Blog: Eli Cooper

As the city of Ann Arbor transportation program manager since 2005, Eli Cooper works in the city's Systems Planning Unit, addressing all forms of transportation programs and planning. Eli serves as the chairman of the city's Alternative Transportation Committee and is co-chair of the Ann Arbor Area Campaign for Active Transportation. He is also a member of the getDowntown Advisory Committee, the city's transportation management organization, and represents the city on countywide and regional technical planning committees.

Prior to coming to Ann Arbor, Eli served as director of transportation planning for the Puget Sound Regional Council in Seattle. He is a member of the American Planning Association's American Institute of Certified Planners and holds a master's in urban planning from Hunter College at the City University of New York.

Eli Cooper - Most Recent Posts:

Post 5: Transportation Map for 2041

Wow, this blogging gig is an interesting exercise.  I hope you have enjoyed following along over the past few posts.  Perhaps I have encouraged you to see some transportation issues from a slightly different angle.  I will now attempt to address one of the ideas framed by the hypothetical questions posed on the Moving You Forward website: In 30 years, how will Washtenaw County residents get around?

First and foremost, by 2041 thousands more people will live and work in Ann Arbor and throughout the county using many of the existing buildings and roads in-place today.  We will still have a strong central urban area; one extending along Washtenaw and Michigan Avenues including Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Saline, and parts of the townships in between.  It will not be one homogeneous urban form, but one that evolved with parks,  green spaces, and natural resources serving to provide a respite from the growing urban area.  We will continue to celebrate the progressive planning that began in the 1980s and gently guided our growth and economic development.  We will have folks walking and bicycling in interesting mixed-use urban villages or hot spots, where people can satisfy most, if not all, of their needs within one area.  Home, work, shopping, recreation and learning will all be within a short comfortable walk or bike ride.  These urban activity centers can and will be linked by exciting forms of public transportation.  Systems of advanced transit vehicles, traveling separately from our congested roadways, will provide the connection between urban places.  They will be high speed, comfortable, and convenient.   

Efforts underway – including the Ann Arbor Connector Feasibility Study – give us reason to believe that in a few decades new transport systems including bus rapid transit, light rail and maybe even elevated guideway systems may be in use in Ann Arbor.    Of course we will still have thousands of cars, trucks, motorcycles, scooters, and the likes using our roadways.  These vehicles will be operating on much more complete streets, with enhanced bus stops and comprehensive systems of bike lanes and sidewalks.  Off-road trails, including the completed Border to Border (B2B) Trail and Allen Creek Greenway, will provide worry-free environments linking busy places through active transportation corridors.   

Additional Washtenaw County communities – including Chelsea, Dexter, and Manchester – will be linked to the central urban region with roads and public transportation services provided by a countywide service provider under a regional transit umbrella. This work began in earnest in the early part of the 21st Century under the AATA Moving You Forward program.  Embracing a smart growth model, by 2041 we will have moved far beyond the separations in land use and transportation systems and entered  into an environment where all forms of mobility are properly funded and the systems needed to link people, places and activities are in place and well used.   Buses of various sizes along with trains and other vehicles – will link the county together as a complement to the roadways system.  The current information and transportation options already make the world smaller. This reality will be even more so in 2041.     
By 2041 the volatility in gasoline prices is in the rear view mirror.   Major advances in technology have brought a variety of fuel sources into the mix.   Alcohol-based fuels, electric vehicles, wind and solar powered systems, and the like serve to move us.  Various mixes of synthetic gasoline remain available to serve the remaining classic cars still around.  Personal jet packs, flying cars and transporter beams are probably not in the mix yet, but a wide array of technologies using sun, wind, water, hydrogen, and other sources will emerge to move people, products, and vehicles in the year 2041.

You can see that the future is shaped by today's realities.  The reality of pressure on our urban systems will help us consider how to expand our communities and the transportation systems that serve us.    In 2041, our feet and minds will enable us to continue to remain a healthy, vibrant community with a prosperous economy.  Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County are indeed special places, and through our combined efforts we will be able to move forward to 2041 and beyond, continuing to enjoy recognition as a leading, place to walk, bicycle, live, work, and learn.      


Post 4: Train commute talk isn't just whistling Dixie

What is the romance with rail transportation anyway?  Why is our community focusing so much attention to travel by rail?  Whether it is commuter rail between Ann Arbor and Detroit, or Ann Arbor and Howell (affectionately known as Wally), or the high-speed rail corridor linking Michigan cities, including Detroit and Ann Arbor, with Chicago and a network of other major Midwestern cities, there is a buzz about traveling by rail!

Okay, rail travel is relatively pleasant and easy to understand. Purchase a ticket or monthly pass, arrive at the station, climb aboard a large rail car, find a comfortable seat, sit down, plug in your iPod or link to a wireless connection, and get to business, both literally and figuratively.  I don't know about you, but traveling on our roadways this winter has me thinking about other travel options.  How much snow can you move off the drive and sidewalks? How many close-calls are needed on local roadways? What about walking over piles of snow and icy sidewalks?   (Don't even think about the rising numbers at the gas pump!) Sitting in a warm train car sounds inviting and a lot less complicated. Sure, train travel is not for everyone, but for commuting and regional trips, rail travel is hard to beat.

Rail is also a relatively less expensive option.  I know, hearing about the millions and billions of dollars needed to get nationwide high speed rail system up and running seems daunting.  But let's break it down.  To provide commuter rail service in Ann Arbor, planners and engineers are looking at existing railroad corridors.  We are not talking about hundreds of millions of dollars needed to buy land, then design and build whole new systems. Just use existing tracks and their underutilized capacity!  Can you find underutilized capacity on our community's or region's vehicle roadways?   Perhaps, but there is less room on our roads today than yesterday, and with tens of thousands of new jobs being created in our community, that excess road capacity, if it exists, will quickly disappear!  Meanwhile, the rails sit there, waiting to be put to good use.

But do trains make sense to today's lifestyle? In the early twenty-first century, in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County people commute to their jobs primarily in cars, especially if their trips are coming from outside of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. Within the Ann Arbor-Ypsi area our local AATA bus company provides excellent transit service options.   However, regional transportation statistics tell us there are tens of thousands of commuters traveling back and forth daily on I-94, M-14, US-23, and to and from Ann Arbor's homes and workplaces from the many communities well beyond AATA's reach.  That there is a regional travel market waiting to be served is abundantly clear to anyone that cares to look.   Many jobs in our immediate community are concentrated in and around Ann Arbor's downtown and campus areas.  The commuters driving to work not only congest our regional highways but also clog our local streets and parking options.   

Rail travel can bring people, not cars, to town where they can rely on their feet, bicycles, or buses to make that short connection to their final destination--all without taking up space on our roads or adding to the demand on our parking facilities!   We have not seen this type of transportation in our town in a long, long time, making it harder to see and understand, but it does work! A quick look at a nearby region, metropolitan Chicago, provides evidence that American people use and enjoy rail travel.

Combining the high cost of maintaining our highways and roadways, the need for expanded travel capacity, and the ability to use our existing transportation systems more effectively, provides strong support for advancing a rail program.   Still need more convincing? An earlier study anticipated an investment of $500 million to add one lane in each direction to accommodate more cars along the US-23 corridor between Ann Arbor and Brighton.   And we're talking about building road capacity for cars that slip and slide in the winter, bang into each other, injuring and killing people, not to consider all of the other associated costs.  This post's intent is not to bash the auto system.  It serves us well.  But for our community and economy to fare better, we need more options providing additional choices for travelers.   More folks traveling in different ways will serve to reduce the burden on all of our travel systems, making getting around easier for everybody.  

MDOT is working with Great Lakes Central Railroad, a Michigan business, refurbishing railcars to provide initial service.  This effort has already created new jobs in Michigan, and it capitalizes on lower-cost rolling stock – another prudent and cost-efficient approach to get started.  So, we're basically talking about running low cost, high quality, renewed rail cars on existing tracks.

This is the opportunity rail represents:  More travel options along key travel corridors, at a fraction of the cost of other choices. Next time you are sitting in your car on a congested roadway looking to get to work (or anywhere else for that matter), think how nice it would be for you to be sitting on a comfortable train, napping, texting, or reading as you travel.  On the flip side of this equation, what if your best option is to drive and you could magically move thousands of other drivers onto a train and out of your way, making your trip a little less stressful?   So join me in shouting "All Aboard" and help make rail travel a reality!  

Tomorrow: Transportation Map for 2041

Post 3: One car = A dozen bikes

Where is your bicycle?  I know you have one.  Is it hanging on your garage ceiling on a hook?   It was a bicycle that provided you the basic freedom to get out of the neighborhood when you were old enough, remember?  Was it your primary mode of travel while on campus if you attended UM?  Come on, freshmen aren't allowed cars. Bikes were and still are a great way to get around in our city and campus areas.   As a matter of fact, Ann Arbor has many folks who use bicycles as their primary way of getting around, and that benefits all of us!   Benefits all of us, you say?  Why might that be?  They just get in the way on our streets!

Well, a bicycle takes up a lot less room than another vehicle on our roadways.  Bicycles also require a lot less space for storage and parking.  Ever see the A2DDA gang rack in front of the Food Co-op?  In one car parking spot, a dozen or so bikes rest comfortably.  If each of those cyclists drove, the entire block would be consumed by their vehicles, not one parking space.   The same holds true if these cyclists were driving cars or SUVs around and further crowding our streets!   Worrying about the high cost of gas?  Know that folks that rely on bikes to get around are not competing for gasoline.  No, we are not back in the '70s with gas lines and limited supplies, but with cycling, less gas is consumed, leaving just a bit more for others.   Like to breathe clean air?  I've seen enough stickers telling me that cycling is pollution-free transportation!  

Ann Arbor is recognized by the League of American Bicyclists as a Bike Friendly city.  In today's anonymous world, we have a vibrant cycling community.  If you are thinking about jumping back in the saddle to participate in a more active healthy lifestyle movement, if you want to just get a break from the high cost of driving and parking in our city, or if you want the luxury of finding a parking spot right next to the front door, come on out and join the fun.  The Washtenaw Bicycling and Walking Coalition sponsors a RAT (Ride Around Town) once a month.  It is a great way to meet several experienced cyclists, enjoy the camaraderie of the Ann Arbor cycling community, and become a growing part of the Ann Arbor community that enjoys a little more exercise, a little less hassle to park, and a few more cents, or dollars, in one's pocket.  Bicycling benefits everybody!    

Tomorrow: Train commute talk isn't just whistling Dixie

Post 2: From celebrating a baby's first steps to celebrating all walks of life

Okay, be honest. How important is walking? I'll bet that all of us can relate to baby's first steps. Come on, be honest now. In your family photo album, I'll bet that there is a photo or two of you taking your first steps--if not you, then at least your children. Of course, the first steps are a milestone, one that is celebrated. Remember when you saw a baby learning to walk? Did you think, "The fun begins now?"

The fun that begins for every parent when a baby takes his or her first steps triggers parental considerations of mobility and freedom. At first those steps are celebrated. Then comes the time to put up safety gates, elevate prized possessions, and make sure that the child and those possessions remain safe. So what if the price of that child's freedom entails the slight restricting of our own? We need to keep the little one safe!

Why is walking as a means of transportation not accorded that same care and consideration on the streets? You may already know that nearly 18% of all Ann Arbor residents walk to work and that an additional 8% walk to a public-transit site, then use that transit to reach the workplace. You may even be aware that the city recently adopted crosswalk-safety ordinances, including one that requires motorists to stop for people crossing a street in a marked crosswalk. That ordinance also requires drivers to stop for sidewalk users approaching the crosswalk.

Why did the city enact laws to provide for the protection of sidewalk users? The concern is for the safety and comfort of people circulating on Ann Arbor streets. As mentioned in a previous post, Ann Arbor has recently announced its intent to support the Complete Streets concept, wherein all individuals using our streets can comfortably meet their travel needs. Recent City Council action acknowledges that using Ann Arbor sidewalks should be celebrated and that motorists are required to respectfully allow users safe passage.

The next time that you see someone walking on our roadways, recall baby's first steps and do your part in celebrating walking. Provide a safe, comfortable environment for all walkers and sidewalk users. It's the right thing to do!

Tomorrow: One car = A dozen bikes

Post 1: Why we need to step in Complete Streets

The Ann Arbor City Council embraced "Complete Streets" at its March 7 meeting. This action enables the city to be recognized as a leader in providing public facilities in a manner that meets the needs of all users. I used a broad term – public facilities – not just streets or roads. That would have been a simpler, easier to understand term you might have expected to read.  But no, this is a bit more complicated.  All users? Aren't streets provided for cars to drive on?   

What does this action mean to me, you might wonder?  What are complete streets anyway?  Is a street that allows one to drive from one end of town to another a complete street?  If only some streets are complete, what are incomplete streets?  Why should I care? 

Streets are not exclusively for cars, never have been.  Yes, I know, we are in Michigan, the car capital of the nation and world.  Home of the Big Three!  Surely, a Complete Street allows one to drive on it.  But no, that is not the story here.  Let's step back and review a bit of transportation history.  I will keep the history part short, promise.  I'll bet you know streets and roads existed prior to automobiles.  In fact, walkers, carriages, horses, mules, etc., bicyclists and others shared our streets long before the introduction and widespread use of the automobile. 

As such, Complete Streets has to mean more than accommodating automobiles.  The transportation engineering community has evolved over the past century and does a great job addressing the needs of our motoring public and other users as well.   What, other users?  There is that term again!   Okay, but other users include people!  People that may choose to walk along a street, or even across the street.   Why would anyone walk across the street?  To get to the other side, of course!  Many members of our community choose to bicycle on, or alongside of our streets.  And not everyone has the ability to drive or even walk. There are members of our community with impairments that require elements allowing them to safely use our streets, enabling them a basic freedom – personal mobility.

Ann Arbor is recognized as a leader in Michigan's constellation of communities when it comes to providing Complete Streets.   Our city has received recognition awards from the state of Michigan and national organizations for our walking and bicycling programs.  We have hundreds of miles of sidewalks in our city. We have crosswalks, too many to count.  More recently we started adding pedestrian crossing islands to assist people in walking across the street.  In November, the city – in cooperation with MDOT – installed a HAWK Beacon on Huron Street. This traffic signal is designed to allow people to more safely walk across a busy street.  

Ann Arbor has acknowledged the role of the bicycle for transportation purposes since the 1970s – I'll bet it was prior to that as well!  We have a few thousand residents bicycling to work on a regular basis, according to the US Census reports.  

Ann Arbor's public transit service, The Ride, is unrivaled across the state.  Transit is becoming more and more a travel choice in our city, resulting from The Ride's comprehensive service system and its clean, well maintained buses, attractive new bus shelters, and numerous bus stops.   

Our computerized traffic signal system, SCOOT, affords our motorists the ability to move as freely as possible along many of our major thoroughfares – minimizing the number of times any car has to stop for red lights.  (Bet I'll get responses to this one). Yes, we do consider and make improvements to enhance the travel experience for drivers, as well as the other street users.  That is truly our Complete Streets approach – accommodating the needs of all users and  helping to define the high quality of life we enjoy.   

So why the Council's recent action?  Why resolve to deliver a system of complete streets?  From a facilities standpoint, not all of our streets contain all of the elements making travel comfortable or suitable for all users.  There are still many gaps in our sidewalk system.  Our goal of having in-road bicycle lanes on all major roadways is far from being completed.  Yes, we regularly add to the total lane-miles of bike lanes in the city, but there is much work to do.   Our transit service, although unrivaled, can be enhanced as evidenced by AATA's own Moving You Forward program.   So, Complete Streets by definition are a desirable end state, one that we strive to attain but that leaves us with more to do.

Yes, in spite of our past efforts and progressive policies and programs, there is more work to do! Ann Arbor has a ways to go to realize its vision of providing comfortable travel for all users regardless of age or ability level.  City council's recent action recognizes our efforts to date, and memorializes our commitment to continue to develop our street system in a manner that comfortably accommodates all people whether they walk, ride a bike or bus, or drive.

One major Complete Streets investment to be constructed in 2011 is the Washtenaw Avenue shared-use path. This new 1.1 mile-long, ten-foot wide path will extend along the north side of Washtenaw Ave from Glenwood Rd. to Toumy Rd. The path is designed to safely and comfortably accommodate both pedestrians and cyclists. The city is also continuing extension of new on-road bike lanes on Catherine St, Green Road, Ann St, and new pedestrian crossing islands on Huron, Green, and possibly Washtenaw Ave in the coming year. Beyond this year's efforts additional on-road bike lanes and sidewalks will be provided as part of the East Stadium Bridges project on both E. Stadium Blvd and State Street in the project area.

Complete Streets will serve as a framework for my upcoming blog posts.  Ann Arbor has much experience in providing for Complete Streets, and we also see opportunities for each and every reader to contribute to the provision of Complete Streets in Ann Arbor, a place where all can "comfortably" travel regardless of their travel preference.  In my next post, I will delve deeper into one of our most celebrated forms of transportation: walking!   

Tomorrow: From celebrating a baby's first steps to celebrating all walks of life