Shannon Briscoe, a senior secretary in the Admissions Office of the University of Michigan’s Law School, currently drives to work from her home in the Whitmore Lake area of Livingston County. Google Maps estimates this trip to take around 20 minutes, pending traffic. For Briscoe and others in similar situations, the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority’s proposed express bus service carrying commuters from this area to the University’s campus and downtown Ann Arbor would be a valuable alternative.
“I currently get off of the freeway now at the Eight Mile exit, which is where the proposed stop for it is,” Briscoe said. “I definitely would leave my car there and take this service into and out of Ann Arbor, depending on the times of day it is offered.”
If implemented, this service would run on U.S. Route 23, connecting a Park & Ride Lot on Eight Mile Road with top destinations in Ann Arbor, including the University Hospital, Central Campus and the Blake Transit Center. The parking lot is being constructed by the Michigan Department of Transportation, which is working with AAATA to bring this project to fruition. AAATA CEO Matthew Carpenter accredited the idea for the service to MDOT.
“The Michigan Department of Transportation approached us with this idea,” Carpenter said. “They have been working to improve U.S. 23 for several years, most of that work on their end has been done with their flex lane system, which seems to be working quite well. It was really their initiative and I think they should get credit for that.”
AAATA is in the process of waiting for funds for a two-year pilot program of the service. They applied through the federal congestion and air mitigation grants, requesting $579,500 for each year. Carpenter said they have no intention of using local funds, and if the federal funding doesn’t follow through, the service will likely not be offered.
“Because the riders from this service are not going to be from Ann Arbor, or residents from Ann Arbor primarily, it’s very important to us that our local taxpayers understand that we’re not using any of our locally-generated funds to pay for this service,” Carpenter said. “This service is going to be funded by an outside grant, or some other outside source of funding, or it’s probably not going to happen.”
Carpenter predicted the major benefits of the service would be improving access to Ann Arbor even through heavy traffic congestion, which U.S. 23 is known for. It would also allow access for people unable to drive in that area. The two major risks in creating the service, he said, are it being either too popular or not popular enough. Those risks are the reason the service would start out as a temporary program.
“One risk is that it works and one is that it doesn’t,” Carpenter said. “If it’s not very popular and not many people use it, we’d probably just have to bring it to a close. Another possibility is that it’s far more popular than we’ll be able to afford. We call that the ‘victim of our own success’ risk.”
Another challenge AAATA faces is, as Carpenter noted, few similar services exist to predict rider estimates.
“One of the challenges we have, and one of the reasons we want to do this as a pilot project, is there are very few similar services out there in Michigan, so it’s hard for us to draw comparisons with another service,” Carpenter said. “It’s a very new creature, and for that reason the ridership is unknown.”
Many of the customers of this service could be University employees, like Briscoe. The University’s most recent data showing the numbers of faculty and staff living in or around Whitmore Lake found 644 living in Whitmore Lake, 850 in Pinckney, 719 in South Lyon and 668 in Brighton.
The service could be advantageous for the University as well. Stephen Dolen, the University director of Logistics, Transportation and Parking, said he has a close working relationship with AAATA in terms of discussing initiatives. He said he is in support of this proposed service because the University aims to reduce the demand for parking spaces in any way it can. Presently, they do this through vanpool programs or trying to park people remotely and bus them to campus. Because some of the employees from the targeted area drive their car to work each day, if the service succeeded, they would not need to use parking as often.
“We would help to promote it as best we can,” Dolen said. “We do everything we can to try and discourage single occupancy vehicle trips to campus. We’d rather use land for academic, research or health care missions of the University than we would to build parking.”
The buses used would not be typical urban transit buses; they would be highway coaches similar to those used for AAATA’s AirRide service between Ann Arbor and the Detroit Metropolitan Airport. Further, they would allow passengers Wi-Fi access. Carpenter said they included Wi-Fi in the proposal to attract those who may be wary of riding buses.
“Part of it is an experiment to see if that attracts people out of their cars,” Carpenter said. “This is a new service and some people are going to be a little unfamiliar. So Wi-Fi gives you the opportunity to make better use of your time while you are commuting. One of the benefits travel by bus has is you don’t have to pay attention to the road.”
However, driving to work still has its conveniences. Briscoe said one of the drawbacks of using the service would be not having a car available for emergencies.
“I guess in the event of an emergency, having no car accessible throughout the day (would be difficult),” Briscoe said. “For example, my daughter called me to come home sick yesterday and I had to leave at like 11 a.m., so I don’t know if there is a proposed fix for issues such as that.”
Nevertheless, Carpenter is optimistic about the widespread positive effect the service might have.
“Let’s say there’s a nurse that might use this service to get to the hospital,” he said. “Does it benefit her? Yes. Does it benefit the hospital? Yes. Does it benefit the patient whose surgery can be scheduled that much faster because they don’t have a labor shortage of nurses? Yes. It benefits a great number of people.”