Blog: Emma Wendt

Moving from the west coast to the third coast is a major life change, one that Emma Wendt, entrepreneurial services connector at Ann Arbor SPARK, has handled with resourcefulness. Among many ideas, Emma writes on how Michigan winters make for good local food and networking, and how an ABC (Anything But a Car) philosophy builds a closer community.

How an ABC (Anything But a Car) Philosophy Makes for a Closer Community

It may seem blasphemous to encourage people to get out of their cars with the Motor City at my back door. But there are lots of reasons to try it: saving money; reducing pollution; increasing energy security; improving your physical and mental health; and LeBron James does it.  I'll focus on one more in this post: strengthening community.

I've never owned a car, and never want to.  My personal motivations are mostly environmental and stubbornness, but the side benefits of going car-free have been significant.  Since I'm generally confined to getting myself around on bike, foot, or public transportation, I've always (since becoming a grownup) lived a short distance from school or work.  Zipcar helps out on the rare occasions where I've needed my own vehicle.

The time savings alone should be a strong motivator to bring your home and work closer together.  For a 25-minute driving commute (the U.S. average in 2009), that's about 200 hours wasted every year.  Here's a more thorough argument of why it's worth it to switch homes or jobs.

More importantly, though, since I spend more of my time in generally the same place, I can more easily build a community here.  While on foot and bike, I regularly have unexpected encounters with friends and colleagues.  It's these interactions that help me build better friendships, and have more of pulse on the local scene. 

It's not just me.  According to the National Association of Realtors' 2011 Community Preference Survey, Americans are looking to live in walkable communities, with a mix of amenities nearby. 

Housing crunch
But if you aren't quite ready to buy, finding grown-up housing near downtown is hard, since the rental market is dominated by students.  My significant other and I recently signed a lease for a new place beginning in August.  Starting our search in January was even a bit late, since students (who know where they want to be in a year) are allowed to sign leases  for the following fall starting November 14. 

If you don't want to trip over Solo cups on the way out the door, yet still want to be able to walk to a restaurant, coffee shop, or grocery store, the neighbourhoods you'd realistically want to live in are fairly restricted.  Once you've mapped out where you'd like to be, PadMapper and Zillow are invaluable visual mashups of Craigslist and other housing posts. To make sure you're close enough to what you need, look up your walkability score.

For those who are either quick to the draw or very patient, you might be able to win the apartment hunt game.  But this doesn't address the underlying problem that there's just not enough centrally located housing available in Ann Arbor.

Why should you care, if you already own the roof over your head and want to stay there?  A city without an attractive rental market in or near a vibrant downtown core is going to have trouble retaining and bringing in the bright, talented young people you need to support our local economy.  A more dense population also supports a better public transportation system, which in turn reduces traffic for everyone.

If you want to take advantage of the community benefits of living near where you work and play, but aren't ready yet to switch jobs or homes, here's where you can start:

Support housing options near downtown cores.

In just over a year, we'll see the opening of Village Green -- a 155-unit apartment building intended for young professionals.  When developers propose projects like this, learn about what they can offer you -- like less traffic downtown, since more people can walk there instead of drive.  If good projects face opposition, speak up for them. 

Ask for better infrastructure for biking, walking, and public transportation

Connectivity can be just as important as distance, especially when you're not in a car.  Safe sidewalks, crosswalks, and bike lanes make the trip more feasible, particularly for bikers who aren't comfortable with taking the lane, or for families with kids.  These features can be better for drivers, too, since good roadway design can improve visibility and predictability of others using the road.  And investments in walking and biking infrastructure are significantly less expensive than highways.

The Washtenaw Bicycling and Walking Coalition (WBWC), where I serve as vice chair, is working hard to make these developments happen.  The WBWC helped pass Ann Arbor's new crosswalk ordinance, which requires drivers stop for pedestrians standing at the curb and within a crosswalk.  The policy change met some opposition, but with improvements in crosswalk design, education, and time, we expect more wide-spread support. 

Ann Arbor already has a decent start, but it still has a long way to go before we can become a Portland or... Minneapolis.  The quality of roads is atrocious, and some intersections or areas are inaccessible or frightening for pedestrians or cyclist.  Drivers need to be aware and respectful of cyclists and pedestrians (I've been honked at several times here, and never in California), but bikers and walkers also need to behave predictably and politely.

We have our work cut out for us, and WBWC is always looking for more volunteers and support.

For distances beyond a reasonable walk or ride, public transportation is key.  While we do have a great bus system, service is relatively infrequent outside of commute hours, and most routes don't run late at night. Improvements require funding, so support good transportation policies and projects by contacting your local, state, or federal representative.

Commute and run more errands on two wheels or two feet.
Try joining the increasing number of Americans who are walking and biking.  If you're new to this, try starting with just one car-less trip a week.  It might not take any extra time, considering you'll never have to search for a parking space. 

There are tons of resources on commuting by bike, including tips from the League of American Bicyclists, and a local guide on how to ride in winter.

Ann Arbor's getDowntown program supports bringing people to the core of our city without their cars.  They also offer heavily discounted go!passes -- which provide unlimited rides on the bus system, among other benefits -- for downtown business.  Ask your employer to sign up if they haven't already. 

Gears a little rusty?  The folks at Common Cycle can help get your bike back in shape -- and all their services are free.  Join them every Wednesday night in the winter at the Outdoor Adventure Rental Center, and every Sunday at the Kerrytown Farmers Market throughout the rest of the year.  They're very welcoming, so you won't be judged if you come in with a beater bike, or if you don't know your bottom bracket from your headset.

Even though I can get around without a car the vast majority of the time, I've still had to compromise.  While I have the luxury of walking, biking, or busing to work, my SO has to drive a few days a week to school in Detroit.  I'm a bit timid about riding at night in the winter (mostly due to the ice and potholes, not the cold), and there are a few errands I can't do within the downtown core.  Hopefully, as we improve our policies, infrastructure, and community support in Ann Arbor, those times where I get in a car will become fewer and fewer.