The Politics of Transportation: Who Should getDowntown? (With A Poll)

I had a very pleasant meeting with Nancy Shore, who heads the getDowntown program. For those who may not have heard about the program, here’s a description from the gD web site:

The mission of the getDowntown Program is to reduce the number of downtown commuters driving to work alone and to create more transportation choices for downtown commuters through promoting existing transportation options and advocating for new ones.  getDowntown strives to accomplish this mission by promoting existing choices, providing research on the benefits of sustainable transportation, organizing events, interacting with downtown employers and employees, and interfacing with numerous downtown stakeholders.

It’s a several hundred thousand dollar marketing program aimed at downtown business owners and workers who commute downtown to their jobs. It is not aimed at Ann Arbor residents, per se. It’s funded by federal grants, and then primarily by the Downtown Development Authority, as well as the AATA and the City of Ann Arbor. So, our tax dollars make up a part of the basis of the entity’s source of funding. This is a list of the getDowntown program’s accomplishment is 2009. Among those accomplishments are a blog and  a Twitter account. I’m not thrilled with the use of tax dollars for blogging and tweeting. However, there are other more substantive accomplishments that more than compensate for the social media expenditures. The first accomplishment was the Zipcar program. If you don’t know zip about Zipcars, it’s time to learn. It may mean the difference between having one car, two, or even more at your house.

Ann Arbor is the only city in Michigan with a Zipcar program. There are Z-car programs in other college towns, and a quick look at the Zipcar hourly rate schedule shows that Ann Arbor’s $8 per hour weekly rental rate is higher than the rates charged in Cambridge, Portland, Seattle and Chicago. Keep the car for a day and pay $66 in Ann Arbor. However, the daily rate charged here is higher than that charged in larger cities such as Milwaukee, and even Philadelphia. Go figure. Literally. According to figures from AAA, “the average person spends $9,641 per year for the privilege of driving. Keep in mind that these estimated costs are based on an average gasoline cost of $2.256 per gallon. The numbers also don’t include the cost of parking.” Our family has had one car for seven years and we’ve saved, then, about $67,000 based on AAA’s research and data. Even at the $66 daily rate, treating yourself to the occasional Zipcar  is a bargain when compared to owning a second car.

While talking to the getDowntown Program Director, Nancy Shore, we discussed an issue that I believe is very important to come to terms with as we shape policy related to parking, alternative and non-motorized transportation: Until Ann Arbor no longer relies on parking revenue to pay the costs associated with the daily operation of city government, and city debt, our city will never, literally, be able to afford an honest commitment to alternative and non-motorized transportation. If the number of people driving cars into downtown Ann Arbor and parking suddenly dropped by 50 percent, and parking revenues dropped by a corresponding amount, we would have some serious problems funding the structures we have now. However, the DDA is not simply funding parking structures. The DDA is going to pay $500,000 per year for the next 30 years (about one-third of the yearly debt payment) for the new Police-Court facility. In addition, yearly, the city takes money from the DDA which is then deposited directly into the General Fund.  

Is it any wonder the DDA Board voted in February 2009 to increase parking fares from $.80 cents per hour in 2009 to $1.10 an hour by 2012, and City Council members went right along with the DDA Board’s “recommendation?” 

The getDowntown program was established in 1999. In 2009, getDowntown issued 5,900 go!passes. Under the auspices of this program, downtown employers are subsidized by, yes, taxpayers, when they purchase go!passes for their employees. According to the getDowntown web site: “Downtown businesses can purchase go!passes for their employees at an annual cost of only $5.00 per employee.  This price is much cheaper than buying regular bus passes ($37.50 a month) or purchasing parking spaces (starting at $125 a month).”

In May, the getDowntown program issued its annual Commuter Challenge. What is it? “The Commuter Challenge is a month-long competition sponsored by the getDowntown organization in May between downtown Ann Arbor organizations that encourages employees to use sustainable transportation to get to work. Organizations compete against one another and log sustainable commutes online on the getDowntown website. Common sustainable commutes include walking, biking, busing, and carpooling/vanpooling to work.”

The program allows participants to “view the calories burned, carbon emissions reduced and miles logged for yourself and your organization.” There are also prizes. Sounds great, huh? 

What if such a program existed for Ann Arbor residents, as well? Would you use a monthly bus pass to get downtown and participate in a similar commuter challenge? According to Shore, there is no program to market sustainable commuting to the the residents of Ann Arbor who don’t work downtown. Part of the reason for this is obvious. Like the pie-in-the-sky business model that recycling should be a “profit” center for Ann Arbor, parking has morphed into yet another “profit center.” Right now, the objectives of the getDowntown program are in direct conflict with the city’s addiction to parking revenue.

What we’re left with is the equivalent of political lip service to alternative, non-motorized and sustainable transportation. According to the getDowntown web site, “In 2009139 organizations competed in the Commuter Challenge and 1,806 participants logged at least one sustainable commute in May. There were a total of 20,391 sustainable commutes logged by participants.” There are 50,000 non-student adults who live in Ann Arbor. What if 10,000 people logged at least one sustainable commute per month?

I want see Ann Arbor be a real transportation trendsetter, and to do that it’s going to mean re-evaluating our transportation priorities and political policies. I’d like to see everyone who is resident of Ann Arbor encouraged to getDowntown, so would our downtown merchants. Right now, our tax dollars are targeted on a relatively small group of downtown businesses to get people to and from work. I’d like to see Shore’s getDowntown program spun off from city control, where it is used for political fodder, and a different relationship established between Ann Arbor and the getDowntown organization. Ultimately, I’d like to see getDowntown go head-to-head with the city’s parking system, and work to exponentially expand the number of sustainable trips made downtown by commuters and residents, alike.  

How about you?

[polldaddy poll=2937738]

Short URL: http://www.a2politico.com/?p=3261

12 Comments for “The Politics of Transportation: Who Should getDowntown? (With A Poll)”

  1. Ms. Pollay,

    Does the DDA separate the portion of its income skimmed off of taxes from parking revenues? And parking revenues are municipal funds anyway so your splitting hairs argument may be to distinguish between different streams of municipal revenues (tax $, parking$) which the DDA gives away. However you split it, the citizens’ money is used for this program.

  2. Hi Pat. Quick email to point out an inaccuracy: “downtown employers are subsidized by, yes, taxpayers, when they purchase go!passes for their employees.” In actual fact, the DDA subsidizes the nearly the full cost of go!passes with parking revenues, not tax revenues. The DDA views parking as part of a larger transportation system, and our subsidy of go!passes with parking revenues stems from this philosophy. What cost isn’t covered by the DDA is paid for by the downtown business owner. There is no use of tax dollars for go!passes. Hope this is helpful.

  3. I like the idea of free bus service once in awhile. I believe it was tried as new students from both U-M and EMU came into town.

    Perhaps advertise the free service during the holidays from Briarwood to the Downtown in order to lure shoppers into these areas. Promote the bus and try to encourage others at least to try it. Waiting outside in the cold can make one appreciate the warm.

    Free bus service for “Happy Hour” Friday nights may keep some drunks off the streets during these peak traffic periods in the downtown.

    I tend to walk more from bus to bus, to shop to shop, than when I park my car in a lot. That equals a healthier me!

  4. When I’m alone, I walk 2-miles from home into downtown or even take the bus since it’s cheaper than driving. But when accompanied by the rest of the fam or making a quick trip to get takeout, I drive.

    Give me more frequent bus service each hour and I’ll use it more, so I don’t have to plan for an hour commute to get to work 4-miles away or making a last-minute decision to stop into a shop.

    Price the bus cheaper than parking for 4-hours for a family of four. Give me sheltered bus stops and perhaps I’ll forget that I don’t like to go outside in the middle of winter.

    Try something crazy, like offer free bus service on Sundays once in awhile? Annual bus pass lotteries for people who show up to vote?

    Give me roads or paths that feel safe when biking on with my kiddos and we’ll bike more.

  5. Why not make the bus a free option for all those who choose to ride it?

    Yes, it would cost money but is it better than allowing empty buses to run around town if money is keeping people from riding them?

    We are paying for these things anyway.

  6. I have my own getDowntown program: My own two feet. Part of my recovery from surgery a year ago was to get more exercise and stay healthy. I’m lucky to live close to downtown. I like to head down, people-watch, hit the library or the book stores or just walk along Main Street. I like a downtown that’s alive, and that’s A2 on a good day. But on crappy weather days I tend to stay home rather than brave the snow or cold rain. I wouldn’t mind changing that, but I’ve fallen twice this season, walking in the snow (damn, but some people need to do a better job of shoveling!).
    If go!passes were available to those who live in A2 I’d buy one. I’d only use it a few times a year, but I would use it (as much as I use the buses already). Don’t know if that’s fair or not, but there it is.
    As far as the getDowntown program, I feel it is a worthwhile program and don’t mind helping to fund it. But you’re right, Pat. Given the way the city covets our parking meter $$, they don’t appear take sustainable transportation concepts seriously. That’s a hell of a revenue stream to give away at $5.00 a year! Can’t see ’em doing it.

  7. The point is less cars downtown. Less cars means an ability for building a greater population density at the center. I know, it sounds too New York City but that’s sustainability. If only there were a supermarket downtown, we could all ride the bus to Blake Transit Center to shop.

    I like my goPass, of course I pay $440 a year for AATA in my real estate taxes anyway.

  8. You make some good points. The best is the cognitive disconnect between different policies. We are talking reduction of auto trips downtown while building policy depending on them. My thoughts:

    1. I’m so happy we have the Zipcars. I’d like to see it expand so that no family needs an extra car just for emergencies or that once-weekly trip.

    2. The getDowntown program is valuable.

    3. To your point: the underground parking garage and its dependence on increased parking revenues so that the city budget doesn’t take a hit.

    4. To your point: using the parking program as a revenue source for other operations. (The original point was to make the downtown more accessible and successful.)

    As a friend of mine said, “so many outrages”. It is tiring.

  9. Pat and others,
    Thanks for your comments. I’m always interested in a lively discussion.

    Just a couple of things to note:

    “It’s a several hundred thousand dollar marketing program”

    Our total income for programs and services (such as the go!pass, bike lockers, Commuter Challenge, Zipcar, outreach to downtown employers employees, printing, salaries and benefits for two full time employees) is currently around $150,000. I’m not sure I would call is several hundred thousand dollars.

    We receive additional funding from the DDA for go!passes as well as money from employers for those passes. That amount is about $300,000 per year.

    Thanks again for bringing some interesting ideas to light, such as reaching out to residents.

    Nancy Shore
    Director, getDowntown Program

  10. I’ve taken advantage of the Go!Pass program on and off since 1999 when i first started working at a downtown business, and I find it very useful to be able to afford to take the bus on days that are too crappy for biking.

    However, if the city really wants people to be able to commute by bus to downtown businesses, they need to take a good look at the schedules. My route (#13) only runs 7am-7pm on weekdays. Many people (including 30,000 hospital employees and thousands more that work at coffee shops) need to be at work at or before 7am, and they represent a key group of those who would take advantage of bus transportation and, by extension, free up a lot of downtown parking. Just extending bus service by 1 hour in the morning would make this difference.

    I have similar concerns about the idea of extending parking meters to 10pm without providing reasonable alternatives for food service workers. I’m all about A2 promoting greener commutes, but they need to make it a better alternative for the hardworking folks that don’t fit the 9-5 schedule, because we’re the ones that’ll use it.

  11. I participate in the go!pass program. The cost to employers should be raised to cut the cost to taxpayers. The program makes a huge difference in the quality of my commute to my office downtown, and I fully support it. The idea of expanding it to residents is interesting though it might be difficult to do, but the end would certainly justify the means. I agree that the number of trips made downtown by sustainable means won’t gain critical mass, as it were, until something is done about the DDA Board’s personal slush fund/city piggy bank!

  12. Robert C. Smith

    I’m of two minds about this program, and you hit on them both in the poll. On the one hand, I really don’t understand why we need to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to market “sustainable commute” strategies. A simple marketing plan would be much more economical. Why was the GD organization created and funded with tax dollars in the first place? Then, I agree that if Ann Arbor politicians are serious about the being green, environment, ecology, blah, blah, blah, why the constant push to put in more parking? Someone should award the mayor a golden car for all his work in support of building places to park them. I suppose this is why I like this blog so much. There is never a simple answer to what you write about, darn it. I have to think! Before I vote in the poll I’m going to have to spent some time figuring out what I actually support.

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