Ann Arbor's proposed circulator bus service: What's next and why now?

The Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority (DDA) is exploring the possibility of bringing circulator bus service back to downtown Ann Arbor, but it won't necessarily look like the old purple Link buses that used to loop the city.

The once-popular Link service inspired DDA board member Keith Orr's interest in a new circulator bus, which he advocated for for some time before recently rallying the rest of the board to approve a feasibility study. But DDA executive director Susan Pollay says the study will start with the basic questions of "how will we know if this is successful?" and "who are we serving?"

"What we did a few years ago doesn't necessarily mean how we need to do it this time," Pollay says. "We're really going to ask afresh in 2016 how this can help us in our mission, which is to strengthen downtown and encourage private reinvestment."

The DDA board is now drafting a request for qualifications for consulting firms to help with the study, which Pollay says she hopes can happen before the end of this year. There's no real urgency, but she's hopeful the service could be running by next summer.

Where fixed bus routes take people from point A to point B, into or out of an area, a circulator keeps making a continuous loop with designated stops along the way. That makes a circulator ideal for tourists who don't know an area very well, or people looking to move around the greater downtown area quickly and without getting back into a parked car.

The exact route and number of stops will be determined after the study, along with days and hours of service. Another open question is whether the route would be run by the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority (AAATA) or a private company.

A grant obtained by AAATA funded the original 20-month Link pilot in 2003. The route was revived in 2005 as a collaborative venture between the DDA, AAATA, and the University of Michigan, and was discontinued in 2009 when the DDA ceased its funding of the route.

Since then, Pollay says the community has shifted to "non-car-centric" transportation modes and using a "menu" of transit options: there are more bikes and ride shares, and fewer single-occupancy vehicles. And more recently introduced options, like AAATA's Sunday service, show demand for transit is there.

"The future of downtown is looking for strategies where, once you've arrived to downtown, you don't need a car, and I think that's why this fits into that overall shift as we look to the future," she says.

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

Photo by Doug Coombe.
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