Arbor Update

Ann Arbor Area Community News

Streetcars in Ann Arbor's Future?

24. February 2008 • Nancy Shore
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This Sunday’s Ann Arbor News has a front page article on the possibility of a streetcar system in Ann Arbor.

According to the article, one vision is that this streetcar would bring people from Plymouth Road, State Street, Washtenaw and Jackson Ave into the downtown area.

According to Eli Cooper, the City’s Transportation Manager, travel time on these streetcars from the outskirts of town to the core would take about 20 minutes or less.

A challenge to the whole streetcar idea is that it will cost perhaps around $50 million dollars. The question is, where will that money come from?

Something else the article alludes to but doesn’t talk much about is the Alternatives Analysis. This Analysis, which will study what type of transportation option would be best for the City of Ann Arbor should be conducted sometime this year.

It is my understanding that this Analysis, which the article refers to as “paying a consultant to see whether a streetcar system could work here . . .” is actually to see which kind of option makes the most sense for Ann Arbor. In addition to a streetcar scenario, there are options such as Bus Rapid Transit.

The website for the City’s Transportation Plan (which is being updated) says the following about the future transportation options in Ann Arbor:

Some of the alternatives that are being studied are streetcars, bus rapid transit, changes to existing bus service, impacts that land use have on transportation, using technology to improve existing roadways, and intersection improvements.

The nice thing about the Transportation Plan is that it is looking at both land use as well as transportation, which makes sense since, as the article points out, development can often be spurred by building a transportation infrastructure.

In the next several months there will be opportunities for the public to provide feedback on the City’s Transportation Plan. I will do my best to post that info here and/or on the getDowntown blog .

So a lot is afoot in the realm of public transportation in Ann Arbor. The biggest questions are, what will it look like and how will we pay for it?

  1. What comes around, goes around I guess. Ann Arbor had a streetcar system from 1890 to 1925. In the later years, it even connected to the “electric interurban” system and you could ride to Ypsi and even Jackson and Detroit. There is even a historical street exhibit on the streetcars at the corner of Main and William and you can see it online. Our “hub and spoke” road system shows some of the street planning had streetcars and trolleys in mind. Sure streetcars are cute and people like to ride them. They have a happy tourist-type vibe.

    Thank you Nancy for pointing out that the transportation plan is about many different transportation options and land use, not just streetcars. Once again, the Ann Arbor News (and Tom Gantert) are showing that yellow journalism is alive and well.

    Personally, I would say streetcars are pretty far down my list. We don’t have a bus system that runs early enough for first shift at the University (hospital orderlies, custodians, nurses) or late enough for restaurant workers. There is no public transportation from the Amtrak station even to the bus station and there isn’t even a cab stand at the train station. We can’t figure out how to clear the bus stops of snow. We don’t have large enough office space downtown. We don’t seem to be able to get attractive, useful, reasonably-priced housing close to downtown. We have no programs or incentives for sidewalk repair. We have an uneasy relationship with bicycles on the streets or sidewalks. We have a lot of inexpensive housing and land on the outskirts of town. We have a very suburban population that wants four-bedroom, three-bath houses with three-car garages. We have an unstable economy. I think there are a lot of issues we need to address before we pay a lot of money for streetcars. I’ll be interested in the results of the Alternatives Analysis.

       —Juliew    Feb. 25 '08 - 12:46AM    #
  2. My blue jean baby still thinks i’m the leader of the band even though she’s 1000 miles away.

       —Davlito    Feb. 25 '08 - 01:32AM    #
  3. Actually the AATA is begining a late night shuttle pilot program for restaurant workers, and perhaps Nancy could enligten us on that.

    There are many other public transit ideas on the drawing board, streetcars being only one of them. I am not sure why this is on the front page today, because it has been talked about, especially by Roger Hewitt, Chair of the DDA, for ages. Perhaps it was a slow news day.

    As for the times the buses run, there is only one thing hampering the extension and frequency of services, and that is money. Ann Arbor pays a millage – no other community does. And we are facing an immediate crisis with the possibility of Ypsilanti City not having any service at all.

       —Leah Gunn    Feb. 25 '08 - 02:03AM    #
  4. Leah,
    Thank you for your comment. In terms of the Evening Employee service option, getDowntown is currently working with the AATA to pilot a transit service that would operate after the buses stop running to pick up workers downtown and drop them off at their homes.

    At this point, we are probably looking at something like a van rather than a bus since the numbers of workers downtown aren’t large enough to accommodate increased bus service.

    There will be more on this to come in the following months, as well as public meetings on AATA’s proposed service changes for the fall, a commuter bus service (from Chelsea to Ann Arbor) an online carpool/vanpool ridematching system and more.

       —Nancy    Feb. 25 '08 - 02:27AM    #
  5. looking at both land use as well as transportation, [since] development can often be spurred by building a transportation infrastructure.

    That’s only one aspect of the linkage. In general, land use without appropriate related transportation infrastructure is useless – you can’t get there – as is transportation infrastructure without appropriate related land use planning – there’s nowhere to get. It’s nice to see people thinking about this in relation to mass transit, considering how much damage has been done in the past 50 years of building roads and suburbia in lieu of coordinated planning.

    (/grouchy planner)

       —Murph    Feb. 25 '08 - 03:25AM    #
  6. Somewhat off-topic, but germane to the ongoing (and endless!) discussions here and at aaio, is an article in this month’s Atlantic Magazine about the decline of suburbia and the shift toward urban living. It’s by Christopher Leinberger, an urban planning prof at U-M. Ann Arbor is mentioned.

       —Tom Brandt    Feb. 25 '08 - 04:34AM    #
  7. The important part of the alternatives analysis is to make sure that all modes are evaluated equally.
    Since some of the downtown business leaders have been talking streetcars for as long as I can remember, this study shouldn’t already have a mode predetermined before it even starts.

    I can’t say what mode is appropriate for A2 at this point, but the rail cost estimates in the A2 News article may prove to be quite low (depending on how long the initial leg of the system is to be).
    The studies in the A2 News article state that streetcar projects are around $50M for about 2.5 miles.

    The distance from Washtenaw/Huron Pkwy. to Jackson/Maple (using Washtenaw and Jackson) is about 5 miles (it’s more than likely that this corridor would extend beyond the city, but we’ll stay inside for this comparison).
    The distance from Plymouth/Old Earhart Rd. to Murfin (2.1mi) to Bonisteel (0.5mi) to Fuller/Glen (0.3mi) to Huron (1.1mi) to State (0.3mi) to State/Eisenhower (2.6mi) is about 7 miles (this could be a very likely route because there will be a park-&-ride at Plymouth & US-23, UM ridership is going to be needed to get startup grants, and the Briarwood area could be the south terminus – though I would expect the route to extend a little farther south).

    The Plymouth-State corridor outlined above: about $140M for streetcar (using the $50M/2.5mi estimate)
    The Washtenaw-Jackson corridor outlined above: about $100M for streetcar (using the $50M/2.5mi estimate)

    Gd. Rapids (whose urbanized area population is much, much larger than A2’s) has already been approved for an FTA Very Small Starts project grant for a 10 mile BRT corridor.
    Project costs will be $36.3 million for capital startup costs and $2.72 million annually to operate.

    I know that our startup costs would be different than the projects listed in the paper, but the cost/mile isn’t going to be that different.

    I would like to see some real economic development attraction comparisons between express buses, BRT, and LRT in the alternatives analysis.

    There is a huge cost difference between rapid transit modes, so there needs to be solid (if not bulletproof) justification for the extra infrastructure needed for streetcars.

    I welcome the day that rapid transit comes to A2 though!

       —keaz    Feb. 25 '08 - 04:55AM    #
  8. So the largest taxpayer (by a factor of like 20) leaves Ann Arbor, we raise our income tax, MI has the highest unemployment in the nation, we lead in foreclosures, half of the retail space in downtown A2 is vacant, with long-time AND short-lived places leaving weekly, it seems, we decide to expand city hall, and now we’re going to pay a consultant to see what white elephant we can throw more money at. And I LOVE the idea of millages ADDED to the taxes to pay for expanding the already over-hiteched and rarely (if ever) full library.

    Is there anyplace out there where citizens who can barely afford the ridiculous taxes (property and income) can see the cost/savings analysis information on these things? Is there some proof out there that this kind of needless expenditure is actually going to result in something good?

    This is where our “underfunded” city government money goes, at THIS time during THESE circumstances?

       —BecomingJaded    Feb. 25 '08 - 05:01AM    #
  9. There’s an AU thread somewhere (post that evolved into the topic) that included a discussion of street cars in Ann Arbor. My recollection is that Juliew linked from that thread to the same historical photos as this one.

    However, I haven’t been able to find it. Perhaps someone with better skillz or more stamina than I have find it and link to it.

       —HD    Feb. 25 '08 - 06:31AM    #
  10. Found the thread that included trolleys from last February on AU.

       —HD    Feb. 25 '08 - 08:48AM    #
  11. I can recall Detroit had renewed trolley cars in its downtown area about twenty years ago, but do not know if they are currently in use. I think drawing analogies as to the failure/success of the Detroit trolley system may be useful.

       —Mark Koroi    Feb. 25 '08 - 12:35PM    #
  12. The trolley cars in downtown Detroit were small, served a very limited area and were next to useless. I don’t think they operate anymore – I haven’t seen them in a while.

       —Tom Brandt    Feb. 25 '08 - 06:53PM    #
  13. Skipping past the streetcar red herring, if you look at the current public transit system, I think we are doing pretty well with “hub and spoke” routes. The problem is that we don’t have enough “ring” routes.

       —Fred Zimmerman    Feb. 25 '08 - 09:41PM    #
  14. Regarding the Detroit “trolley cars” – could you be referring to the PeopleMover ?

    I love streetcars. When I visited Portland a few years ago, one of the highlights was being able to hop on from my hotel way out at the edge, travel into downtown, and blissfully back without having to use an automobile or look for parking.

    But aren’t these kinds of systems best suited to metropolitan areas of a million or so people? We are still a relatively rural area, unfortunately with lots of sprawl. Surely we should put our resources into our existing system. The Park and Ride lots, getDowntown program, and current bus routes should be preserved and enhanced. If buses could run into evening hours, for example; or if they could come more often than once an hour during the middle of the day; or if we could get more “rim” connections – they would be used more by more people.

    Above all, let’s not just put in a couple of expensive trolley car lines so that they look cute in tourist brochures.

       —Vivienne Armentrout    Feb. 25 '08 - 10:43PM    #
  15. “Regarding the Detroit “trolley cars” – could you be referring to the PeopleMover?”

    No, the trolleys ran from Grand Circus Park to Mariners’ Church. They no longer run and I think most or all of the tracks have been removed.

       —John Q.    Feb. 25 '08 - 10:50PM    #
  16. I can help clarify:

    The PeopleMover is an automated guideway transit system…one of the most expensive forms of transit available Detroit’s is a really well constructed circulator that would’ve been great if the region had put the rest of the supporting system in place (rapid transit connectors from the outer areas).

    The red trolleys were heritage trolleys (see Seattle’s waterfront line for something similar) which were purchased from another city to run a line that served mostly tourists. Those cars were sold off and most of the tracks have been buried/removed.

    The red trolleys were different from the Detroit Department of Street Railways (DSR) streetcars that served as the backbone as Detroit’s public transportation system until 1956. Most of those cars were sold off to Mexico City. The DSR gradually merged with other departments to become the Detroit Department of Transportation

    DSR service operated mostly within Detroit. Detroit United Railway (DUR) interurban lines connected the region. The DUR was a consolidation of many rail companies which operated different lines (two of which were the Detroit, Ypsilanti & Ann Arbor Railway and the Ann Arbor & Ypsilanti Electric Railway Co.). Interurban service was replaced by buses in the 1930s. Various bus lines operated these corridors until 1967 when the Southeast Michigan Transportation Authority (SEMTA) was chartered (which began acquisition of bus lines). SEMTA operated suburban bus lines and several commuter rail lines (one was Ann Arbor – Detroit). In 1989 SEMTA was reorganized as the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART), and commuter rail service in SE Michigan was discontinued. SMART now operates the suburban and regional bus routes for the area.

    The DSR service is comparable to the service proposed in the A2 News article: mainline streetcar service supplemented with bus lines.

       —keaz    Feb. 25 '08 - 11:39PM    #
  17. As someone who works in Ann Arbor, but not downtown Ann Arbor, I disagree that we’re doing pretty well with the hub and spoke routes. I bike to work in half the time it takes me to take the bus in, because the bus route goes so far out of my way.

       —KEF    Feb. 26 '08 - 12:54AM    #
  18. KEF – I think we are in violent agreement — maybe I didn’t express myself well — I am calling for more of a web of bus routes, so you don’t have to go through downtown to get everywhere.

       —Fred Zimmerman    Feb. 26 '08 - 08:25PM    #
  19. What’s AATA’s rationale behind presenting some of the route maps with an orientation of South at the top (e.g., 12B)?

    To me this is an example of a (granted … very small) barrier to gaining new riders who might choose to ride the bus for a given trip.

    But maybe that’s just because I want all my maps with North at the top. And whatever barrier it represents, it hasn’t prevented me from actually riding that bus on occasion.

    But still. What’s up with the upside-down maps?

       —HD    Feb. 26 '08 - 10:11PM    #
  20. Personally, I’m a traditionalist. I want to go back to when we oriented maps with East as Up. After all, that’s where the phrase “ORIENTing” a map comes from.

    Hmf. All this new-fangled “the earth is round” nonsense has upset perfectly good traditions.

       —Chuck Warpehoski    Feb. 26 '08 - 11:36PM    #
  21. Well, Chuck, you’re outta luck if what you’d like to do is create your own map using the ArborWiki mapping tool.

    Here’s the basic route for AATA Route 12B

    A couple of points:

    That map is a fully interactive GoogleMap, so you can zoom, pan, toggle satellite views, and all the rest.

    If you’re concerned that it might be unwise to rely on Google store all of these point collections that underpin the maps, then this concern should by allayed by the fact that the point collections themselves are stored by ArborWiki. So if Google were to decide for whatever reason to yank accessibility to its mapping display tool, the data underlying these maps, could, I think, be automatically translated into the syntax for some alternate display tool. [If I’m flat wrong about that, I’m sure one of the ArborWiki stewards will clarify.]

    Otherwise put, the investment you might make in mapping out your favorite bus route on ArborWiki, would not be wasted.

    Give it a try, why doncha?

       —HD    Feb. 27 '08 - 08:30PM    #
  22. Could someone post a map of the ideal Southeast Michigan rail transit system, including Ann Arbor, kind of like a New York subway map? It may have existed in reality before the 1950’s.

       —Map    Feb. 27 '08 - 08:41PM    #
  23. SEMCOG has already produced a transit plan for southeastern Michigan, including visions for a rapid transit system and regional links.
    The report (PDF file) can be found here.
    Look on page 56 for a comprehensive map of the recommendations.

    The Metropolitan Affairs Council worked with SEMCOG to produce the modal alternatives analysis for the metro-Detroit rapid transit system.
    The report (PDF file) can be found here.
    Look on page ES-5 for a map of the proposed corridors.

    Ann Arbor City government is working on an update of the city’s transportation plan (including rapid transit feasibility).
    A copy of the presentation made to the project advisory council can be found The report (PDF file) can be found here.
    It includes corridor studies for potential rapid transit.

       —keaz    Feb. 27 '08 - 10:44PM    #
  24. Thanks for the maps.

       —Map    Feb. 27 '08 - 10:49PM    #
  25. Hi Dave: The printed map/schedule format that AATA currently uses was put together by a company named Smartmaps. The group of people who founded SM did extensive research in conjunction with transit agencies and determined that for people who don’t use transit maps and schedules on a regular basis, a schedule which reads from left to right was easiest to understand (at least if you speak English, Spanish, etc.). They also found that a map whose direction correlates with the schedule was easiest to read for people who don’t understand maps. This often results in maps with north which don’t point up. People who do understand maps were able to compensate for the non-standard orientation of the maps.

    AATA has found that the SM format isn’t working as well for our riders as it once did, so we’ll be introducing new map/schedule formats sometime in the next year. We’ll be looking for public input on the new formats, so watch for further communications on those matters.

    Concerning our maps on the website: we don’t have anybody solely dedicated to website work, so we’ve only been able to post our printed materials to the web. We are working to upgrade our internal IT systems to make them compatible with Google Transit data standards. We have to use a system like that because we don’t have the time or staff to individually input/maintain data points for routes, stops, times, etc. Google Transit will allow us to make automated data dumps of updated information into their system (at no cost to our agency). We’ll probably develop APIs to customize the interface for our riders, but we’re not quite ready for data transfers yet. When we draw closer to this point we’ll be looking for suggestions from the public, so watch our website for notices.

       —Ken Anderson    Feb. 29 '08 - 01:23AM    #
  26. Thank you. Is it possible for a SE Michigan map, nice and clear like the AATA map, to be made, outlining what a Detroit-Lansing-Ann Arbor transit system would look like? The SEMCOG maps were not clear, like a NY subway map would be. The MAC map, page ES-5, was much better, but still nowhere near Ann Ann Arbor, and with only the most basic links. It was called “Final SpeedLink Conceptual Network”. Nothing like a subway map, nothing you can really visualize, like a unitary AATA route.

       —Map    Feb. 29 '08 - 01:32AM    #
  27. “When we draw closer to this point we’ll be looking for suggestions from the public, so watch our website for notices.”

    Great. And thanks for the post.

       —HD    Feb. 29 '08 - 01:42AM    #
  28. One point needs to be made. The Detroit trolleys were fairly popular after they were introduced back in the late 1970s when they were purchased form Portugal. Later, however ridership dwindled to the point that each fare cost about $100.00 when there was only 50 cents collected for each riding customer. Worse, the trolley route was only about one mile and went up Washington Avenue into an area which was away from the busier parts of downtown Detroit. There was also an obnoxiously loud and shrill whistle that you could hear from the inside of nearby office buildings all day. The only positive thing you could say about the Detroit trolley was, as others have pointed out, that they have a certain aesthetic quality that a bus does not have and, also, a one-mile route could fit downtown Ann Arbor well. Mass transit has been a general disaster in Detroit with the People Mover costing about $3.50 per fare to the transit authority, compared to about twenty cents per fare in operating costs for the New York subway system. Both the trolley and People Mover systems in Detroit have been largely expensive failures with riderships only a small fraction of what urban planners had envisioned. The dwindling level of fares I believe had been due to a general dissatisfaction of how these systems were run and a cheaper alternative would be to drive or walk to your destination without incurring any fare at all. In summation, I would advise the city to heed the adage of “caveat emptor” or “buyer beware” prior to plunging into an expensive commitment given Detroit’s difficulties.

       —Mark Koroi    Feb. 29 '08 - 03:58AM    #
  29. Those streetcars make me wax nostalgiac for the Rice-A-Roni commercials of the days of yore!

       —Roadman    Mar. 15 '08 - 05:20AM    #
  30. The Washington Post reported earlier this week that the District of Columbia is accepting bids for the construction of a rail infrastructure in Washington and, also, that three new streetcars have been purchased and are awaiting shipment from Europe. Ann Arbor transportation officials should examine the Washington project as a potential model for the Ann Arbor area.

       —Kerry D.    Jul. 16 '08 - 02:58AM    #
  31. Street cars are a great idea, in line with othe public transportation and city planning endeavors, if Ann Arbor is to finally grow up and stop pretending to be its own little fiefdom.

       —Marc Manley    Aug. 16 '09 - 11:04PM    #
  32. Marc: was that sarcasm? Streetcars aren’t really designed for regional transportation. (or maybe they were, in the 1880s)

       —Matt Hampel    Aug. 17 '09 - 07:10AM    #
  33. The Interurbans of the early 20th century would probably be called street cars today but they linked up SE Michigan in a way that few of us would even of happening in our life time.

       —John Q.    Aug. 17 '09 - 07:50AM    #
  34. For an interesting introduction to the interurban, local authors H. Mark Hildebrandt and Martha A. Churchill have recently released a book titled “Electric Trolleys of Washtenaw County” published by Arcadia Publishing. (search for “Washtenaw”)

    Most mid-sized communities like Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo had electric street cars, in addition to the interurban, until the mid 1920’s. The cause of the demise of local and interurban electric rail service is complex and likely due to taxation of the right of ways, poor management, competition from cars and the conversion of electric systems to internal combustion buses by the National City Lines holding company (financed by GM, Firestore Tire and Standard Oil), see:

    Currently, mass transit in all forms is terribly underfunded. Michigan uses a gas tax to finance all transportation projects, including transit. Because of the reduction in travel and the increase in gas mileage, that revenue is suffering dramatic decline. In the next couple of years, local millage and state funding will not be sufficient to meet the local portion required for federal transit funding.

    All mass transit requires significant subsidization. If we build train systems, such as the WALLY or the Detroit to Ann Arbor commuter service, they will compete with buses for scarce transit subsidies or will require big, unpopular tax increases. There are no simple answers.

       —Jack Eaton    Aug. 18 '09 - 01:38AM    #
  35. Excellent summary, Jack.

    I’ve talked with the author of the Electric Trolleys book (which is up for a book signing at Nicola’s soon, I think) and told him of my childhood memory of traveling from Iowa City, Iowa to Cedar Rapids, Iowa by trolley. I especially remember the line above and the connection to our one car crossing the prairie/cornfield. He said that similar interurbans were very common in the 1950s.

    Your points about transit funding are sadly accurate, too. The Michigan House passed a package of funding measures last December (our own Pam Byrnes was on the relevant committee) implementing the TF2 recommendations, but sadly the Republican-led Senate killed it.

       —Vivienne Armentrout    Aug. 18 '09 - 05:02AM    #
  36. All mass transit requires significant subsidization. If we build train systems, such as the WALLY or the Detroit to Ann Arbor commuter service, they will compete with buses for scarce transit subsidies or will require big, unpopular tax increases. There are no simple answers.

    Yes, significant subsidization will be needed to create or substantially expand mass transit options on a regional level. Yet this has always been true for the personal automobile as well. How differently might the auto industry have developed during the last century if GM, Ford, Toyota, Volkswagen, Packard, Studebaker, et al., had been responsible all along for financing roadway infrastructure across the country? Most road construction, expansion or maintenance projects represent a very direct and very expensive government subsidy to the auto industry. We’ve been doing this type of subsidy for so long, and it’s so interwoven into daily life, that it can become difficult to recognize the plainly obvious. For the last hundred years or so, the auto industry has never been fully responsible for covering all of its true costs.

    What if instead we saw signs along the highway that read something like: This year’s I-94 summer reconstruction project has been underwritten by Ford Motor Co., with additional funding for exit ramp repair supplied by Chrysler . Please show your support for road improvement by purchasing a new vehicle from your local Ford or Chrysler dealer. What would be the price of a new car when the manufacturer has to pass along national road work costs in order to make a profit? Through taxes applied to roads, we have socialized a huge cost area that the auto industry could not support through the “free market.” This socialization makes high consumer demand for autos possible.

    ALL forms off transportation require enormous and ongoing subsidies. What it comes down to in the end is choosing our priorities. Greater funding for mass transit ultimately means spending a smaller percentage of our transportation infrastructure tax money on roads and diverting far more of it toward public rail, bus, walkways and biking lanes so that these alternate modes of travel can finally begin to thrive.

       —yet another aging boomer    Aug. 18 '09 - 05:49AM    #
  37. the myth about the demise of streetcars

       —ziggy selbin    Aug. 19 '09 - 06:49AM    #