Q&A: Eli Cooper on Birds, bikes, buses, and Ann Arbor's rapidly shifting mobility landscape

This time last year, most Ann Arborites thought of scooters as a children's toy. But since Santa Monica, Calif.-based Bird arrived in Ann Arbor this September, the company's scooters have become surprisingly ubiquitous as a quick, cheap way for adults to get around the city's main thoroughfares.


The scooters arrived, and prompted city policy changes, in an unusually speedy fashion. Last month city council permitted Bird to place up to 200 scooters in Ann Arbor's public right of way for 90 days. But Birds weren't this year's only shakeup in how people get around in Ann Arbor.


A new out-of-town operator was announced for the city's bike share program in October, and the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority (AAATA) solicited public input to improve transit between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. At a broader level, the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan (RTA) nixed putting a new regional transit millage before voters this November, raising the possibility of a general election proposal in 2020.


2018 proved that there's ample demand among those who live and work in Ann Arbor for new ways to get around the community. We chatted with city transportation manager Eli Cooper about how Ann Arbor's mobility landscape shifted in 2018 and the road ahead in 2019.


The following has been edited for length and clarity.


Q: (City administrator) Howard Lazarus described Bird scooters as "the canary in the coal mine" for changes in micro-mobility in Ann Arbor. Do you agree?


A: However you want to describe it, I think they're indicating the health of the market for micro-mobility. When I scan the literature, there are other innovations that are being brought to other communities. There are scooters, electric-powered sit-down scooters, mopeds. I saw something about a micro-pod – not quite a car, but some kind of electric-propelled, enclosed vehicle. In some communities, companies like Bird or Lime bring e-bikes into the mobility marketplace.


So, canary in the coal mine? I think yeah, (Birds are) here and they haven't gone away. That means the environment is healthy enough for operation and now we'll see whether there's a proliferation of either companies or different technologies that will be available for our community as we go forward.


Q: When Birds first arrived, there was confusion over the legalities associated with them and it took a few months for the city to get regulation in place to address Birds. Are there steps you think the city needs to start taking to proactively address other shifts in micro-mobility in the future?


A: There wasn't a lot of confusion with regard to the operation of motorized equipment and where it's appropriate. The other factor is these transportation devices reside in the public right of way, and there's commerce being conducted in that right of way. These are relatively new phenomena. There was no process. The company dropped them in instead of coordinating with us ahead of time to sort through some of the issues. We have responded by coming up with short-term agreements with the operator. We have also advanced movement through the Transportation Commission of a Micro-Mobility Committee. So not only are we exploring in real time the way we adjust our relationship with this particular Bird scooter company, but we are through this committee exploring some of these other means of mobility.


With any introduction of a new business or new technology, no one's going to hit it 100 percent the first time. The idea of continuing to monitor and adjust is a strategy that I believe will serve us well as we continue to try to find a way to accommodate micro-mobility as a means to get around Ann Arbor.


Q: You mentioned the challenges associated with the fact that Bird just left these scooters without communicating with the city in advance. Do you anticipate that this situation is basically going to end up happening again with a different provider at some point?


A: I would believe not. I think it's relatively well-known now that we have this agreement and that the city has a process for micro-mobility companies. The issue before was that we did not have a process for private companies to conduct business within our rights of way. So companies that choose to go that way run the risk of violating what's now a well-known practice.


The other piece of this is that when we start getting into the proliferation of micro-mobility, I don't know how much of it is going to continue to be the shared economy as opposed to the personal economy. You might be able to find a shared device that's always going to be there for you, or you might say, "Hey, for the quote-unquote 'price' of this technology, I might as well buy and have my own."


Q: It's been announced that Shift Transit will take over as operator of the ArborBike bike share system. What changes do you anticipate to bike share in Ann Arbor as a result?


A: Although the (Clean Energy Coalition, ArborBike's former operator) did a wonderful job, as an energy and environmental not-for-profit organization, I'm not sure they had the operating savvy that the new operator has. My expectation is that Shift has a much more robust capacity in marketing and promotion, whether it's for promotional events or seeking sponsorships for the program. As much as I hate to say this, as popular as micro-mobility and bike share are, they're not entirely self-sustaining. I'm hoping that, with a different cook in the kitchen, we're going to wind up having a more well-enjoyed system that folks are taking advantage of.


Q: AAATA recently revealed a number of options for speeding up service between Ann Arbor and Ypsi. What are your hopes for the future of public transit along that corridor?


A: I serve on the AAATA board, and I've been an enthusiastic advocate for technology. If there's a bus that has 50 people and the light's about to turn red, the bus can communicate with the signal and say, "Hey, just wait three seconds so I can get through and then you can cycle and take care of everybody else." I think we're on the verge of seeing that, and what that will do is enable the transit service to be more reliable, even during peak periods of the day. That's a big one.


Q: Do you foresee any possibility for energy to build behind a new RTA millage campaign this year?


A: My sense is that if we as a region are going to take another run at this in 2020, there needs to be a ground-up engagement with the community. As an Ann Arbor transportation planner and as a resident of the region, we need to have regional public transit services in order to succeed in the 21st century. We are competing as a region against other regions, and we in essence have a hand tied behind our back. The political question is: What is our willingness as a region to underwrite the cost of providing that benefit that we don't currently have?


Q: What other important issues or shifts do you anticipate for transportation in Ann Arbor next year?


A: On a physical infrastructure side, I know that we've been working diligently on the Allen Creek berm opening project, opening up a pathway under the railroad track to get out to both the Argo Cascades and the Border to Border trail, facilitating non-motorized travel north and south of the downtown. We're working our best to get a William Street protected cycle track installed during the coming construction season. There are clearly opportunities, and this coming year is going to present us opportunities to see how these systems are continuing to function in real time, in the real world.


Patrick Dunn is the managing editor of Concentrate and an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer for numerous publications. Follow him on Twitter @patrickdunnhere.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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