang, allowing for additional (i.e. 10 min) service in the morning commuting hours.

    This solution should be relatively cheap, would preserve some parking on both Main Street and State Street and would allow for good speeds thanks to running on its own ROW for most of the time. If in 20 years more capacity is needed, you can still add track, taking away the remaining parking lane … And it would perfectly serve Football games …

    Any thoughts? (in case anybody is still reading this)

  • Emily Baxter

    As an Ann Arborite, and student aspiring to be a transit planner, I thought the author of this article gave an accurate interpretation of the situation. Something that must be noted, however, is that University of Michigan students and staff get free bus passes on the city bus system. And long-term parking is increasingly difficult & expensive in downtown. This is by design on the part of the University to reduce congestion. So the University is essentially a partner with AATA. Also, Ann Arbor is planning for growth, for dense growth in the downtown core. If parking gets more scarce and/or more expensive for University students and staff, and if the transit continues to be free, and if the University ponies up enough cash, I think it is viable to have, say a dedicated lane BRT system from North Campus to downtown. You will also get Park-and-Ride folks who park on North Campus and work at the Hospital or Main Campus. If you connect it to a park-and-ride near Briarwood mall or South State area, you will get those folks going north for the same reason.

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