OpEd: Vote Yes to Buses and a More Connected Community

Carolyn Lusch is a self-described "transit dork" who grew up just outside Detroit, and at an early age was motivated by chronic car sickness to seek out alternative forms of transportation. This search led her to the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, where she organized for the Partners for Transit coalition, and to the urban and regional planning program at U-M, where she is finishing up her first year of graduate study. She is also coordinator for the MDetroit Center Connector shuttle between Detroit and Ann Arbor. She has a local/regional blog at mittenagain.blogspot.com, loves trains and nice people, hates airplanes, and is moving to Ypsi in May.

Vote Yes to Buses on May 6

I dream about buses. I draw buses on the margins of my notebooks. I once dressed as a bus and danced on the steps of the State Capitol. I've ridden every public transit system in southeast Michigan, ridden a train from Ann Arbor to Seattle, and taken an epic, four-hour, multimodal, carless journey from Ann Arbor to my hometown of Redford Township. I'm all about transit, and I'm all about how to make it better.

Ann Arbor is fortunate to have a supremely functional public transit system – that's not something I had growing up in an inner ring suburb of Detroit. But it has a ways to go to serve the needs of everyone in our community, especially as that community grows and changes. And just like the roads that we drive on, transit requires maintenance and investment, or its quality will decline.  Residents of Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and Ypsilanti Township will have a chance to vote May 6 on a millage that will improve the frequency, hours, and efficiency of the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority's bus routes.

The benefits of transit abound: it decreases our carbon footprint, integrates physical activity into our daily routines, and makes the best of Ann Arbor accessible to some of our less affluent and less mobile neighbors. But you knew that already, so I will recount my own adventures riding on buses and longing for more of them. For close to two years after undergrad, my boyfriend and I lived in Ann Arbor as professionals without a car between us. How did we do it? We had certain strategies:

  •  Bike in the rain and the cold. A lot. 
  •  Bike in places that make our lives flash before our eyes.
  •  Avoid any job listings that require "reliable transportation."
  •  If out past 10 on a weekend, resign ourselves to riding back home with inebriated undergrads.
  •  Greatly adjust our perception of what constitutes a reasonable distance to walk. 
  •  Carry a book at all times, anticipating bus stop waits.
  •  Meticulously plan all shopping trips.
  •  Owe so much carpooling karma, we may never pay it all back.
  •  Maintain primarily virtual contact with all friends/relations outside the Ann Arbor boundaries. 
Since for a while both of us lived near North Campus and worked in Ypsi, we would have died of joy at the planned increases in frequency along routes 2 and 4, not to mention the extensions in weekend hours. And did I mention the time a colleague and I got stranded outside on Packard for an hour? It was, in an ironic twist, after leaving a public forum on transit. I got pizza out of the deal, but I could have used the smaller intervals on the route 6 on weekdays. 

But everyone I've mentioned so far is young, healthy, well-educated, and childless. We bear the least of the burden of inadequate transportation in Washtenaw County. Residents at one community meeting I led have to worry about their children walking to school along dangerous roads, and have to save up for taxis to get to the grocery store. 

The upcoming millage vote is a matter of values. I want to live in a place where transit riding is the norm, where people care about the options available to the least privileged in our society, where people make decisions not just based on their self-interest, but on the interest of their community and their region. I'm grateful that the current infrastructure exists in the Ann Arbor area. I'm also convinced that we can do better, both to facilitate active, progressive lifestyles and to ensure that this remains a welcoming and supportive place for everyone. 

I've lived for short periods of time in New York City and in Madrid, both cities with excellent public transit.  The Madrileños throw around "I'm going to catch the train" as easily as we say "I'm going to hop in the car." And even my well-established, fifty-year-old New Yorker friend wouldn't dream of owning a car: "More hassle than it's worth!"

Now, Ann Arbor is not and will never be New York. It's a much smaller city with smaller needs. But that transit culture, that ease of travel built into the city's infrastructure, is something that all cities can aspire to, regardless of size. In Madrid, I would take a bus each day from a beautiful city transit center to the outlying area of Majadahonda, where I taught English. It was a forty-minute trip, executed elegantly and invaluable to commuters in both directions.

And so my last thought is this: the millage improvements will be a huge step in the right direction, but the world doesn't end at the Washtenaw County border. There's a whole metro Detroit out there, and both my job and my past have shown me the enormous need for cross-county transit. I hope that my neighbors will make this millage happen, and keep up their support until we live in a connected, equitable region. 
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