When weather permits, Eli Cooper leaves his mini van from-another-decade at home, and drives his motorcycle the 40-odd miles from his home in Oakland County to his job in Ann Arbor. When weather dictates he take the van, Cooper parks at the fringe of the city and pedals his mountain bike the four miles to Ann Arbor's City Hall. He works on the third floor, and it wouldn't be a stretch to guess that he takes the stairs, if, as rumor has it, he didn't also store the bike in his office for safe keeping.

"My job includes everything that moves," says Cooper," and some things that don't."

It's a line that he admits to using frequently during his four years as Ann Arbor's Transportation Program Manager, because it's difficult to explain the workings of his job in any concise way. Cooper works with and coordinates the moving parts of Ann Arbor --the everyday challenges posed by sidewalks, bike paths, roads, pedestrians, bicycles, traffic, parking and public transit. But Cooper's job is also one of vision: he's responsible for nothing less than the future of travel in Ann Arbor.

Of his nickname "czar," Cooper is modest. "I see my role as facilitator, not a Czar! There is so much positive energy around sustainable, high quality transportation in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County: Ann Arbor has an ever-growing system of bike lanes, state-of-the-art traffic adaptive traffic signal control systems, a first class local bus company, and a progressive parking philosophy as well as an energetic getDowntown Program, an organization focused on transportation and commuting choices. My role is to help all of our community's transportation elements work together, and to create a "synergy" where the value and productivity of each element is enhanced."

A czar is born

Growing up in the Bronx, Cooper had no idea that transportation would ultimately become his vocation.

"Transportation fascinated me. There were subways and buses and cars and all kinds of noises and smells, and that enabled you to get places and do fun things."

"When I was five or six years old I had a neighbor who used to tell me to go play in traffic," he laughs. "I don't think he meant that in the most kind and generous way."

A product of the '60s and '70s, Cooper remembers the time was rife with environmental problems. When he got to college at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, he chose to study environmental sciences. "I thought I was going to be one of those folks who made the world a better place."

"Over time I began to realize the relationship between transportation, pollution and gasoline, and how it all came together." Later, he attended Hunter College in Manhattan to earn his Masters in Urban Planning before going on to take his first such job in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, a suburban county near Philadelphia.

A lesson in change

Cooper soon found that Bucks County was holding back its investments into transportation infrastructure.

"They didn't want the community to grow and change. The local planners of previous generations thought that if they didn't put in roads, sewage, etc., they'd succeed in keeping the community the same," says Cooper. "But change came anyway – developers came and people came, and meanwhile no one had fixed the transportation system."

"Preparing for the future you believe will exist will leave you overwhelmed when it comes to the real world," Cooper says.

A couple years later, Cooper headed to a new position in New Jersey's state planning office, just 20 minutes from his alma mater. The job proved to be a mind expanding experience to Cooper, who was suddenly charged with the coordination issues of a four-county area. "As a relatively new planner, to be involved in things as diverse as urban revitalization, agricultural preservation, natural resource conservation, transportation, infrastructure, affordable housing … I was dealing with broad public policy issues and actually having the practical experience of negotiating with the local counties."

Cooper went on to expand his formidable reputation as a top urban planner and transit guru in communities in Delaware, Minnesota and Washington, assisting in planning entire rail and aviation systems. Indeed, the recurrent theme was transportation. Although his positions weren't specifically dedicated to transportation, it became his forte, and a dominant feature of any urban setting.

When Cooper came to Ann Arbor four years ago to fill the newly created position in Public Services, he found that his broad experiences helped him better serve the city's growing needs.

"Ann Arbor is a progressive community - although we are small. Our interests transcend our boundaries," he says.

The great debate

As progressive as Ann Arbor is, it's also in the midst of a great debate: To grow or not to grow?

"While that debate has been going," says Cooper, "The community has changed before their eyes. I work with the demographics that are provided to us based on the state projection for population growth and economic development, and when I look at the Ann Arbor numbers I can see that we are going to have growth, no matter what we want or don't want."

Part of Cooper's job, then, is helping the city realize that change does not mean a sacrifice in quality of lifestyle.

"I believe that it is my responsibility to prepare plans that would accommodate expected growth while maintaining Ann Arbor's high quality of life and character. My intent is to maintain the positive elements, attributes, and aspects of Ann Arbor but to do so while accommodating change. Change is occurring whether it is considered desirable or not. It is coming and we need to plan for it."

Building a better urban village

The state of Michigan has traditionally proven itself immune to the kinds of mass transit system projects that would permit a lessening of statewide highway traffic -- a trait many attribute to the still powerful influence of the Big Three.

"In Michigan, it's like we have our hands tied when it comes to investing in public transit. Even our state constitution says that 90% of funds go toward the auto industry," says Cooper. "It's really time we had an honest conversation as a state in order to get resources to support expanded public transit lines."

When Cooper first arrived in Ann Arbor, the community was embroiled in a disagreement as to whether US-23 should be expanded to accommodate the growing traffic problem. The highly debated project would have cost one half to three quarters of a billion dollars, and more importantly, no one had any idea how or where the city was going to fit all those extra cars. Cooper hoped for a more progressive solution.

"Loosening one's belt is not the solution to obesity. The idea is to find alternatives," Cooper says. "Mayor John Hieftje had pointed out that we have in place existing railroad tracks that come right into downtown. This type of travel would cost dimes on the dollar to the high cost of expanding the road."

"We need to change the paradigm, to transform ourselves in the way we think about transportation. We need a real vision, plan and understanding," he says. "And we're working on that."

The Ann Arbor Transportation Plan - Redux

Cooper and his colleagues have recently completed the updated Ann Arbor Transportation Plan. (The last such plan was updated and prepared nearly two decades ago.) The new plan recognizes that the policies and land use around transportation infrastructures very much shape the way the transportation system is used. It evaluates population densities and travel patterns, and takes a hard look at how, despite all wishes contrary, Ann Arbor has grown and continues to grow.

"The 1990 plan looked at transportation for transportation's sake," says Cooper. "The plan we've introduced recognizes that transportation is part of a community." One of the things Cooper has shown is that land use varies in Ann Arbor. "It never stops growing or changing."

Take the building of a dormitory, he says. Where a handful of people once lived, there are suddenly 600. Transportation in and around that node of habitation will be very different, and transportation planning has to acknowledge these types of changes on a city-wide basis and allow for them.

Luckily, it seems as though Cooper will be with Ann Arbor for a while, backing us up and holding our community's hand during the transformation. There continues to be so much to do, he says, with his trademark enthusiasm. 

"Each part of [Ann Arbor] has unique values," says Cooper. "From the urbanity of the downtown to the tranquility of paddling down the Huron River… there is the energy of the university and the ambient sidewalk dining along Main Street on a summer's eve. I see my work in maintaining and creating a mobility system that reflects the character of Ann Arbor."

Leia Menlove is an Ann Arbor-based writer and regular contributor to Concentrate.  Her previous story was WCC Is Cookin'.


Eli Cooper in one of Ann Arbor's many bike lockers-Ann Arbor

Eli is a big fan of bike lanes in Ann Arbor-Ann Arbor

Eli took a bus....-Ann Arbor

Eli "supports" commuter rails-Ann Arbor (Sorry for the horrible pun)

AATA- Ann Arbor

Waiting for a bus.  Very vagabond.-Ann Arbor

Eli checks out AATA's riding tips-Ann Arbor

All Photos by Dave Lewinski

Dave Lewinski
is Concentrate's Managing Photographer.  He thinks Eli looks like Jon Zemke from a different vintage.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.