Category Archives: Transit

In which I discuss my new commute, which is going to blow

So effective late August, it appears I’ll be making the commute to work in Ann Arbor from Ferndale, 5 days a week.  (Well, probably from Ferndale — there’s a remote possibility we’ll stay in Detroit — but that’s a topic for another post.)  With the exception of the last time I lived in Ferndale, for a couple of months in 2007, I’ve never had a commute of more than a couple of miles and for most of my working life I’ve walked, biked or taken the bus.  It’s something I’ve prided myself on, low carbon footprint, etc.  I always secretly looked askance at my colleagues who commuted from far away — why didn’t everybody just pick up and move down the street from where they worked like I did?

Hence this lifestyle change has generated some major cognitive dissonance for me.  I already commute to & from work from AMD’s* place in Detroit from time to time and have got the routine down pretty well.  In the morning, I get on the road when it’s still dark, turn on Morning Edition, savor the coffee in my travel mug, and on clear days I get to enjoy the sunrise.  The afternoon is not as pretty, but I have the choice of All Things Considered on 2 different stations (Michigan Radio and WDET) to help me power through, and an excited welcome home from 2 Cairn terriers (and a more low-key kiss from AMD) to look forward to at the journey’s end.

So it’s not that it’s an unpleasant commute; far from it.  It just feels wrong.  Going back at least as far as Sex and the City, my generation has been trained by mass culture that young. childless people get to work by the subway or a similarly urbane method; that hippies, health nuts, and the environmentally conscientious get there by bike; and that a commute by car is reserved for old people with kids and responsibilities.  I’m going to be one of those old people with responsibilities, alone in my car for 90 minutes-plus each day, stuck in traffic, and it’s freaking me out.

*AMD = Astronaut Mike Dexter, aka Fang aka my boyfriend/partner/the old ball & chain.

Why I sometimes ride in the sidewalk

As I’ve noted before, I commute by bike in warm weather.  I take Washtenaw Avenue, which has no bike lanes, from my home all the way up to the Medical Campus.  Because of the aforementioned lack of bike lanes, the high speed limits, and the heavy traffic on this road during my commute hours, I ride mostly on the sidewalk along Washtenaw, contrary to the official state guidelines.

I understand the reasoning behind the League of Michigan Bicyclist’s rule that cyclists should ride in the road, because for various reasons, it’s generally unsafe to ride in sidewalks.  I try to comply with this rule in high-density, slow-traffic areas like downtown Ann Arbor, or in Detroit where the roads typically have plenty of empty lanes.

But I think it’s stupid to say bikes shouldn’t use the sidewalks on stretches of road like Washtenaw which have heavy traffic and high speed limits.  Yes, drivers are supposed to share the road, but on the few times I’ve rode in the street I’ve feared for my life.  Even when following the rules of the road, halting at red lights (which I always do) and sticking to the right hand lanes, I’ve encountered hostility from drivers who want to kill me.  Meanwhile, for most of Washtenaw, the pedestrian presence on the side walk is pretty light.  I slow down and look carefully for drivers whenever I reach an intersection, and halt if I’m not absolutely sure a driver will yield right of way.  When I do get stuck behind a pedestrian, I slow down and go around them, usually on the grass.  I don’t care what the official guidelines are.  They are simply not appropriate for the particular conditions of the route I take, and I don’t see how mindlessly following them makes any sense.

When & why road diets might not work sometimes

In my last post I questioned Ann Arbor City Councilman Mike Anglin’s votes on a couple of transportation-related items at City Council’s April 2 meeting.

For the vote on parking minimums in the Downtown Development Authority’s district, Dave Askins helpfully summarized Mr. Anglin’s objections in a comment.  Meanwhile, the Washtenaw Bicycling and Walking Coalition shared a link to the an AnnArbor.com story on the proposed road diet for Jackson Road.  Out of curiosity, I clicked on the link and scrolled down to see what the site’s commenters were saying.

I’ve found the commenters on AnnArbor.com, as with most other mainstream news sides, are predominately right-leaning in their politics, which in turn carries with it a bias toward single-occupant driving and against alternative forms of transportation.  As I anticipated, there were plenty of commenters who, like Mr. Anglin, opposed the road diet for various reasons.  The strongest argument against was one I hadn’t considered — namely, that this stretch of road is a bus route, so traffic would no longer be able to pass on the left in either direction when the buses stopped, as they do frequently.

Depending on the frequency of the bus, I thought that was a pretty reasonable objection.  While I ride the bus myself, I drive Washtenaw Avenue often enough to understand the significant delays drivers experience when driving behind a bus.   It turns out the Jackson route, the #9, only runs every half hour during peak weekday & Saturday traffic hours, and only hourly on Sundays.  On this schedule, a road diet would probably be disruptive to 9-5 weekday commuters, but minimally so for drivers during the rest of the week.

Conceivably, this could be a feature of the road diet rather than a bug:  that some rush-hour drivers, frustrated by the delays, would be able to switch to alternate routes or schedules, reducing the congestion.   Even more likely, the addition of the bike lanes could make people more likely to consider cycling along this route and leaving their cars at home.   However, if you are the kind of person who spends a lot of time commenting on AnnArbor.com (i.e. an older person who considers himself a “conservative”), you are also likelier to depend entirely on driving to get around, and hence will not be convinced that you’d benefit from these alternatives.

An alternative to bike lanes that popped up on the comment thread was the idea that cyclists should ride on the sidewalk in the absence of a bike lane.   I’ll devote my next post to recounting my own philosophy on that topic.

Why Michigan’s roads suck

According to a Free Press/WXYZ-TV poll last week, 58% of Michiganders would rather continue whining about their roads than fixing them.  I don’t find this terribly surprising.

It is conventional wisdom in Michigan that the condition of our roads is among the country’s worst.   I’ve read a number of different theories for why this may be.  One is that we have unusually high weight limits for trucks.  Another is the freeze-thaw cycle that results from our harsh winters.  Another is American road construction standards, which generate cheaper bills but demand more frequent repairs.  Presumably each of these factors contributes to our bumpy rides, to some extent.

What I almost never hear cited as a factor is how incredibly overbuilt Michigan is.  (Credit due to Urbanophile, who has written at length about this phenomenon elsewhere in the country, and Charles Marohn, whose theory of the “growth Ponzi scheme” I’ve praised.)  And by Michigan I primarily mean metro Detroit,  with Genesee and Saginaw counties also shouldering significant amounts of blame.  Is it any coincidence that these areas also have some of the most segregated populations, auto-centric layouts, depressed home values, and dysfunctional inner cities in the entire country? The Detroit, Flint and Saginaw metropolitan areas are the poster children for autocentric sprawl, and have reaped their just desserts for it. Among the consequences of the sprawl is that, of course, we can’t afford to pay to maintain the countless miles of asphalt laid to service it.  And MDOT, unbelievably, responds to this situation by proposing expansion projects like adding lanes to I-94 in the city of Detroit.  You can’t blame respondents to the Free Press poll for thinking that the last thing we need to do is throw more money at the imbeciles running our state’s transportation policy.

In the spirit of problem-solving, here’s my proposal to help solve two problems at once:  our threadbare roads and our decimated industrial inner cities.   Restrict all state dollars allocated toward road construction and maintenance to the oldest paved segments.  Earmark the majority of road dollars toward the core streets that serviced central cities and inner suburbs before, say, World War II, giving an edge to fiscally struggling older communities across the state like Detroit, Grand Rapids, Ypsilanti, Pontiac, and Saginaw, as well as dense and walkable older communities like Plymouth, Rochester or Brighton.

This will never happen, of course, because Michiganders continue to overwhelmingly choose exurban isolation over city life, and dependency on car travel to the exclusion of any other form of transit.  They will continue to do so, even as the roads they travel disintegrate to rubble and eventually, one by one, revert to gravel.  They will continue to lament the potholes and the flat tires because they’d rather complain than pay a nickel more in gas taxes.   Their leaders will continue to subsidize greenfield development over infill, convinced that for their particular community at least the bill will never come due.

It’s the Michigan way.

PS 2-8-12:  I also want to make it clear that I think the proposal, introduced by State Sen. Howard Walker, to scrap the state’s gas tax in favor of paying for roads with a sales tax increase is insane.  The gas tax should be increased, not scrapped, and we should not be shifting the burden of paying for roads from heavy users (people who drive a lot) to light users (people who bike, walk, carpool or ride the bus).   This bill idea deserves to die.

Requiem for Woodward rail

Wow.

A sample of early reactions:

Early reaction

I can understand Megan Owens’ reaction, since the ‘six years of work’ she refers to are, in large part, hers.  And I certainly won’t dispute her characterization of the mayor as  ‘a moron,’ since he’s proven it over and over again more or less since his first day in office (but that’s a topic for another post).

But as readers of this blog may recall, I’m not terribly surprised by this news given that Detroit as an independent political and fiscal entity will likely not exist in its current form within six months.  Nor does it necessarily entail a worse long-term outcome for metro Detroit’s transit riders, especially the vast majority that do not live or work along Woodward south of 8 Mile.  The governor has made it clear that his vision for a new regional transit system centers on bus rapid transit, and that vision, along with the loss of control over its own finances the city will shortly face, was the controlling factor here.

If light rail does eventually come to Michigan, it will makes its debut in one of three places:  1) Ann Arbor (between UM’s North & Central Campuses), 2) the Woodward corridor in southeast Oakland County, or 3) Grand Rapids.

A couple of upcoming protests


Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun

The sleeping giant of pinko activism is finally stirring after 2 years of numb paralysis in the face of Tea Party dominance.  At some point, college students, the long-term unemployed and others who have the time to spare to dedicate to sustained hell-raising finally gathered the motivation to start organizing and demonstrating to protect the interests of what has become known as the 99%.

I’m too busy these days to post on this blog, let alone demonstrate in my class interest, but I’m pleased to see a critical mass of people emerging who are willing to do so.  Here in metro Detroit we have plenty to get riled up about.  While I personally think it would make a lot more sense for Occupy Detroit to be occupying, say, the Oakland County administrative campus in Pontiac or the State Capitol, there are a couple of upcoming events in the D that I thought worth publicizing:

1) Action Against the Detroit International Bridge Company,  October 27 (today!), 5-6pm, at 18th and Lafayette  near Ste. Anne’s Church.  Further details available at the Facebook event page.  The event is organized by BridgeWatch Detroit.  Here’s some background, if you need it, on why the DIBC is perhaps the most pernicious organization in Detroit.

2) Rally Opposing Bus Cuts, Friday, 10/28, Grand Circus Park, 3:30pm.  Transportation Riders United Executive Director Megan Owens writes that participants will:

(M)arch to the Rosa Parks Transit Center, handing out action alerts along the way, then over to SMART HQ and the Spirit of Detroit at the C.A.Y. Municipal Center for a short rally around 5pm where bus riders, advocates (including me) and others will speak.

It should be a great opportunity to keep the pressure on Mayor Bing to improve DDOT service and remind the legislature why they need to follow the Governor’s recommendations…   (on public transit)

Really, you don’t have to be a raging lefty like myself to get behind either of these causes.   Please post a comment or email me if you end up attending either and report back on your experience!

Cycling as activism

I started biking home from work last fall, & this spring I started making it a round trip.  It’s about 3.7 miles each way, & a year ago, the thought of making that trip twice each day would have been overwhelming to me.

Now I can’t imagine living any other way.  It’s possibly the best decision I’ve made all year, and one of the most significant & rewarding lifestyle changes I’ve made in several.  It’s been key to helping me control my waistline and finally start to lose weight, not to mention build stronger legs.  It’s made it easier and safer for me to make it home after a beer or two (not advocating drunk cycling, of course!).  And it’s helped me become a safer and more conscientious cyclist.  I’ve even decided to try biking into the winter months this year, purchasing a cycling cap at REI to wear under my helmet when it gets cold for that very purpose.

In light of the many benefits that biking has bestowed upon me, I want to give a shout out to a few organizations and colleagues:

  • Tour de Troit, which my man* & I are riding in for the second year in a row this coming Saturday.  It’s one of an ever-increasing number of organized rides taking place in Detroit.  My first time around last year, it was the longest ride I’d undertaken to that point and it helped show me I could not only ride that far, but enjoy it too.   In every neighborhood we passed through, the residents universally gave us an enthusiastic welcome.  It’s a great way to see the city, including parts many of us would probably never explore on our own, and I can’t wait to do it again.
  • The Washtenaw Bicycling & Walking Coalition, which has an active listserv I recently subscribed to.   It’s filled with insightful commentary and plenty of debate.
  • The Streetsblog Network, which serves as a clearinghouse for the interests of pedestrians, cyclists and anybody else who values safe streets and alternatives to motor vehicle transport.  Streetsblog tirelessly publicizes these issues on the national level and by helping to alert and engage readers in advocacy, most recently when Senator Coburn briefly (and, in part thanks to Streetsblog, unsuccessfully) held the federal transportation funding extension hostage solely for the purpose of stripping funds for bike and pedestrian safety projects.
  • Local blog M-Bike.org, which does a great job of publicizing and promoting rides in southeast Michigan.  It also offers diligent political advocacy similar to Streetsblog’s but focused on the state and local level.
  • And, last but not least, this blog’s dear colleagues at Damn Arbor, who introduced me to the novel genre of bike porn.  (Speaking of which, I can attest that there is nothing that drives pageviews through the roof more than casually including the word “porn” on your blog from time to time.  This was by far my most-visited post until my Richard Florida piece.)
There are plenty of people who hate cyclists and resent our presence on the roads.  I’m impressed by how effectively we are mobilizing and educating ourselves & others in response.  It’s one of the few bright spots of popular activism in today’s USA and has truly transformative potential for public health, transit, our economy, and the environment.  I encourage all able-bodied readers who aren’t already biking to take the plunge and start incorporating it into your daily routine, whether it be to work, to school, or for errands, and everybody else to check out the blogs and groups I’ve mentioned above.   I suspect that, like me, you’ll be glad you did.

*I’d be remiss if I did not acknowledge my boyfriend, who first suggested we get bikes and register for Tour de Troit.  Without his encouragement all those months ago, I wouldn’t be writing this post.