Marilyn Tower started her campaign to slow traffic on Covington Dr. on the city’s southwest side in the spring of 2012.
For two years, Tower stood outside her house many school days, carrying homemade signs reading “25 MPH” or “Better Late Than Sorry.” Kids and their parents coming or going to Dicken School greeted her, and drivers sometimes honked and waved. Concerned she might fall, her doctor asked her to stay indoors over the winter–but she still keeps a flag-waving green figure in her driveway calling attention to a sign reading “Drive Like Your Kids Live Here.”
Though no one else is as visible, Tower’s not alone in her concern. From neighborhood groups like Safety on Seventh to the city’s pedestrian task force to city council–which gave the police $125,000 to spend on overtime for enforcement last year–traffic is a hot civic topic. Several candidates featured it in their council campaigns last summer, and it’ll surely be an issue again this year in both budget talks and the election.
Responding to Tower and other residents, the city did put in four “traffic calming” measures on Covington. “We got a twenty-five-miles-per-hour sign by Scio [Church, Covington’s southern entrance] and pedestrian crossing signs,” Tower says, “and they put in crosswalk approaches and painted the lines on the street.”
She’s not satisfied. “A lady told me she tried to cross with kids, and cars were ignoring them because the lines are fading. So I’m trying to get a sign to say it’s a crossing zone. What I would really love to see are speed humps.”
Tower also wants tougher traffic enforcement.
“I had one woman tell me the police pulled her over, and the officer didn’t issue a ticket,” she reports. “She just told her what she did wrong. If somebody’s speeding, a ticket should be issued. They’re issuing more warnings than violations.”
Tower’s complained to city councilmembers about traffic calming and enforcement. “My first email [in 2012] was to [former Ward Four councilmember] Margie Teall, and she supported my efforts. But I didn’t hear back again. Then [neighbors Bob and Sandra White] sent her an email, and she’d contacted the mayor, the police, and the rest of city council. Two days after that, I was outside when a police car showed up.”
The police installed radar data collectors to check speeds and determine what traffic calming measures were appropriate. The signs were approved–but speed humps were denied.
So she went back to council. When Jack Eaton came to her door in 2013 gathering signatures to run for council, she recalls, “I said I’d sign his petition provided he does something about it if he’s elected. He said he’d sure try.”
In an interview at the time, Eaton recalled that “four or five people raised the issue of traffic calming on Covington” when he was going door to door. “The problem is that we don’t have enough cops on patrol, and so we are unable to enforce existing speed limits,” Eaton says. And, he adds, the traffic calming process is “very difficult and very frustrating.”
It’s difficult partly because of the amount of resources the city’s invested.
For the last five calendar years, a traffic engineer and a community engagement officer have handled the majority of the projects–and traffic calming is only one of many programs and projects they work on. The budget has also been limited, averaging $29,000 per year over the last five fiscal years. But for the current fiscal year, council added $55,000 to the $20,000 the city administrator recommended. Add in a couple of projects that carried over from fiscal 2014, and total spending on traffic calming in fiscal 2015 could top $135,000.
That’ll buy a lot of pavement. A speed hump starts at about $1,500 but often runs higher–it cost about $8,800 to install three last year on Larchmont Dr., which feeds traffic from the Village Park apartments onto Green Rd. A raised crosswalk starts at $2,000. Concrete work, like curb bump-outs, costs considerably more.
What makes it frustrating for residents like Tower is that it takes more than a citizen complaint to get a project on the list for traffic calming. The system city council set up requires both widespread support, as demonstrated in a neighborhood petition, and objective evidence of speeding. “To qualify, 15 percent of traffic must be traveling at least 5 mph over the legal speed limit,” writes spokesperson Robert Keller in an email. “For residential neighborhoods where the speed limit is 25 mph this means an 85th percentile speed of 30 mph or greater.”
That means Larchmont got speed humps because its 85th percentile speed was 34 mph, not because of its average speed of 27.7 mph. And Covington didn’t because its 85th percentile speed was 28 mph. Covington’s average speed was a relaxed 23.5 mph–below the speed limit–but the outliers were undeniably scary: maximum speed was a zippy 55 mph.
Two petitions under review for 2015 come from Burns Park. Keller says that a stretch of Lincoln between Cambridge and Wells failed to qualify based on an initial speed study; at press time, another study had been completed and the data were being compiled. And Forest from Wells to Granger may have speed humps in its future. After a study confirmed high median speeds, Keller emails, it’s moving into the public approval stage: “Surveys will be mailed to [the] neighborhood during the winter and on-site meetings held this spring.
Speed humps and curb bump-outs aren’t the only tools the city has to calm traffic. There’s also traffic enforcement–and there’s been a huge surge in calls for it. Jamie Adkins of the AAPD’s special services unit says that from January through November last year, the department fielded reports of 159 traffic problems–when in the previous four years complaints ranged from twenty-six to sixty-four.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that more people are worried about traffic. Adkins points out that the city is also listening better: “It’s much easier to complain now because you can complain on the city’s website, and some neighborhoods get together to lodge multiple complaints,” she says. “Also, a lot of the complaints we get aren’t related to the police department [but are] for traffic engineering or street maintenance.”
Adkins reviews all the complaints and refers them to other departments if necessary. For those that do involve enforcement, “we assign radar or an officer or a combination of both [to the street] for up to two weeks, though officers will later go back and check from time to time. Once [the study is] closed out, contact is made with complainant usually via email, and the data is reported out to them.”
Those data get a range of reactions. “With radar, some people say they’d never have guessed. Other people don’t believe us and don’t believe the data. Some people are grateful. Some people keep putting in complaints.
“We get the most complaints for two locations on South Seventh,” adds Adkins. “One’s at Waterworks Park, where [the speed limit] goes down to twenty-five miles per hour from thirty-five for a couple hundred feet, and [from] Liberty to Pauline. We’ve thrown a ton of resources at Seventh.”
Traffic enforcement’s five officers currently watch twenty-seven problem areas. But “our officers can’t focus solely on traffic enforcement while they’re out there,” says Adkins. “That’s why we put a time limit on [the assignments]. I’ve got another twelve problems waiting.”
On top of the usual five officers, city council budgeted an additional $125,000 for enforcement in the first six months of 2014. “We assigned more officers during the campaign,” Adkins says. “It was an overtime assignment, so we brought in people at different times, and people were working three or four times a week.
“We worked seventy locations based on previous problem areas and crosswalks,” says Adkins. “Depending on location, it was left up to the officer whether they issue a ticket or a warning. The campaign is part enforcement and part education, particularly with crosswalks. The campaign was not a means to generate money for the city!”
Jack Eaton remains unimpressed. “We’ve all but abandoned traffic enforcement,” he says. “Everybody knows nobody’s watching, and it’s the Wild West out there.”
Since he joined council in 2013, Eaton’s been working to tame the Wild West. “The staff cuts in the police department over the last decade have reduced traffic enforcement to the point where drivers know there is no likelihood of being pulled over,” he emails.
“It is not accurate to say there is no likelihood,” responds police chief John Seto, also by email. Based on a hand-tabulation of monthly reports, he estimates that in calendar 2013, “over 25,000 traffic stops were initiated by the AAPD resulting in over 16,000 violations ticketed.” That would mean roughly one in four Ann Arborites got pulled over, and one in ten got a ticket–though Seto’s numbers no doubt include many out-of-towners.
When he hears Eaton’s claim that the cops have “all but abandoned traffic enforcement,” mayor Christopher Taylor laughs and laughs–then says, “officers are out enforcing our traffic laws every single day, and they do it well.” But while the city hasn’t abandoned traffic enforcement, it is doing less than it used to. Eaton points to a chart published by the late, lamented Ann Arbor Chronicle in December 2013. It shows about 12,000 tickets issued in fiscal 2012, and 15,000 in fiscal 2013. By comparison, between 2007 and 2009, the ticket count fluctuated around 25,000.
Asked about Eaton’s argument that fewer tickets reflect fewer officers doing traffic enforcement, deputy chief Greg Bazick basically agrees. “It’s safe to speculate that the change is due primarily to the decrease in police staffing over time,” he emails. “Fewer employees in the field means more time spent responding to calls, processing arrests, reports, etc. and less opportunities to engage in as much traffic enforcement.”
Sgt. Bill Clock, who worked traffic enforcement from 1998 until 2012, says he didn’t see any dramatic change. But, Clock notes, “traffic enforcement has always been a huge concern of Ann Arbor residents.” Outsiders quickly recognize that reality. When Dan Oates came from New York to become the city’s police chief in 2002, he told the Observer he was surprised that instead of violent crime, the complaints citizens raised most often were about traffic violations.
“From a crime standpoint, we’re a relatively safe community,” says Jamie Adkins, “and so quality-of-life issues like speeding and traffic are what people focus on.”
Back on Covington, Marilyn Tower isn’t giving up: she’s readying another petition for speed humps. “I’m filling out the questionnaire online and trying to get people to complain. I’ll go to the city council and ask them what to do. Hopefully Jack Eaton will get me the answers I need.
“The next step is to get more people to work with me on this,” Tower concludes. “I’m not a spring chicken anymore.”
It could be that, like politics, all traffic problems are local and matter most to those who live there. To Tower, Covington is her street. To folks driving through, it’s a street–a way to get where they’re going as quickly as they safely can.
It’s the politicians’ job to balance those often-opposed viewpoints. Mayor Taylor says he hasn’t heard any talk of repeating last year’s special overtime allocation for traffic enforcement. But, he notes, “last year’s budget included an additional traffic officer.”
“That additional traffic officer will start in January,” confirms Seto in a follow-up email. “In addition to the extra traffic officer, we will also occasionally dedicate additional resources to traffic enforcement.”
Like Tower, Eaton isn’t satisfied–or giving up. As part of “our efforts to rebuild our safety services,” he writes, “we will seek additional officers in the budget for 2015-2016.”