Leveling the playing field: Addressing issues of equity in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti transit

Two years ago, if you were an Ypsilanti resident looking to take a bus to your local library on a Sunday afternoon, you'd be out of luck.

The Ypsilanti District Library's main branch (steps from the Ypsilanti Transit Center) is closed on Sundays, and until August 2014 no transit service was offered to YDL's Whittaker Road location. The Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority's (AAATA) addition of route 46 in the summer of 2014 finally established Sunday service to the Ypsilanti library, as well as extending weekend and evening services on multiple routes across Ann Arbor and Ypsi.

However, the library issue was just one particularly glaring symptom of an overall problem with Ypsilanti offering fewer, and less convenient, transit options than Ann Arbor.

"Historically, [the level of Ypsilanti service] has been a lot lower as a result of the funding availability," says Chris White, manager of service development for AAATA.

And that's increasingly become a problem as Ypsilanti has lost jobs while Ann Arbor has gained them. Mary Jo Callan, director of the University of Michigan's Ginsberg Center for Community Service and Learning and former director of the Washtenaw County Office of Community and Economic Development, notes that Ypsi has lost 12,000 jobs in the past 15 years while Ann Arbor has added roughly that same number.

"The transit issue [in Ann Arbor] is more about expanding convenience and expanding choice ridership, because we already have the jobs and people can already access those jobs in a pretty robust manner in Ann Arbor," Callan says. "I think expanding through the urban core toward Ypsilanti, the difference there is…it really is about transit as an essential lifeline to access basic opportunity."

Major changes in May

In recent years AAATA, community stakeholders and area voters have gotten behind addressing issues of transit inequity between Ypsi and Ann Arbor in some major ways. The addition of Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township representatives to the AAATA board in 2013 was one big step, and voters' overwhelming approval of a five-year AAATA millage of 0.7 mills in 2014 was another.

"For the first time had the funding to provide a level of service in Ypsilanti that meets the demand," White says.

The biggest resulting change so far is the 2014 system-wide service expansion, which included the addition of route 46 in Ypsi. But next week will bring even more comprehensive changes in the form of a major overhaul of AAATA routes across Ann Arbor and Ypsi. White says level of service in Ypsi was one of the main problems AAATA sought to address in its three-year planning process for the redo.

Notably, some lengthy "loop routes" have been replaced by more efficient "out and back" routes that go straight from the Ypsilanti Transit Center to the further reaches of the community and back. The lengthy route 20 in southeast Ypsi, for example, has been replaced by two shorter routes (44 and 45), with the new route (68) connecting them. The current loop route (10) in northeast Ypsi will be replaced by the similar route (42), but also augmented by the new route (43), offering more direct paths from downtown to eastern Ypsi and vice versa.

Ann Arbor city councilperson Chuck Warpehoski, who served on the urban core working group for AAATA's five-year transit improvement plan, says these and other changes are significant for Ypsi residents.

"If you were at the first part of that loop and you had to go all the way around, it was a long ride to be able to get where you were going," Warpehoski says. "To be able to have those routes shifted to out-and-back routes, like a lot of the Ann Arbor routes are, is going to improve service. It's going to make the existing service more useful to people in that community."

White says that between the 2014 changes and these new ones, AAATA has addressed the issue of Ypsi service being "less frequent, more circuitous, less direct" and having a narrower span than Ann Arbor service. He says geographic coverage, service frequency, travel time, directness of service and hours of operation were all taken into account as the new routes were planned.

"With the service changes that we're undergoing, the level of service in Ypsilanti is comparable to the level of service in Ann Arbor in all of those aspects," White says.

"We still have some work to do"

While service between the two communities may now be more equitable, that doesn't necessarily mean that all of Ypsi's transit needs have been met. Callan notes that although commute times are being "dramatically reduced" for the huge proportion of the Ann Arbor workforce that resides in Ypsi, the commute is still long. AAATA board member and Ypsilanti-based transit activist Gillian Ream Gainsley says "we've got a little more distance to cover" when it comes to serving all corners of the Ypsi community.

"There are folks in [Ypsilanti] township and Willow Run and the southern half of the township, where there's a fairly high density that spreads out quite a bit," Gainsley says. "You do get that in Ann Arbor, but because Ann Arbor's transit system has been around so long, the dense areas that are really close to Ann Arbor, especially those that are within the city of Ann Arbor, are really well served. In Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township, the transit density doesn't quite match the housing density in the same way."

The fact remains that, although Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township taxpayers all pay the transit millage approved in the 2013 vote, Ypsilanti's 0.9789 transit millage is still much lower than Ann Arbor's 2.056 mills. Warpehoski says that while the two communities are getting an equitable amount of service for each dollar they put into AAATA, "we still have some work to do" when it comes to providing an equitable amount of service for each transit-dependent patron.

"If there's somebody who's living in Ypsilanti or Ypsilanti Township and works in Ann Arbor, if we can get them using the bus so we don't have to deal with the traffic congestion and the parking congestion, that's a value to [Ann Arbor]," he says. "For my part, I think it's okay if we pay a little bit more to help serve the region."

Callan says that "equitable transit probably won't be achieved in the near term," as long as the system continues to be funded through the extremely disproportionate property tax revenue coming from the two communities. But in order to work towards a more fully equitable transit reality for Ypsi, she says it's important that Ann Arborites have access to "accurate information" on the manifold benefits of better transit service in Ypsi. Those include not only economic benefit for Ann Arbor, but expanding opportunity, diversity and inclusion–values that Callan says "folks in Ann Arbor certainly espouse."

"We know that bringing more people into the workforce, creating more of a talent pool…and attracting new folks because of transit grows the entire economy in sustainable ways," Callan says. "If we really want to expand equity and opportunity, if we want to drive economic growth not just in Ypsilanti but in Washtenaw County as a whole, bringing more transit services to Ypsilanti will absolutely accomplish that."

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and a senior writer at Concentrate andMetromode.

All photos by Doug Coombe .

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