The Politics of Transportation: Getting Serious About Non-Motorized Transportation (With a Poll)

I know. I know. We live 45 minutes (in light traffic) from the Motor City. Cartown. Cars as status symbols. Cars as sex symbols. Cars are King, and non-motorized transportation is perceived by some as the Court Jester. It’s perceived as the mooching in-laws by others. Money for bike lanes? Money to plow walking paths through parks? That’s money that could be spent, well, on making the commute just that much easier for those who travel by car. 

We’re a long way from the Netherlands in more ways than one. There, 27 percent of all trips are made by bike and walking. In the United States, just one percent of all trips are made by bike and on foot. 

We’re a one car family; maybe yours is, too. We have four bikes and those bikes act, in essence, as our second car between April and November. We take the bus regularly, and walk, as well. As a rule, we drive fewer than 6,000 miles per year. We’re not nearly as virtuous as, say, our friends Chris and Lori, who moved to New York and left their car behind in Ann Arbor. However, it has been six years since we sold our second car and decided to make do with one. 

I have been a commuter bicyclist since I was in my 20s and living in Rome, Italy. I saved up my money and bought myself a spiffy red Olmo touring bike, complete with the requisite bell to which tourists in Rome never seemed to pay any attention. There, from April through December, I biked all over the Eternal City. In winter, I resorted to the dreaded bus/subway system. Oh, the system worked just fine. I preferred to bike because it was faster. On the bus or subway, it took 40 minutes from, say, the Vatican, where I taught, to the nearest Metro stop near my apartment. On my bike, I could zip home in half the time. 

Anti-pollution politics rule in Rome now, in place of the Caesars, so the percentage of trips made by bike is on the rise. The city has about 100 miles of on road bike lanes, an additional 33 (20 miles) kilometers of bicycle lanes are designed, and 30 (18 miles) kilometers more are planned. In September of 2009, the Italian Ministry of the Environment allocated 7.6 million Euro ($10 million dollars) as incentive money for individuals to buy bikes. As a result of the program, 70,000 new bicycles are expected to be sold in Italy over the coming year. 

I was talking to a Sierra Club leader, and he described the relationship between the non-motorized community and the City as similar to the relationship between an abused spouse and her/his abuser. The Ann Arbor non-motorized transportation community is glad for the crumbs of attention and financial support it’s given. I’m not sure I agree completely, because I have read posts to the Washtenaw Walking and Biking Coalition listserv in which members have expressed frustration at what they consider the meager financial and political support of non-motorized transportation. Others take the tack that something is better than nothing. Meanwhile, elected officials boast about increases in on road bike lanes by talking percentages. They run campaigns on the awards Ann Arbor has won for being a “bike friendly” community. We’re a “bike friendly” community, but are we a community with a plan and a political commitment to non-motorized transportation? Yes and no.

Let’s start with awards: some such awards to cities are handed out just for filling in the paperwork, others are truly prestigious and represent a win in the face of stiff competition. Awards recognize the hard work of our city staff, not the genius of our local politicos. The real measure of success however, is the daily use of Ann Arbor’s non-motorized transportation system by the people who live and work in our city. Right now, Ann Arbor has 42 miles of bike lanes, and according to data from the City, 2.4  percent of all trips downtown are made by biking and 16.5 percent by walking. That puts us just ahead of Bloomington, Indiana (2.8 percent and 15 percent, respectively), but well behind Berkeley, Cambridge and Iowa City. Over the past decade, about 3 miles of bike lanes have been added per year. In Boulder, there are currently 300 miles of bike lanes. New York City’s Bicycle Master Plan includes 900 miles of bike lanes. 

In Ann Arbor we’ve had a “Build it and they will bike,” strategy. However, the percentage of trips made downtown by bike and on foot has remained relatively unchanged for several years. Why? Because merely charging staff to build bike lanes and walking paths up the sides of major roads leading to downtown doesn’t guarantee people will use them. It’s a strategy based on miles of lanes. Because of chronic underfunding and regressive political policies, those few miles of lanes often quickly become unusable thanks to faded guard lines, garbage cart placement, leaf collection politicies, and snow removal issues. We need to couple the investment in miles of bike lanes with a political commitment to non-motorized transportation policy. This means setting measurable goals that are, well, actually measured and followed up on by Mayor and Council.

In this video (go to mark 17:54) from the City’s web site, we can see the City’s Transportation Manager, Eli Cooper, being (for lack of a better term) raked over the coals by Fourth Ward Council member Marcia Higgns. Higgins, frustrated, at the lack of progress on implementing aspects of the city’s non-motorized transportation plan, wants to know why little has been accomplished in four years. Good question.  

Our city has a plan. It’s had one since 2007. That year, a group of citizens and city staff formulated the 200 page City of Ann Arbor Non-Motorized Transportation Plan.

This comes from the “Vision” section of the Plan: “It is further envisioned that this environment will result in a greater number of individuals freely choosing alternative transportation modes (walking, bicycling, mass transit, etc.), which will lead to healthier lifestyles, improved air and water quality, and a safer, more sustainable transportation system.”

Walking. Bicycling. Mass Transit. 

Mass transit is, of course, motorized. So what’s it doing in the Non-Motorized Transportation Plan? Good question. The answer may help us understand why many of the goals relating to our non-motorized transportation plan have gone uunmet. A look at the percentage and amount of money devoted to non-motorized transportation should give us another clue. This comes from the 2007 City of Ann Arbor Non-Motorized Transportation Plan: 

“The City Council passed a Resolution –R-216-5-04, which includes the annual dedication of 5% of the City’s funds received under Public Act 51, Michigan Transportation Fund (MTF) dollars, toward completing a system of non-motorized routes. This amounted to approximately $350,000 per year out of the total $7 million dollar earmark in 2004-2005. The funds allow for supporting maintenance activities, planning and design of capital improvements and as resources for direct investment in new facilities.”

Five percent is a token amount, not a serious commitment to implementing the recommendations of the Non-Motorized Transportation Plan. So what is the present state of the bicycling environment in Ann Arbor according to our own Non-motorized Transportation Plan? This comes from page 152 of the 2007 report:

“The approach to handling bicycles in the City is inconsistent and incomplete. In older areas of town there are some isolated bike lanes, in newer parts of town bicycles are expected to use sidewalk bikeways. Even together, the on-road and off-road facilities do not make for a complete system and transfers between on-road and off-road facilities are not logical or convenient. In short, there is no cohesive system.”

What to do? First, stop simply throwing money at non-motorized transportation just so that politicos can have bullet points on their résumés and photo ops. Page 167 of the Non-Motorized Transportation Plan lists several strategies which would increase walking and biking downtown, and help Ann Arbor work toward some concrete, if you’ll pardon the pun, and very important environmental goals.

Mass transit should not be included in our non-motorized transportation plan. There is certainly synergy between mass transit and non-motorized transportation, but so long as mass transit is included as a part of our City’s Non-Motorized Transportation Plan, it will continue to be allocated exponentially more staff time and funding. Having a non-motorized plan since 2007, the bulk of the recommendations of which have been ignored, is playing politics with transportation policy and what ought to be a very clear commitment to the environment. I’d like to see us, as a community, work seriously to meet the goals set forth in the 2007 Non-Motorized Transportation Plan.  

Those who crafted the Plan write that they’re unsure why people ultimately refuse to bike in our downtown area. Researchers in the Netherlands have answered that question definitively: bikers of all ages have to feel safe, and both bikers and drivers must be educated about sharing the road. 

Ann Arbor may have won an award as a bike “friendly” community in 2006, but between 2007-2010, we’ve done little but coast on our two-wheel laurels. It’s time to get serious about non-motorized transportation. Let’s increase the funding, but tie the increase to benchmarks which must be met, measurable increases in trips made downtown by bike and walking. Let’s launch a sustained initiative that focuses on education and safety for bikers of all ages. Let’s challenge and inspire city staff to meet the goals set forth in the 2007 Non-Motorized Transportation Plan of increasing from 2.4 percent to 6 percent the total number of trips downtown made by bike.  

Let’s work to become a city of actual bikers and walkers, and not just a place where politicos brag about awards given by people who don’t ride our roads, but rather sift through piles of neatly written applications.




In Summer, what keeps you from biking downtown? This is a multiple choice poll. You may choose as many of the options as apply. If you do or don’t bike downtown, I’d be interested in hearing your opinions on non-motorized transportation in Ann Arbor. Is this a public policy we should fund and pursue more aggressively in your opinion? 

[polldaddy poll=2749272]

Short URL: http://www.a2politico.com/?p=3052

8 Comments for “The Politics of Transportation: Getting Serious About Non-Motorized Transportation (With a Poll)”

  1. Is it out of bounds to say that Eli Cooper borders on incompetent? This is an open secret here at City Hall. When Cooper goes we’ll have a chance to get some real leadership on transportation issues. What we have now is a failure to communicate. I might bike to work if I could afford an Ann Arbor address. The poll results are interesting though. It looks like you have some bikers who read the blog and who are doing their part to keep cars out of downtown.

  2. I live in Pittsfield Township (by the AA Airport) and like to bike into the downtown but am reluctant to ride with my wife as she isn’t as experienced a rider as I am and going over the Rt. 94 overpasses on either State or Main can be very intimidating with traffic zooming at you and honking.

    Having to pass over the turnoffs (east and west) on the overpasses involves dealing with some aggressive and fast drivers and I haven’t seen any solutions proposed for that.

    I have a running route uptown (and back – 10 miler) and the same situation exists on the overpasses but it’s even worse because I’m only doing about 7 mph vs 15+ on a bike so the exposure to cars is twice as long.

  3. Biking in town is contingent on the price of gas, I have noticed.
    When it was around four dollars, my husband and I drove very carefully,for there were lots of people on bikes..It really isn’t safe to bike in town, a car beats a bike every time if there’s a collision. Less riders in bad weather, less when the price of gas is down.
    Us becoming Holland-like any time soon will only happen if there’s a sharp spike in the price of oil.
    There is less traffic overall in town, especially since Pfizer left, and even more so with the economic downturn. I think it makes some of the roads safer, but the busy roads that lead in and out of town still have plenty of traffic, Packard, Jackson, Plymouth etc.
    While it would be great to put in all kind of bike friendly pathways, they would need to be separated away from cars to be truly safe, it doesn’t seem that now is the time.
    There’s a bridge to fix, a budget to balance, some people to either layoff or cut their salaries..and income tax to fend off…

  4. Parking versus bus versus bikes versus walking. What we need is more cooperation and less adversarial planning. Yale89 is right on with the comment that because we our city can’t afford to have fewer people pay to park, there can’t be a real honest discussion about non-motorized transportation.

  5. I work downtown and live about four miles away. I would like to bike downtown, but the bike lane on the major road nearest my house ends just as I come into some of the most intense downtown traffic. This, I think, is what keeps me in my car even when the weather in warmer and I could bike downtown. Bike to Work Weeks are great for awareness raising, but you rightly point out that the city’s plan just is not being implemented in any big hurry, and I think you’re absolutely right that it has to do with the fact that non-motorized and motorized are lumped together (for political purposes, obviously). There is another aspect of this issue that you left out and that is the parking issue. Ann Arbor looks to make some serious money from parking (cars) and as long as this is the case, we will have an adversarial relationship between motorized and non-motorized transportation. At the moment, literally, our city can’t afford to have fewer people parking in the garages and on street. That money is going right to the budget and paying for operating expenses.

  6. Following up on Janelle’s comment, I don’t want to bike downtown either. I’m a lawyer practicing out of my home office. The only reason I go downtown during business hours is to see the people in the black robes. Biking to the courthouse, in a suit, carrying legal materials, is not a workable concept.

    The whole concept of mass transit for Ann Arbor deserves some serious re-thinking. We should focus only on hilly cities of roughly 100,000 population. Analogies to larger cities are misleading because the key to a successful mass transit system is high population density. We don’t have and will never have it. And terrain matters. I used to bike all over AA until we moved to Broadway. Then I gave away my bike. I can feel environmentally virtuous because I drive (in a car) about 2,000 miles per year.

    The local push for “alternative modes of transportation” is the result of an unholy alliance between sincere environmentalists and the allies of scumbag developers. These latter folks want to construct buildings without adequate car parking, so they push for alternatives.

    What are the alternatives to the car for those not particularly athletically inclined? Flying saucers?

    Remember – in Michigan there can be nothing wrong with the car.

    To push for even more public funding for these failed alternatives risks political damage.

  7. Ann Arbor city government has a reputation for assembling citizen committees and then doing nothing with their reports. It’s mostly for show and to let the natives blow off steam since the outcomes have already been decided at the top.

  8. I don’t bike or walk downtown because I don’t generally want to. That should be an option in the poll.

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