Stuck in Traffic
Ann Arbor is losing the battle against congestion. Will smart cars provide relief?
From the October, 2017 issue
Inching along Main St. or crawling past Arborland, keep reminding yourself: this is what prosperity looks like.
"A higher volume of congestion is one of the signs of a vibrant community," says Chris Simmons, manager for AAATA's "getDowntown" program.
We're so vibrant our streets are often like parking lots.
"Friday nights downtown? Oh, my God!" says developer Ed Shaffran, whose office is on S. Fourth Ave. "It's moving at a snail's pace. It's almost impossible to get through here.
Main St. is so congested that it's hard to accurately measure traffic volume downtown, says Mark Ferrell, who directs the Washtenaw Area Traffic Study (WATS). Once a street is choked with traffic, motorists seek other routes--so just counting the cars on Main understates the true problem.
But north of Summit on Main, all the routes through downtown merge into the freeway feeder, and you get a clearer picture. Traffic volume on this stretch of road--as measured by official Annual Average Daily Traffic (AADT) numbers provided by WATS--was nearly 29,000 in 2015, up about 20 percent from a decade ago. Another area of frequent congestion, especially during afternoon rush hour, is Washtenaw Ave. between W. Stadium and US-23. Close to 40,000 cars crawl their way past Arborland daily.
The freeways that circle the town are even busier. After declining during the recession, daily traffic on I-94 between Ann Arbor-Saline Rd. and State Rd. increased by 19,335 cars between 2011 and 2014--from 54,700 to 74,035, a jump of 35 percent. Between 2012 and 2015, daily traffic on M-14 between the US-23 junction east of town (near Domino's Farms) and Ford Rd. shot up from 64,567 to 77,856--a 21 percent increase.
Both town and gown are making more traffic. The U-M has 5,000 more students than a decade ago. About 3,000 non-university jobs were added downtown between 2009 and 2014. And that's not even figuring in the crowds dining and shopping downtown.
"There's more activity and more people here," says Shaffran. "I've got
to believe that retail and commercial space occupancy downtown is at an all-time high."
Dave Hamilton at Swisher Commercial confirms that. Swisher tracks commercial space annually, and at the end of 2016 the firm reported that downtown vacancy was at a historic low of 2.1 percent. Though Swisher doesn't track retail space, Hamilton says there's virtually none of that left either: "There are no vacant buildings down here."
"Downtown Ann Arbor is a community gathering place that brings people together for work, shopping, and entertainment throughout the day," notes Simmons. His job with AAATA is getting people downtown by means other than cars. But it's an uphill battle. He's worked with other civic and community leaders for many years to get people out of their cars and onto buses, bikes, and their own feet. And though they can claim success, they can't keep up with the traffic.
More folks walk, ride, and take the bus to work or school in Ann Arbor than ever before. According to 2011-15 American Commuting Survey (ACS) figures from the U.S. Census, barely more than half of Ann Arbor residents--55.6 percent--drove alone to their jobs--while 6.7 percent carpooled, 11.2 percent used public transit, 14.4 percent walked, and 4.8 percent biked--double the 2.4 percent calculated in the 2000 census.
The city's transportation planning director, Eli Cooper, says 16 to 18 percent of residents now commute on foot (a little higher than the ACS figures, which are two years old). Cooper calls the city's alternative transportation initiatives "a full-court press." In the last decade, the city has expanded its bike system, resulting in what he calls a "dramatic increase in ridership." Ann Arbor has seventy-nine miles of on-road bike lanes, 57.5 miles of shared road paths, and more than 900 bike parking spaces downtown.
To help pedestrians, the city has added new sidewalks to fill in gaps along Stadium, Packard, and other routes. Downtown and campus-area high-rises have contributed to the increase in walking commutes.
But short of banning cars altogether, or Ann Arbor becoming the Netherlands, there is probably a limit to how many more residents will forsake automobiles. And in any case, it's out-of-towners who really put a chokehold on rush-hour traffic.
The AAATA has long been trying to keep those commuters' cars on the edge of town--but it's losing ground. The AAATA's park-and-ride program peaked at 1,057 cars in 2012. On an average workday in 2016, only 720 cars used the eight available park-and-ride lots--even though those lots can hold 1,855 vehicles. At least vanpooling is holding steady--Simmons says 600 commuters vanpool downtown on an average workday--a number that's held fairly steady since TheRide's vanpool program started in 2012.
Roger Hewitt, owner of the Red Hawk, a former member of the DDA, and a current AAATA board member, says that if Ann Arbor is going to continue to grow, "some sort of more sophisticated mass transit system" is needed. But talks between the city and the university on the Connector, a proposed mass transit system linking the campus and the city, stalled over cost issues, and the project will probably have to be downsized. And, Simmons concedes, "There are always people who will never choose an alternative to driving alone."
That's especially true when gas prices are low, as in recent years. "An improving economy and low gas prices both can contribute to more traffic," Mark Ferrell explains. "Now both indicators are pointing in the same direction."
The AAATA offers express buses from Canton and Chelsea, but ridership is declining--even as single-passenger cars are coming in huge waves.
"The traffic jams coming in and going out of US-23 and M-14 are incredible in the morning and evening," says Shaffran. "Where are all these people coming from?"
A crushing blow to alternative transportation came last November when voters in a four-county region narrowly rejected a tax increase to fund regional transit. The ballot measure got 49.5 percent approval overall, passing easily in Washtenaw and Wayne counties but finishing in a virtual tie in Oakland County and getting crushed in Macomb--whose voters are most distant from Ann Arbor. Had it won, it would have restarted commuter rail service between Ann Arbor and Detroit and added express bus routes.
Both the Connector and commuter rail will resurface in years to come once their advocates figure out a new approach. But for now, solutions center around getting cars moving more easily through the city--yet not everyone thinks that's a worthy goal.
"Quick is not what we want to promote," says Charles Griffith, who heads the climate and energy program at the Ann Arbor Ecology Center, which has supported all kinds of alternative transportation programs as an environmental imperative. Moving vehicles faster in and out of town, he says, would create more hazards for bicyclists and pedestrians.
Ironically, in an environmentally conscious city, the lines of cars stuck in daily rush-hour traffic jams don't seem to register as a climate-change issue. City council recently passed an anti-idling ordinance based on a county campaign. On the county website are warnings about the dangers of idling--saying it's responsible for 1.6 percent of greenhouse emissions annually in the U.S. and produces 100 billion pounds of CO2 a year. The accompanying video warns: "Like smoking cigarettes, idling hurts not only you, but others around you."
Now you can be ticketed in Ann Arbor if you don't turn your engine off while idling for more than ten seconds. The ordinance was aimed at delivery trucks. Yet every weekday morning and afternoon, hundreds of cars idle in traffic jams for a lot longer than that--and no one has even calculated how much CO2 those jammed-up cars emit daily.
Asked about immediate plans to reduce vehicle congestion, Cooper can point only to a few more possible traffic roundabouts around the edges of town, and to the new transportation commission, a vehicle for community engagement.
Would more one-way streets be a mundane short-term solution? "It would be something that certainly we would want to have looked at," says Shaffran. But while MDOT is adding a paved shoulder as a third rush-hour lane on US-23 north of town, in Ann Arbor what's in vogue are "road diets" that further squeeze traffic. Bike lanes recently reduced lanes for cars along Jackson, slowing traffic and increasing backups at rush hour. In the name of beautifying streetscapes, the DDA and the city are now studying converting First and Ashley, a favorite bypass for immobile Main St., to two-way traffic.
While that would likely cause even more congestion, at least you'd have a nicer experience while sitting in traffic, Cooper says, and arrive at your destination in a better frame of mind. After all, it's your fault you've made the choice to drive, Cooper suggests. You could be biking or walking or riding the bus; you could be in a vanpool. You could be driving a hybrid or an electric vehicle--as increasing numbers of Ann Arborites do. At least then you wouldn't be polluting as much.
One thing is certain: no one wants to change the attractions in Ann Arbor, especially the shops and restaurants downtown, so that people can get through town faster. But is Main St. in any danger of becoming, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, so popular that no one goes there anymore?
"I know if it's too crowded I'm going to find somewhere else to go," says Shaffran. "I would fear it as a problem. It would be a big concern" if Ann Arbor gets so overdeveloped it starts driving people away.
"We can't make the streets any wider," says Hewitt. "At some point, all the traffic is going to be restricting growth" in the central business district.
Perhaps, Charles Griffith of the Ecology Center suggests, the traffic jams will engender their own self-correcting solutions. "The worse it gets, the less people are going to want to endure it."
Help may be on the horizon, in the form of smart cars and roadways. State-of-the-art control systems promise real-time optimization of traffic flow, while "connected vehicle infrastructure"--cars and streets that talk to one another--should make driving safer, too. Cooper believes Ann Arbor will soon be a world leader in this futuristic scenario.
Parts of that future are already here. Since 2012, the U-M's Transportation Research Institute has operated the Ann Arbor Connected Vehicle Test Environment. To date, the university's Debra Bezzina says, $35 million has been spent on the first phase of a study involving 1,400 vehicles and twenty-nine infrastructure sites that communicate with one another wirelessly. Most of the vehicles have been privately owned, but the program has also included U-M, AAATA, and public school buses. The fixed sites include traffic lights and embedded devices at intersections and crosswalks.
Concentrating on the Plymouth Rd. corridor, researchers have focused mostly on safety measures, sending drivers warnings that a car is approaching or that a traffic signal is about to turn from green to red. Bezzina says the first phase also included a small deployment of "dynamic traffic control" measures supervised by researcher Henry Liu to develop and test algorithms that may eventually improve traffic flow.
In a second, more ambitious phase that's about to begin, new vehicles enrolled in the AACVTE will get interfaces that use an interactive panel and speaker system to warn about speeding and approaching vehicles and warn if braking is needed. Almost all vehicles can qualify (except convertibles). If you're interested in being in the program, see aacvte.com.
By the end of this year, they'll bring forty-one more infrastructure sites on line, most of them on major corridors including Fuller Rd., State St., Washtenaw, Plymouth, and Eisenhower Pkwy., with eight sites along freeways and four at signalized pedestrian crosswalks. By next June, Bezzina says, the program is set to include some 3,100 vehicles. The UMTRI has requested an additional $25 million to add twenty-five more connected pedestrian crosswalks; they will know by the end of this month if the funding comes through.
Though many Ann Arbor signals already are computer controlled, more detailed data and improved algorithms could improve traffic flow. Bezzina says researchers will be studying how to move commuter shuttle buses more efficiently through traffic, with priority going to vehicles with larger numbers of passengers. But the overall aim is to move everyone more efficiently.
The initial goal is to reduce traffic congestion by 10 to 20 percent, says Yiheng Feng, a member of the U-M research team, and in the longer term by as much as 40 percent. "UMTRI researchers will have algorithms set up to analyze the data and recommend signal timing updates that will minimize vehicle delays," Feng says.
Eli Cooper confirms it's a high-priority project for both the university and the city--and one, if successful, that could have global implications. Add driverless cars to this futuristic landscape, and the traffic you're stuck in may become, a few decades down the road, an item of nostalgia, like honking horns.
But not everyone is convinced.
"You're not going to solve the problem if everyone is going to continue to be in a one-person car," warns Hewitt, "no matter how smart those cars are."
[Originally published in October, 2017.]
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