Ann Arbor

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