If you’ve been on Central Campus since the start of the semester, you know it’s impossible to miss the construction on State Street. The project, which began in early June, has closed off the section of the street between William Street and North University Avenue. The project is designed to remove the curb in this space, making it more accessible to pedestrians and, in the warmer months, outdoor dining. While the project was initially slated to be completed by Labor Day, a number of factors have caused that date to be pushed back into October at the earliest. Beyond its immediate impacts on foot traffic and commerce, this project has revealed a number of issues with Ann Arbor’s public transportation system and furthered the debate about Ann Arbor’s walkability (or lack thereof).
The construction project has directly interrupted the traffic flow for cars going down State Street. More importantly, it has also temporarily created a jumble of walkways for pedestrians, who, on average, make up a larger portion of movement in this area of Ann Arbor compared to vehicles. From the orange plastic rails to the loud machinery, pedestrian flow and businesses of local stores has been largely disrupted.
Pedestrians are not the only recipients of this project’s disarray; buses, which many students rely on, face the issue of navigating around the chaotic street. This transportation system is especially important for students who must travel between Central and North Campus, who may now expect a delay in their commute. The bus schedules have a history of issues prior to this project, and the prolonged construction may only exacerbate the bumpy bus schedules, potentially causing more setbacks and transportation unreliability.
Additionally, this construction has a disproportionate negative effect on disabled students. Coupled with the narrow space between the plastic orange railings, the uneven and lumpy rubber paddings make it difficult for disabled students to traverse around State Street.
Overall, the unexpected delays with the construction project have made it even more bothersome for students and Ann Arbor residents. As the State Street Construction Project stated on its Facebook page, “Phase 1 will take place in the summer of 2022 (June 1 – Labor Day).” As we near this project’s proposed end date, Ann Arbor residents are eager for its completion.
So, what will State Street look like once we are on the other side of this construction project? In an attempt to convert a central area of Ann Arbor into a space that can be shared more equally by citizens, the “Woonerf Design,” an urban planning strategy developed in the Netherlands and Belgium, was adopted. This would give State Street a new makeover, complete with an all-tile road and curbless sidewalks.
First and foremost, a new road will be beneficial to car and bus drivers who, over the years, have become accustomed to a needlessly bumpy ride on State Street. It will also improve sidewalks by making them smoother and bigger, benefitting not just those commuting by foot, but also those using bicycles, roller skates and skateboards, who, between cracked sidewalks and poor roads, have to pick the lesser of two evils.
At its core, this project is about improving the lifestyle of the Ann Arbor citizens, and, if its vision is truly realized, State Street will become even more of a social hub than it currently is. For locals, this would add another location to the list of “fun places to go with your family,” in Ann Arbor. Store and restaurant owners will finally reap the benefits of a more socially active area: more customers and, in the case of restaurants, more space for outdoor seating.
Students will be some of the biggest beneficiaries of this project. The new expanded sidewalk layout will decrease travel times between classes and, as mentioned before, will make biking and skateboarding safer and faster. The flipside, however, is that cars and buses will have to deal with slower-moving traffic, as this kind of road minimizes the size difference between the sidewalk and the road.
While the changes to State Street are a step in the right direction, improving Ann Arbor’s urban planning doesn’t stop here. The city is filled with small problems that could be fixed by quick projects. For example, all across Ann Arbor, streets — busy streets at that — lack necessary crosswalks. Adding crosswalks between the University of Michigan Museum of Art and the Law Quad, East Quad and the Ross School of Business and at several spots along State and Huron Streets would go a long way toward making Ann Arbor a safer and more accessible place to live and walk.
Beyond that, the city and University’s bus systems need a massive overhaul. This editorial board’s discussion of how the State Street construction would eliminate the right-turn lane quickly turned into one about the multitude of short to long term issues with Ann Arbor’s bus system. The timescale of resolution for these issues varies widely, but each is solvable, and it’s important for Ann Arbor residents and the city’s municipal government to be aware of some solutions.
The simplest problem to fix is the lack of student awareness about the University’s Blue Bus system and the city of Ann Arbor’s TheRide system. If they aren’t already, students should be aware of the multiple dedicated apps and websites that track the Blue Bus system. Additionally, they should be aware that Google and Apple Maps include the appropriate city or University bus route to get to their destination, as well as provide real-time updates on when buses arrive at their starting and ending points. If students aren’t already doing so, they should be utilizing the unlimited free access to TheRide that they get by swiping their MCard while boarding.
In the medium and long term, however, the Blue Bus system in particular needs structural improvements to its routes and capacity. On both campuses, it needs more express buses that only stop at places that are further away from each other, so students who use it to quickly travel long distances can do so more efficiently. North Campus also needs a loop that only services North Campus Buildings, so students that live off campus there can access the Blue Bus as easily as their peers near Central Campus.
In the long-term, the Blue Bus system needs higher capacity buses, so that the two campuses can be connected without the overcrowding and long wait times that plagued the Campus Connector system during its life. These fixes will go a long way toward making a more usable Ann Arbor public transit system, thus creating a city where cars are less necessary.
As the completion of the construction on State Street draws nearer, students will get to reap an improved reconstruction of a social and pedestrian-centric downtown. On top of that, local restaurants and shops will gain more foot traffic that will embrace the ambiance of the Ann Arbor downtown community. This is one step closer to a more easily traversed and pedestrian-centric Ann Arbor. There are still developments to be made in our city, however, and we’re hopeful that with the conclusion of this project the city and University can focus on increasing sidewalk availability and enhancing our busing system.
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