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Posted on Fri, Nov 19, 2010 : 6:06 a.m.

AATA officials say countywide transit plan halfway done, has broad implications for urban growth

By Ryan J. Stanton


AATA bus riders head toward downtown Ann Arbor on a recent afternoon trip. AATA officials say they have identified many unmet service needs and a countywide transit master plan, if funded by voters and implemented, could go a long way to fill them.

Ryan J. Stanton |

Strategic transit improvements over the next 30 years will help steer smart growth in Washtenaw County, promoting dense development in urban cores while combatting sprawl, a planning consultant told Ann Arbor Transportation Authority officials.

AATA's governing board received a 59-page report Thursday night on progress made to date on the agency's countywide transit master planning process.

There to give the report was Michael Benham, AATA's special assistant for strategic planning, and Juliet Edmondson, a transportation planner with Steer Davies Gleave, the international consultant the AATA hired in April to help develop the plan.

"All around the world, people have been quite reactive in transit planning. So it's kind of, you know, 'There's a housing development, let's serve it,'" Edmondson said.

"Increasingly, we're trying to get one step ahead and say, 'Where do we want that housing development to even be built?' and really provide the economic stimulus through transit — and really steer land use — to sort of build that community that resembles the community we like, that doesn't let strip malls or suburban sprawl happen."

Benham put it this way: "Transit relies on density, but transit also creates density."

After dozens of public input meetings and extensive research, a five-step process to come up with a 30-year transit master plan for Washtenaw County is now about halfway complete. AATA officials say they have consulted nearly 2,000 community members to identify a list of specific goals and unmet needs a countywide transit system could address.

They're now working on a menu of options, determining specific projects and services for meeting the county's long-term transit needs.

One AATA official used the analogy that it's like trying to decide what to order at a restaurant. AATA Board Chairman Jesse Bernstein said he thinks it's more complex than that.

"It's more like planning your meals for the next 30 years," he said.

The board voted unanimously Thursday night on a $32,500 contract extension with Steer Davies Gleave that will last through mid-April. Between now and January, the consultant and AATA officials will be working to come up with three different scenarios for what the transportation system could look like in Washtenaw County in another 30 years.


Patrons board the A2Express bus headed to Canton Township at a bus stop near the University of Michigan Cancer Center in Ann Arbor last month.

File photo

"It's really going to frame the debate over what the transit master plan should be," Benham said. "We're very soon going to get to the good stuff here."

Edmondson expects to come back in April with a final report, at which time board members will be asked to decide on an implementation plan and funding strategy. It's still undecided, but AATA officials could go before voters with a countywide millage request next year.

The vision in the works has broad implications for the future of the Ann Arbor region, according to AATA officials. In addition to improving access to transit services countywide, the goals of the plan include supporting economic growth, promoting livability, protecting the environment, improving safety and facilitating a healthier community.

"These are all things we think we can influence with changes to the transit system," Benham said, pointing to decreased congestion and increased business growth as examples.

Board member David Nacht said he hopes the final transit master plan takes into account what AATA officials have learned from other communities.

"If we're going to ask voters ultimately to take their money in favor of a vision, I want to be able to say, 'Look at this community that did a similar vision in this respect and look how it worked,'" he said, suggesting that looking at what hasn't worked also is important.

"If I want to sell voters, and, frankly, if I'm going to be sold … I want to believe that that vision is viable from example, and not just wishful thinking," he said.

"It ain't soup yet, but we know you're all working on it, and I look forward to enjoying the meal with you," Bernstein said, thanking those who've worked on the project.

CEO Michael Ford gave a report in which he said more than 140 meetings have been held throughout the community to discuss the transit master plan and get feedback.

Benham said the AATA has identified many gaps in service. Fixed-route services are virtually non-existent outside of the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti area, he said, and wide areas of the county are underserved, while services on nights and weekends are lacking.

Of the AATA's 27 routes, only 13 provide Sunday service, 14 provide Saturday service and 19 provide evening service.

"There's really a lack of connectivity throughout the county in terms of people getting from point A to point B," Benham said. "We've heard so many stories from people about trips that can't be made. I can't stress that enough. It goes on and on."


"In my mind, we can't just be looking at solving today's problems," said AATA Board Chairman Jesse Bernstein.

File photo

Edmondson presented a map showing the possibilities for creating transit connections within population centers in Washtenaw County, as well as regional connections with cities like Detroit and Jackson. The map shows enhanced bus services connecting Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Saline, Milan, Dexter, Chelsea, Manchester and Whitmore Lake.

The list of transit options Edmondson presented includes local circulators, dial-a-ride programs, express buses, coach services, park-and-ride lots, commuter rail, bus priority and bus lanes, bus rapid transit, light rail transit and streetcars or trolleys.

Edmondson also talked about transit-oriented development — the concept of creating vibrant, livable communities that are compact, walkable and centered around high-quality transit. One example, she said, is the Reimagining Washtenaw Avenue corridor study project.

She highlighted examples of how transit-oriented development has been facilitated in other communities, including in San Mateo, Calif., where financial incentives are offered for building dense housing within one-third of a mile of a rail transit station.

Board member Anya Dale, project manager for the county's Economic Development & Energy Department, agreed transit can stimulate density.

"I think to make this successful it's going to be important not just to sort of pay tribute to transit-oriented development in language, but to actually have within the scenarios policies or recommendations for how to coordinate with, for example, the local communities," she said, adding it's important to make sure townships and cities are working toward a shared vision.

Bernstein said it's important to think long-term.

"In my mind, we can't just be looking at solving today's problems," he said. "If we start with a more robust bus system and then that gives us more development, then do we go to light rail? I think we need to be able to say, 'Yes, that's what we want on these corridors, so in 30 years we'd like to see this. Here's how we're going to get there.'"

Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for Reach him at or 734-623-2529.


Jay Thomas

Fri, Nov 19, 2010 : 8:45 p.m.

The real cost of these buses (whether it's here or in Detroit) is closer to a cab ride. The few percent of the population that use them pay their dollar fifty or whatever and the other fifteen bucks gets billed to everyone else's property taxes, federal taxes, etc. Sending buses out to the boonies will just cost more... but if it's not your money... who cares, right?


Fri, Nov 19, 2010 : 7:06 p.m.

@townie - At 20 units per acre - the lot size would be about 2150 square feet. Most of the lots I can find advertised for sale or to build on in the area are in excess of 5000 square feet in the townships. Many are an acre, 2 acres, and 5 acres. I can't find any listing for lots to build on of less than 3,000 square feet. Most townhomes advertise 3,000 square foot or larger lots (many don't say at all).


Fri, Nov 19, 2010 : 5:53 p.m.

I have to agree with Mr. Nacht's conclusions on the potential for Ann Arbor's growth. This transportation study needs to remain grounded in local realities and not visions of Portland or Austin. For example, the bar graph on page 10 depicts densities of 5 to 30 housing units per acre and the modes of mass transit they will support (presumably if those densities are maintained over a geographic area of a certain size--not mentioned on the graph). The bar graph includes photos that supposedly depict what these densities look like in real life, yet none are of Ann Arbor. Did you know that the traditional neighborhoods surrounding downtown Ann Arbor are zoned R4C, which allows up to 20 units per acre? In fact most of these areas are already built quite close to that because of the number of houses that have been divided into apartments. These neighborhoods are very dense according to this graph, yet they contain houses, yards with trees, driveways and front porches. They don't have many, if any, 5 and 10-story buildings as depicted on the graph. (In fact, none of the photos show any houses at all--even at 5 units per acre.) We've been hearing an awful lot about density lately and I guess I just wanted to point out that these traditional Ann Arbor neighborhoods with houses are apparently very dense already--enough to support higher modes of transit, in fact. They are dense, yet retain character, open space and livability that is attractive to a large variety of people. So why is it that some members of this community, including members of city council and the planning commission have decided that these neighborhoods must be demolished and replaced with large apartment buildings? Could it be because consultants brought in from out-of-state have given them a certain "vision" of what density is supposed to look like?

Joel Batterman

Fri, Nov 19, 2010 : 5:30 p.m.

We're truly lucky to have this planning process going on. While it comes with some preconceived goals (like ensuring our economic survival), it also gives us an opportunity to voice our opinions on the future of the county, an opportunity which has rarely been offered us in this kind of comprehensive way. AATA service can be improved in a number of ways (by building a bus rapid transit line on Washtenaw, for example), and that's what this process is all about. Better transit offers us a means to encourage new growth in existing towns and cities, instead of continuing to subsidize sprawl. (The government has been building roads with "other people's money" for a century, and it rarely sought public input for that.) Not everyone wants to live in close-in neighborhoods along transit lines. But a lot of people do. Since zoning regulations banned that kind of development for most of the last 50 years, and we've let transit wither in favor of road expansion, we've left those folks with no choice but sprawl. The Master Plan will help us to meet our transport and housing needs much better than we do today.

Ryan J. Stanton

Fri, Nov 19, 2010 : 5:03 p.m.

This was AATA board member David Nacht's synopsis of Ann Arbor and its potential for population growth (Note: the AATA report assumes population will increase by around 8.7 percent, while employment will grow by 17.4 percent): "We're a college town with some other stuff going on," he said. "We're a county seat, we have some businesses, and what are we going to become? It seems to me when I look at the fast-growing cities in the United States, some of the fastest have no transit or have poor transit, and it's a mess to get around those places, but they've been driven by growth for fundamental economic reasons. Transit I'm sure is going to have an impact on our level of growth, but mostly I think transit will take whatever economic forces we already have and allocate the growth for a more livable and better community." That being said, Nacht said the communities AATA compares Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County to should be of similar size, not major metropolitan areas with high density. He said he doesn't see a population boom in Ann Arbor's future. "It's possible, I suppose," he said. "Maybe U of M spinoffs in high-technology firms could result in dramatic growth and we could be the next Silicon Valley. But it doesn't seem that way. It seems like we're going to have some growth in the Washtenaw County area, but it's not going to be astronomical. And so I'd like to see historical examples from other communities really anywhere that have some things in common with our community."

Ryan J. Stanton

Fri, Nov 19, 2010 : 4:50 p.m.

Here's a link to the 59-page report presented last night. It contains lots of interesting information more than I could fit in this article. Pages 10-11 talk about land use impacts. Page 13 talks about protecting the environment. Page 20 talks about congestion and includes forecasts for population and employment growth. Page 27 shows a map showing sprawl that could happen if current trends continue versus if sustainable plans are implemented. Page 47 has an interesting aerial overview of Washington Metro Station areas. And Page 48 highlights some cool things going on in a city near and dear to my heart: Tempe, Ariz.

Vivienne Armentrout

Fri, Nov 19, 2010 : 1:47 p.m.

I'm tired of hearing arguments that dense development will stop sprawl. First, sprawl was a product of the housing bubble and I doubt that many new developments are being initiated (instead they are being flogged on the county's foreclosed properties site). Second, the cause of sprawl was people responding to the opportunity for cheap houses on big lots, and cheap transportation (gas) where taxes were also not high. Assuming that these conditions still exist, the same people will not be looking to move into a multistory building on a bus line, no matter how nicely done. Dense urban-style development will definitely have its takers, but it is not the "cure" for sprawl because it is not aimed at people with the same aspirations or even life conditions.


Fri, Nov 19, 2010 : 1:03 p.m.

@ Donbee - Exactly! This is nothing more than social engineering with hopes and dreams that utopia development will occur.

soggy waffle

Fri, Nov 19, 2010 : 12:49 p.m.

@Woman in Ypsilanti Manhattan is actually less dense than it was pre-mass transit (the urbanize part of pre-transit Manhattan). It was more dense than many modern southeast asian cities are today. Thats why the subway worked so well there, it allowed people to get out of tenemants (Jacob Riis writes about the conditions in How the Other Half Lives). Manhattan and the city as a whole are more dense, but again that is because the whole area is urban now. This was all pre-car too, so people couldn't commute from the suburbs unless there was rail.


Fri, Nov 19, 2010 : 12:40 p.m.

If we really want to reduce congestion and steer development, then we need the county board, the township and city governments to sit down together and build a county wide development and zoning plan. Know what, it will never happen, because tax money comes with development. Since each township has now been abandoned by the county for police services and must find its own way to pay, they have to have new tax revenue. Since Ann Arbor is so hard to develop in and the surrounding townships are friendlier, expect most of the development will happen just where the environmentalist don't want it. Our local governments are their own worst enemy on this issue. What to reduce rural development - take the costs out of the township operations, then there is little or no pressure for new revenue. Want to slow or stop sprawl - make it easy to build high density developments in the existing city limits in the county. The greenbelt around Ann Arbor will just increase the population of the western townships in the county, good for tax revenue there and increase commute and congestion. For which they thank Ann Arbor.

soggy waffle

Fri, Nov 19, 2010 : 12:21 p.m.

@H You are right that the subway didn't build Manhattan. But it did build Brooklyn, inner Manhattan (as in not the tip), the Bronx, Queens, and Long Island. Those areas were all farmland until the subway gave people the ability to leave the city-and build modern New York City. You could walk two miles from the port, through the most dense city in the world, and then be in farmland. Land use drives demand for transportation facilities, and transportation facilities create new uses for land (think expressways=>suburbs). Its a cycle, and we are getting to the point that our urbanized townships are creating density, getting older, getting congested, and are looking for other options. The point of this plan isn't to drive empty busses in Webster Township, its to provide appropriate levels of service where needed. Any county millage would only be a minimal rate to provide on demand service to the whole county, for seniors who don't have $75 per trip for private service to the doctors office. Urban transit will be funded by additional local millages, or if the state ever gets its act together a local sales tax (local as in just Ann Arbor). AATA is doing a countywide plan only as a way to start coordinating between small transit providers, and 'gasp' use existing resources more efficiently. Were they called on to do this by Ann Arbor, the county, or the feds, no. But they realized that if we want to provide appropriate levels of service to each area of the county (on demand some places, buses in others), then some agency will have to start coordinating it, might as well be them.


Fri, Nov 19, 2010 : 12:21 p.m.

But create density where? Where is density desirable? Where is it sustainable? In brand new developments strung out in nodes across the county, or right here within our existing city limits (or other city limits), where the infrastructure already exists to support a population increase? It wasn't mass transit that increased the density of Manhattan. It was the elevator. Mass transit certainly DID increase the density of Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Long Island and New Jersey, however.

Woman in Ypsilanti

Fri, Nov 19, 2010 : 11:33 a.m.

It is well established that public transportation can create density. So while Manhattan built the subway, the subway also built Manhattan. (It is much more densely populated than it could have been without mass transit).

Vivienne Armentrout

Fri, Nov 19, 2010 : 11:28 a.m.

The Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) idea is pushing on a string. It is not asking the question, "How will we cope with the expected increase in population?", but "How can we bring in more people to our area?" There are a lot of numbers to crunch in population forecasting but the only (to me) believable point I have yet heard is that UM expects to expand its employment force in the future. Otherwise, much of this seems to be a "build it and they will come". I'm in favor of a regional transit system, if the region is willing to pay for it. (Apparently Ann Arbor is now subsidizing the "express buses to Chelsea and Canton directly - if I read it correctly, the grants ran out and passengers have not picked up the slack.) But let's distinguish that from TOD.


Fri, Nov 19, 2010 : 10:47 a.m.

The railroads built the west.


Fri, Nov 19, 2010 : 10:37 a.m.

Memo to AATA: The subway didn't build Manhattan. Manhattan built the subway. In the grand scheme, Washtenaw County will not change one iota becuase of transit. I know you transit lovers have good intentions and really believe in the nonsense your report is spinning. But you're selling the taxpayers a bill of goods and empty promises to grease the skids for a millage in the near future.


Fri, Nov 19, 2010 : 10:27 a.m.

Personally I commend the AATA for making efforts to improve and expand service. Many riders have no means of transportation and I for one totally rely on this service. I work and pay my taxes too and believe me, I will gladly keep paying to keep this going. To those of you criticizing: I'm assuming many of you have cars and can afford to be critical. Have you actually been on the bus? Times are tough and you could be riding yourself someday. Stop complaining. We're fortunate to have a decent public transit service and those of you who wish to tear it down should try walking (literally) in someone else's shoes.


Fri, Nov 19, 2010 : 10:20 a.m.

Can anyone answer this: when did the ANN ARBOR Transportation Authority's mission change so that now it is responsible for transit planning for all of Washtenaw County (and beyond)? If we are going to have a regional transportation system, that's fine, but let's first make sure that the financing is equitably shared. Are these other local units of government, or more precisely their citizens, for whom the AATA wants to plan transit for the next 30 years, as inclined to pay for it as DO Ann Arbor taxpayers? It would be nice, for instance, if these other units picked up part of the cost if this study.


Fri, Nov 19, 2010 : 10:08 a.m.

The benefits of a bus system serve more than the riders. It decreases congestion on roads, decreases the demand and therefore the price of fuel and parking is more available to drivers. That is today; tomorrow the benefits will be more substantial. Fuel prices continue to rise. This will happen at a faster rate especially as the economy recovers. People that drive today, will be riding tomorrow and the infrastructure needs to be in place to acommodate them. If you have enough money that you will not be a mass transit rider in the future you are a very small minority.


Fri, Nov 19, 2010 : 10:02 a.m.

Sounds to me like the AATA had a "vision" going in and are steering this master plan toward a foregone conclusion--countywide transit funded by Ann Arbor taxpayers. 'Benham put it this way: "Transit relies on density, but transit also creates density."' Absolutely! So why are we planning to subsidize transportation to make it easier for people to densify the rural areas around Ann Arbor? Same goes for trains. How about making the system a model of efficency, comfort and convenience within the city limits, with express runs to Dexter, Chelsea, Saline and Ypsilanti, etc.--funded by those cities? Wouldn't that make living within Ann Arbor, or one of these existing cities more attractive than starting new satellite towns--or "transit-oriented-developments" in the middle of farm fields? Why should we have a greenbelt millage working to prevent population growth on the one hand and a county-wide transportation millage working to INCREASE rural population growth on the other? Yeah, I get it--they are going to "steer" people into locating close to transit stops. Sorry, but the people who move to the boonies do so to get away from urban things like buses and trains and those icky people who ride them. Its time we started working on present-day reality instead of a small group of appointees' vision of Ann Arbortopia or Washtenopia. These people need to get their heads out of their Urban Planning 101 textbooks (1995 editions) and start looking at what is really going on in the world around them.


Fri, Nov 19, 2010 : 9:29 a.m.

AATA did not make the decision to leave Arborland. The owners of Arborland had no interest in cooperating with AATA, and there are articles in the archives that explain what happened. No, the current situation is not desirable, and the city needs to address that situation and improve the service at that spot. But, as far as I understand, Arborland is private property, and they can do whatever they want in regards to parking there. Is it fair? No.


Fri, Nov 19, 2010 : 9:21 a.m.

In general, AATA does a good job, considering the area that it serves, and the amount of ridership. There are a lot of people that just want to drive, and the idea of taking the bus seems to be below them. I live 2 miles from campus, meaning I can walk, bike, or take the bus. Some people have no other alternative to getting around, and the AATA is their only means of transport at a reasonable price. Could it be better? Certainly. It could also be a lot worse -- ask Detroiters about their bus system. The 4 route (Ypsi-AA) is heavily used, and yes, those buses can be crowded. If I am taking the 4 bus home, I wait until the 4C comes about 7 minutes after the 4A or 4B, since it's the Arborland bus and I get off at Medford. Some of the people standing on the 4A/B are not going to Ypsi, and could easily take the 4C, but don't have a clue. No matter what, there will always be complainers -- and some of them rarely ride the buses.

Stephen Landes

Fri, Nov 19, 2010 : 9:21 a.m.

1) No additional funding for a bus system whose performance has degraded substantially over the pasta 25 years. 2) No additional funding for a bus system that makes boneheaded moves like moving out of the shopping center at Washtenaw and 23. Can I document degraded performance? Yes. From my home to what is now the 777 building near Briarwood used to be a 45 minute trip (which was a 15 minute drive during rush hour). Twenty-five years later that trip, as measured by the AAATA route calculator, is 67 minutes. And the boneheaded move? We now have people that must cross Washtenaw Ave on foot in order to get to or from the stores in Arborland. What the AATA abandoned was a perfectly good transit area on the Arborland site. I don't know why this happened, but I know some of the retailers aren't happy about it. If I was inclined to use the bus to get to Arborland I would certainly have to think about trying to get me and my purchases safely across Washtenaw without benefit of a proper crossing. And while I am at it this morning: I can't understand how anyone in the mass transit business thinks people are going to flock to the bus when they run infrequently, stop early, and don't have the same schedule on the weekend. What do you think people who might consider life without a car do with their lives that means they don't also want to be out until the wee hours or travel away from home on the weekend? I wonder how many members of the AATA staff or board rely totally on mass transit? Maybe they should be challenged to park their cars for a week and do everything they normally would do -- from going to work to attending a meeting across town to stopping at a local restaurant after a movie -- using just the AATA. Good luck. Build a usable system within Ann Arbor before you think about spreading the joys of the AATA to the rest of the County.


Fri, Nov 19, 2010 : 9:11 a.m.

I want nothing to do with this boondoggle and I especially don't want to fund an Ann Arbor vision of the future given the excesses of Ann Arbor bureaucrats and politicians. All they want to do is spend someone else's money on the things they want.


Fri, Nov 19, 2010 : 9:02 a.m.

Does any part of this "vision" address the fact that bus riders are subsidized to the tune of about 92 cents on a dollar?


Fri, Nov 19, 2010 : 8:44 a.m.

I agree with Rusty on the frequency of buses. I am so tired of missing connections downtown because of overcrowded buses. For those that don't know, overcrowded buses have a higher than average number of stops and take longer to complete the route. If that time goes past your connection you might get them to hold the bus, but usually it is too late for them to do that and you wait at Blake for another bus. Ypsi to Ann Arbor can be a nightmare ride. You may not get to sit and it takes forever.

rusty shackelford

Fri, Nov 19, 2010 : 8:34 a.m.

This is what really irks me about An extremely longwinded article with a bunch of useless quotes that ultimately tells me nothing. What is the substance of this "vision"? What is anyone actually proposing? Just spending hundreds of words telling me that they are working on a plan is a complete waste of time. In an attempt to respond to AATA's planning: Increase frequency on established routes, create some east west and north south express routes that don't get funneled through the transit center. I don't want to pay (and let's face it, Ann Arbor will be subsidizing all other cities in the county, just like it subsidizes the other cities that participate now) for buses in Jackson, Whitmore Lake, Podunkville, etc. That's what park and ride is for. If Milan decides they need a bus system let them create a bus system for themselves. This whole bus to Canton thing at my expense is ridiculous. It's a fine idea, but no reason Ann Arborites should be subsidizing it.

Top Cat

Fri, Nov 19, 2010 : 8:15 a.m.

Well let's see...another government agency conjuring up reasons why it should grow and why the taxpayers should pick up the tab. Go run your slow, empty buses somewhere other than Webster Township. Go ahead and put your millage request on the ballot. Make my day!


Fri, Nov 19, 2010 : 8:02 a.m.

I believe the premise is that strip malls and urban sprawl are the result of ad hock development that does not involve planning. I don't believe that the phrase "we like" implies any particular group. To me it indicates a plan that we as a community like. A well planned community reduces congestion on roads, reduces infratstructure costs such as electric and water installations, and allows for better preservation of natural resources. This does not have to be a bad thing. AATA went to a lot of troulbe to get input from the community. They based their decisions on that input.

Craig Lounsbury

Fri, Nov 19, 2010 : 7:50 a.m.

""Increasingly, we're trying to get one step ahead and say, 'Where do we want that housing development to even be built?' and really provide the economic stimulus through transit and really steer land use to sort of build that community that resembles the community we like, that doesn't let strip malls or suburban sprawl happen." Who's "we" kemosabe? "It's more like planning your meals for the next 30 years," he said." Makes complete sense when your grocery shopping with somebody else's money.