Blog: Eli Cooper

Used to be that all roads led to private autos but now with the Ann Arbor City Council's commitment to a Complete Streets program, roadblocks to alternative transport are buckling. Eli Cooper, Ann Arbor's transportation program manager, writes on how Washtenaw's county's working of more lanes for moto, bike, bus, rail, and foot travel means a road map redesign by 2041.

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