Blog: Jon Zemke

Jon Zemke is the News Editor for Concentrate and Metromode. He grew up riding his bike between Whitmore Lake and Ann Arbor for football Saturdays, and walking nearly every inch of A2 while attending the University of Michigan. Four generations of his family have spent nearly the last century living in Ann Arbor, but he believes someone on the outside looking in should still be heard in the forest that is Tree Town.
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Jon Zemke - Dear Mr. Mayor...

To: John Hieftje, mayor, city of Ann Arbor
From: Jon Zemke, news editor, Concentrate

Dear Mayor Hieftje,

Next May you will appoint two people to the seven-member Ann Arbor Board of Directors. May I suggest a quick viewing before you make your decision - The Opposite episode, Season 5 (episode 22) from Seinfeld. You know, the episode where George Costanza decides that “My life is the complete opposite of everything I want it to be. Every instinct I have in every aspect of life, be it something to wear, something to eat... It's often wrong."

I’m not saying your previous appointments have been wrong per se, but they have been unimaginative. Keeping The Opposite episode in mind would allow choices that are more creative, innovative and whatever other flavor-of-the-month buzzword that might save Michigan’s economy to inform your decision. It’s a frame of mind that you, Hizzoner, should embrace to get the area’s transit agency batting on the level of George's beloved Yankees.

AATA’s board is made up with a majority of middle age-to-senior white males whose bank accounts are rivaled only by their degrees. These are the people who have the choice of whether to catch The Ride or cruise off in their own vehicle. It’s safe to say most of this board, at best, only occasionally rides the buses it makes the decisions on, and lives on streets where bus routes probably don’t stop.

That’s not to say this board is completely out of touch. It includes city administrators, big muckity mucks with the Michigan Dept of Transportation and leaders in the local business community. But it lacks diversity. Oh yes, there are the tokens that Ann Arbor loves to point to as proof of its diversity, such as a single woman and an African-American. But the AATA board of directors needs more than that. It needs diversity in its point of view.

“It’s important for somebody to have the understanding of what AATA should look like in the future and have that steeped by their experiences on it,” says Nancy Shore, a former AATA board member who stepped down to take the reins of Ann Arbor’s getDowntown program.

Shore is the type of fresh pair of eyes the AATA board needs. And by fresh I mean young and alternative transit-oriented. A few people with stakes in Ypsilanti’s burgeoning Bohemia. The current AATA board has members in Ann Arbor, the surrounding townships, and even the Lansing area, but not Ypsilanti. It has car drivers but no one who uses the bus as a primary form of transportation. It has a lot of older people, but no one young enough to count the years they have been out of school on their hands.

“It would be nice to have somebody who is slightly younger,” Shore says.

Maybe a younger board member would question why AATA provides express bus service to Chelsea and the Canton area but bus service for the seven miles between Ypsilanti's downtown and Ann Arbor's downtown clocks in at nearly an hour. Maybe that same younger board member would also note that with Ann Arbor's ever-shrinking affordable housing, Ypsi represents the best opportunity for cheap housing that's close to a walkable downtown.

So, I have three specific candidates that would make great AATA board members, and a fourth wild card suggestion. I have no idea whether these people have approached you Mr. Mayor about it or if they are even interested. I do know that they, or someone like them, would offer a point of view that would bring much needed diversity to AATA’s board.

Al McWilliams

You have probably read this name before. The so-called Master of the Universe at downtown Ann Arbor’s Quack!Media is the poster boy for Zipcar use in Ann Arbor. He has been featured in a number of publications (including this one) as someone who couldn’t wait to jump into a Zipcar when downtown Ann Arbor received its first earlier this year.

Two years ago, McWilliams made a decision most people in Ann Arbor, let alone Michigan, wouldn't even consider. He turned in the keys to his car and walked away, literally. The downtown Ann Arbor resident loves living without a car, choosing to get around with a combination of Zipcars, buses, bike, and shoe leather.

This decision makes more sense for those familiar with McWilliams’ eccentricities. The 20-something Eastern Michigan University grad runs a start-up that is creating a multi-media empire with the type of quirk that makes the Google interior decorators jealous. Put simply, McWilliams doesn’t look at things like most people, and that’s a good thing.

Richard Murphy

Richard Murphy’s friends call him Murph, and it makes sense because the 28-year-old urban planner is recently out of the University of Michigan. However, you wouldn’t get that impression after reading his thoughts on funding for AATA in regards to Ypsilanti on Mark Maynard’s blog. Wonky is the nice word used to describe his thorough explanations.

But more important than Murphy's knowledge is where he lives. He is one the numerous young professionals staking a claim in Ypsilanti’s emerging Bohemia, making a home on Cross Street within easy walking distance of downtown, Depot Town, and Eastern Michigan University. He also scored a job as an urban planner for the city of Ypsilanti after working an internship at the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority. Murphy knows what makes cities tick, how transit winds that clock, and why connecting Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti is critically important to the region.

Rene Greff

Rene Greff is one of those people with a well-known story. The Ypsilanti resident is an avid bicyclist who regularly rides her bike to and from her job as owner of the Arbor Brewing Company in downtown Ann Arbor and Corner Brewery in Ypsilanti. She's also a former member of Ann Arbor's DDA.

Greff is one of the increasing number of people who has a foot firmly planted in both of Washtenaw County’s major cities. She understands the importance of both urban areas and why they should be more connected. She also has an intricate understanding of the needs of bicyclists at a time when both cities, the surrounding townships, and AATA are ramping up efforts to make the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti area friendlier to alternative modes of transportation, like bicycles. And she is a she, which is a quality that is sorely lacking in a board filled with Y chromosomes.

One regular person who rides the bus but doesn’t run in local political circles

All of these suggestions, along with the current board, are educated and at least middle class people. The type of people who have a choice of whether or not to wait for an AATA bus or jump into a nice car and zoom away. Unfortunately, many people who ride the bus are those who don’t have that choice. These are usually the people who don’t run in Washtenaw County’s political circles and often lack a voice in the decisions that affect the service for which they depend.

AATA should find at least one of these people and give them a voice. Spend a little money advertising on buses and at bus stops asking for AATA board applicants. The risk is that the you Mr. Mayor won’t know exactly what your are getting, but perhaps a little shakeup like that is just what George Costanza would order.


Sincerely,

Jon Zemke

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