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Posted on Fri, Oct 9, 2009 : 5:59 a.m.

Google's Larry Page still has vision for Ann Arbor transportation changes

By Nathan Bomey

Google co-founder Larry Page is influencing Ann Arbor’s transportation future.

It started during his undergraduate days in the mid-1990s at the University of Michigan, when he envisioned replacing campus buses with something "futuristic."

It continued this spring in a conversation with U-M President Mary Sue Coleman, when Page - according to multiple sources - offered suggestions for better ways to connect the university’s north and central campuses. 

Then Coleman this week announced that the university would host a forum in early 2010 to explore “alternative transportation” options. That could include traditional options like intra-city rail or trolleys, or perhaps even more exotic options such as an aerial tram.


Larry Page delivers the commencement address at U-M.

File photo

For Page, who visited Ann Arbor in May to deliver a commencement address, developing a better transportation network in Ann Arbor apparently has been a personal dream since college.

When he was a student in Ann Arbor, he's said, he attended a leadership program that inspired him to think big.

"That program encouraged me to pursue a crazy idea at the time: I wanted to build a personal rapid transit system on campus to replace the buses," Page said, according to video of the commencement address.

He then ad-libbed, "Yeah, you're still working on it here." That part of the speech is not included in Google's prepared transcript of his address.

Page said his idea "was a futuristic way of solving our transportation problem. I still think a lot about transportation -- you never lose a dream, it just incubates as a hobby."

It’s unclear whether Page, in his spring meeting with Coleman, proposed specific transportation ideas or offered funding for a transportation initiative.

But his interest in Ann Arbor is well known. In 2006, Google opened an AdWords sales office in downtown Ann Arbor - partly a result of conversations between Page and Coleman.

University spokesman Joe Serwach declined to address Page’s role in encouraging U-M’s leap into Ann Arbor’s transportation infrastructure. A Google spokesman did not respond to requests seeking comment.

U-M in June completed its $108 million acquisition of the ex-Pfizer campus in northern Ann Arbor, adding to its need to facilitate better transportation options for employees. The site, now part of U-M's North Campus, has been renamed North Campus Research Complex. The addition of 2,000 to 3,000 employees at NCRC over 10 years will add to demand for efficient transportation options.

“We've been thinking about the challenge of facilitating the connection between these two parts of our campus for a number of years,” Serwach said in an e-mail. “It was the acquisition of the NCRC, and the prospects for growth that it brings, that has inspired us to take this new step to explore the possibilities.”

Page, it appears, has been thinking about the possibilities, too.

"Many things that people labor hard to do now, like cooking, cleaning, and driving will require much less human time in the future," he said at the U-M commencement. "That is, if we 'have a healthy disregard for the impossible.'"

Contact's Nathan Bomey at (734) 623-2587 or You can also follow him on Twitter.


Captain Magnificent

Tue, Jan 5, 2010 : 2:14 p.m.

Aerial Tram? Around here we call it a Monorail!

Captain Magnificent

Tue, Jan 5, 2010 : 2:13 p.m.

Aerial Tram? Around here we call it a Monorail!


Tue, Oct 20, 2009 : 8:19 a.m.

Regarding DonBee's plan--about a decade ago or so (Bollinger era?), the UM hired a group of architects to provide an overall plan for the UM campuses, including transportation issues. The most infamous consequence of this were the large gold letters placed around the stadium--removed a few years later by popular demand. In any case, during this planning process, my father, Robert S. Vogt, a UM civil engineering grad, presented nearly the same proposal as DonBee's--starting at Domino's Farms and the new East Outpatient Medical Center, through Pfizer, North Campus, and all the other campuses--ending at either the athletics campus, or at Briarwood. One of the PRT systems proposed was called "Cabintaxi", developed and deployed in Germany--which consisted of 'personal' vehicles that could carry a few people (in the same group, thus providing privacy and security), and that could be programmed by touch screen to go anywhere in the network--with empty cars automatically routed back to where they were most needed. The planning group listened politely, and may have even included a reference to this concept in their final report, but obviously it didn't go anywhere. Perhaps with a powerhouse like Larry Page behind it, something will change and a possibility like this may be reconsidered. My father passed away in 2005, never seeing his vision of urban personal rapid transit systems come to fruition--at UM or anywhere else in the US. We just weren't ready.


Sun, Oct 11, 2009 : 8:53 p.m.

West Virginia University has had the the Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) since the 1970s. There's a cool video.


Sat, Oct 10, 2009 : 8:03 p.m.

Why not transporters? The dilithium anti-matter would cost about as much and be used about as much. Beam em up scotty!


Sat, Oct 10, 2009 : 9:08 a.m.

Could it be a research project for a different kind of transportation. MagLev local transit? Government research funding? Something unique that is out-of-the-box? I realize Ann Arbor is not typically large enough for such a system, but I think the unique eco friendly population coupled with the extensive student population that utilizes the mass transit now could make it sustainable. I have to say - growing up in Metro Detroit, I rarely saw people on their bus system, while in Ann Arbor I rarely see an empty bus.


Fri, Oct 9, 2009 : 3:04 p.m.

It would be great if Ann Arbor developed a world class transportation system. It's much easier to envision this than to implement it I'm sure. There are three major players who would have to be on board to accomplish the goal: The U of M, Ann Arbor, and Washtenaw County. The U of M is only interested in transporting their students and employees to/from and across their campus'. The U should develop a rail "loop" that connects all of their local campus' and connects to the city system. The city of Ann Arbor has a decent system right now, but there is overlap with the University system and that overlap wastes money. The city should stop serving the University property and join with the University to connect their two loops. The city should have a downtown "loop" and branches to serve the various corners of the city. The county would have to get involved to help develop a system that ties the Ann Arbor systems to the other cities in the county. Can all three of these entities get together to develop this system? Only if you disregard the impossible, I guess.


Fri, Oct 9, 2009 : 12:32 p.m.

lets see - an overhead track - running from the UofM clinics on Plymouth Road (and an area where there is room for a large parking structure) to the North Campus Research Complex to North Campus - across the North Campus Diag - To the Hosipital - to Central Campus - to the Stadium and then to the 777 building (where the UofM has staff offices). Run automated trains with 2 cars and a capacity of say 30 per car - running on a 1 to 2 minute schedule during the day and a 2 to 5 minute schedule at night. Students and Staff get on with their ID cards, Others can buy tickets or passes. If the UofM would go this far, then it would be simple to add a downtown spur and a spur to the SouthEast. Done right on game days - it could move a lot of parking out of the city center and during art fair it would provide a link to reduce the downtown traffic jams - while helping to pay for the system.


Fri, Oct 9, 2009 : 6:06 a.m.

This is something I believe is important to Ann Arbor's growth. Glad this guy is on board!