Critical capacity

Last week, Ann Arbor Transportation Authority (AATAannounced three distinct potential strategies for its transit master plan (TMP).  Last I checked, 66% of voters in an online poll conducted by AnnArbor.com favoured the most comprehensive ‘smart growth’ approach.  This is one of those reminders of what I love about Ann Arbor:  in this case, its voters’ generally enlightened attitude toward public transit.

Which, the TransportPolitic’s Yonah Freemark suggested last week, correlates both with its density and its voting patterns:

It is only in the densest sections of the country that transit (or affordable housing, for instance) is even an issue — which is why it appears to be mostly of concern to the Democratic Party. Republicans in the House for the most part do not have to answer to voters who are interested in improved public transportation… It’s hard to know how to reverse this problem.

Well, I have an idea how to reverse it and involves which party you vote for, but Mark Brewer isn’t paying me to shill, so I’ll just point out this great diagram Yonah featured in his post:

Regardless of whether you share my political leanings, let’s admit auto-centric sprawl ain’t free, folks.  In a recent story, Detroit Free Press commuting columnist Matt Helms quotes Monica Ware, the spokeswoman for the County Road Association of Michigan:

Local roads will bear the brunt of the decline in road funding, Ware said. Some rural outstate counties have returned to gravel asphalt roads they can’t afford to maintain.

And the blizzard hurtling toward my cosy condo even as I sit writing these words is going to extract its own pound of flesh from the public fisc.

Of course, when AATA followed up this week with cost estimates for the TMP alternatives, there was the usual shrieking from the anti-transit crowd about the long-term cost of the proposals (which range in the hundreds of millions of dollars over thirty years).   But I was impressed by the effective and articulate defense both AATA and transit supporters have mustered in response.  Consider remarks from Michael Benham, special assistant for strategic planning at the AATA, who

acknowledged that some people are opposed to investing such a significant amount of money in public transportation. But he pointed to other major investments with similar price tags, such as Ford Field in Detroit, or a $413 million Michigan Department of Transportation proposal to add one lane to a stretch of U.S. 23 between Interstate 96 and M-14.

I am going to have to memorize that number next time somebody complains about the cost of public transit.  There were more great talking points from a reader commenting on the story:

This is not about today but, rather, what we want our region to look like in 30 to 50 years. A 21st century system of public transit will be needed if we’re serious about continued growth and prosperity. The autocentric society that we have built in the last century is not sustainable in the future.

For little more than the cost of adding one lane to US23, which only aggravates the urban sprawl phenomenon, we could have a first-rate transportation alternative.

As usual, for a deeper level of detail we must turn to the Ann Arbor Chronicle.  In its typically exhaustive coverage of the January 20 meeting of the AATA board, the Chronicle quoted Benham’s subsequent press briefing:

(Even the) Smart Growth scenario is projected to increase public transit mode share to 12.2%…While the different scenarios show a substantial increases in mode share, they’re still relatively small percentage…

In an interview with the Chronicle (cited in the Chronicle’s coverage of the January 20 meeting of the AATA board), Ann Arbor city transportation program manager Eli Cooper

responded to that observation by describing the role of public transit as skimming enough volume off the passenger vehicle traffic flow to keep traffic flowing smoothly. So he’s not trying to get everyone out of their cars and onto the bus – he’s just trying to make sure the option is available. Skimming a lane’s worth of traffic off of existing roadways by building transit, he said, works out to be cheaper than building an extra lane of road.

As the Chronicle reported, another major topic at the January 20 meeting was a feasibility study of UM’s proposed north-south connector (see the map above).  The board heard from project consultant Richard Nau:

(T)he question of study scope could be seen as partly dependent on the composition of the group of funding partners. With UM shouldering a quarter of the funding cost, their primary interest may have been studying the corridors where UM has the greatest transportation need (i.e. the Plymouth & State Street corridors)…

One of the key findings of the connector feasibility study was the documentation of the sheer volume of UM-related traffic in the Plymouth-State corridor, specifically along Fuller Road. The UM blue bus system for the corridor operates at “critical capacity,” Nau told the board during his presentation. That means buses run every two-three minutes during peak periods – from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. People have to stand while riding. In raw numbers, that means 30,700 riders per day, or 2,100 per hour. During 15-minute peak periods the blue bus system along that stretch of road carries 780 riders. The absolute peak number of buses per hour is 60 – one a minute.

In later questioning from Roger Kerson, Nau said they’d observed UM bus operations. People are left standing because the buses are packed full. The UM system adds extra buses as needed. The system is at capacity, as far as how many buses they can stack behind each other at bus stops.

In a separate phone interview with The Chronicle, Eli Cooper, the city’s transportation program manager, put it this way: More people travel along Fuller Road in buses than in cars – the total number of vehicles [cars and buses] is in the low 20,000s, but the total number of bus riders is more than 30,000, he said.

I will attest from my own personal experience over the past two and a half years at the U that this is ABSOLUTELY TRUE.  It is insane, and must be seen and experienced to believe.  If you are both lucky and aggressive enough to be able to shove and claw your way onto a Blue Bus headed for North Campus during business hours on a weekday, you feel like you are taking a bus in Mumbai, jammed between hoards of sweaty, stinky, coughing, sneezing students.  The situation is to the point that I predict UM will go ahead and build a high-capacity rail or streetcar link within the next decade, with or without AATA’s involvement.

And it’s only going to get worse:

(A)dditional development is expected to occur in the area, based on increased employment. By 2035, said Nau, traffic volume is forecast to increase by 10% along Plymouth Road,  11% on Fuller Road and 10% on State Street… The Plymouth Road and State Street corridors are two of the heaviest used corridors in the AATA system. Plymouth Road has service every 15 minutes and serves 2,288 passengers per weekday. On State Street, AATA offers service every 7 minutes, with 2,771 average riders per weekday… With some frequency, passengers need to stand… (F)orecasts for the corridor… showed around 40,000 trips per day. Nau noted that many light rail systems operate at 20,000 trips per day in larger metro areas…

Nau recommends an end-to-end service through the entire corridor that can handle the demand and frequency requirements in the shoulders – bus rapid transit (BRT), streetcars, or existing buses. For the core, something higher capacity and higher frequency would be required – elevated rail, light rail, or bus rapid transit (BRT)…

As always, neither community members nor officials could pass up the opportunity to air town-gown tensions.  Take board member David Nacht’s argument, paraphrased by the Chronicle, that ‘If the transportation system that is built serves UM needs, then UM needs to share the burden.’  Talk like this conveniently ignores that the university contracts with AATA so that its faculty, staff and students can ride the bus free of fare.  Of course, the ride itself isn’t at all free — students pay for it through fees and faculty and staff pay for it through lower salaries  — but the effect is that AATA is able to offer vastly more service than it otherwise would because the university does everything in its power to get people to take the bus.

As with the TMP alternatives, the proposed connector is in no way imminent — indeed, this was just a very preliminary look for the board:

If the community is interested in moving ahead with a high-capacity transit option in the Plymouth-State corridor, Nau said, this feasibility study is only the first of a number of steps. Next would come an alternatives analysis, preliminary engineering, environmental review, final design and then construction. Those steps could take from 5 to 20 years to complete, he concluded…

I will close this entry with two other relevant recent links you should read and reflect upon wherever you spend the next 24 hours of Snowpocalypse holed up:

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One response to “Critical capacity

  1. Nice analysis! There’s a TON going on and this puts it together very nicely.

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