When I walk along the newly renovated State Street in Ann Arbor, I feel contradictory emotions. Sometimes I see the curbless road, the string lights and benches, and think: how nice. When I’m driving, however, it feels like the worst idea ever conceived. It’s irritating, sitting there stalling. I hear honking. I witness, invariably, the stress of drivers going nowhere. I can’t help but wonder: was that $9 million dollars, the trouble for businesses and the line of cars stretching down to South University, really worth it?
Prior to the renovation, State Street had three lanes along East William Street and North University Avenue — one designated turning lane, and another lane for non-turning cars. The sidewalks were narrower, and had a curb.
LSA senior James Utley remembers driving down the street without an issue. “The difference between then and now,” Utley said, “is that now I try to avoid State Street whenever possible.”
According to Maura Thomson, Communications Manager for the Downtown Development Authority, the goal was to prioritize pedestrians’ comfort and safety. “And also to maintain an acceptable level of service for vehicles,” Thomson said.
“The State Street project has been on the DDA’s radar as a project that needed to be done for years,” Thomson said. “That corridor is a critical, iconic corridor in our downtown. It’s sort of the nexus of our downtown and campus, where they meet.”
According to a presentation by the Transportation Commission, there are approximately 8,000 pedestrians and 6,600 vehicles traveling these two intersections during peak hours (between 8:00 – 9:00 a.m. and 4:45 – 5:45 p.m.).
With State Street’s rebranding as a pedestrian zone, however, it struggles to function as, well, a street — for the thousands of vehicles that use it. When I look at pictures of the old State Street, my mind goes: this almost looks like a highway. That’s not nearly the case anymore. Perhaps the traffic is the shock of that transformation.
For walkers, State Street’s new design bears two changes. First, and most noticeably, is the addition of a pedestrian-exclusive signal, whereby all the walk signs are turned on, and all drivers receive the red light.
“It took me some time to figure out what was happening when no one was moving,” Utley said.
When it switches to this pedestrian-exclusive mode, I enjoy walking across the intersection diagonally. It’s a blast. The new signal’s fun-factor is undeniable, as is the added safety. The aesthetic appeal is especially welcomed among myself and others.
“I do like it a lot more. I appreciate the wider streets,” LSA sophomore Riha Hagalwadi said.
“It looks a lot better,” chimed her friend, LSA sophomore Riya Chakravarty.
Both Hagalwadi and Chakravarty use State Street primarily for walking, as they don’t own a car on campus.
I spoke with Taubman sophomore Matthew Daines, who drives in Ann Arbor, along with Utley.
“With the trees and benches, it looks more inviting and functional. Especially now with the 15-minute parking,” Daines said. As for his thoughts on driving, he pointed to the cars behind us.
“It’s very stop and start. We could follow a car from here and see it stop two times. It’s frustrating,” Daines said.
I talked to Ann Arbor resident Amelia Barnard and LSA sophomore Josh Moss, who each drew attention to the obstacles that already exist for cars around Ann Arbor.
“The bike lanes I appreciate. But what I think might be unnecessary are the pylons,” Barnard said. “In the case of an emergency there’s no place to pull over. Cars are already limited.”
Moss has been driving on State Street since high school. When I spoke with him, he had been riding his bike.
“They started making the lights super short, then having it stop, and having all the pedestrian sidewalks going at the same time,” Moss said. “There’s traffic from Nakamura (co-op) all the way here, just a straight line of cars, and you have to turn around and drive up Division. It’s horrible.”
“I have a friend that lives just up there,” Moss continued, motioning up the street to Kerrytown. “Before it would take probably a six, seven minute drive. Now it’s like 40.”
Maybe the ability to turn left at the intersection will be removed. Maybe the signals will go back to normal. Or it could be that State Street is simply not a place meant for cars anymore.
There are new intervals when pedestrians are not supposed to cross, period. This is the second big change for walkers. Pedestrians can still walk when the light turns green, but only for a few seconds. When the walk sign displays a red hand, the flow of traffic depends on pedestrians not crossing.
But pedestrians cross anyway.
While researching this piece (standing around at the intersection, basically) I saw a lot of people walk when they weren’t supposed to, blocking traffic as a result. Some would look both ways first and then jaywalk. Some just ignored the red hand altogether.
As a pedestrian, I feel pressure when crossing a street that wasn’t there before — perhaps the anxiety of my unnecessary privilege over cars. The renovation was clearly successful at prioritizing pedestrians. But did that have to come at the expense of the driver’s ability to get down the street?
You’re driving at this intersection now, the light turns green and you think: go. With the added pressure, it feels a little sketchy. After class one day, I saw more cars turn than there was room. They blocked the intersection for the straight-going cars, who ended up missing their green.
Later: a turning car waited for a slow-walking pedestrian with a cane. Someone blared their horn at the waiting car.
When the traffic is bumper-to-bumper — which is often — only a few cars can get through per green. Because the left-turn lane was removed, if a car needs to turn left, they can only do it once the light is yellow or red. As a result, drivers go faster, especially when they’re turning.
The DDA’s goal was to increase the safety, comfort and priority of pedestrians. They may have encouraged a bit of the opposite. Of course, there have also been drivers who’ve started to work around the changes. Despite the No-Turn-on-Red signage, I watched two cars turn anyway. When the light is green on State and N. University, I’ve seen cars waiting to turn right pull up closer to the crosswalk by Walgreens so that, while they’re waiting for pedestrians to clear out, the forward-going traffic can maneuver around them.
After speaking with Thomson at the DDA, I realized they aren’t some invisible force looking to cause traffic, although sometimes it’s hard not to think that. They’re working actively to make downtown Ann Arbor a safe pedestrian area with pleasant amenities, all while keeping in mind local businesses, maintenance, and accessibility.
As for this goal, they’re succeeding.
Over the phone, Thomson explained that the DDA was listening to the community and continuing to monitor the situation.
“The signal timing has already been changed once,” said Thomson. “We had a certain signal phasing schedule. We got some feedback that that wasn’t working.”
“In the planning of the project,” Thomson said, “because we were taking out a lane, it was noted that there would be a slight delay … From our traffic study, it was noted that the signal timing could be adjusted, and all the levels of delay were in the acceptable range.”
Driving from my house in the morning, I turn from Packard onto State toward campus, which is about five blocks from the renovated intersection. Some days, that’s where the traffic starts. Most other times the waiting begins at S. University, or by the Law School.
I told myself: acceptable range, acceptable range.
The buses that use State Street, though — both Blue Buses and The Ride — also get backed up. Whenever I take the bus to North Campus, it’s consistently running about one to two minutes behind schedule, sometimes more. These ‘slight delays’ add up.
“Prior to starting construction, the street was in terrible shape,” Thomson told me. “The city had water-main replacement work to be done. We try to coordinate as much of our work as possible at the same time when the city has utility work that needs to be done. That way, we’re only disrupting the neighborhood once.”
The construction of the project itself — which will resume this spring, extending all the way up to Washington Street — affected the surrounding businesses and made navigating the street difficult. The intersection had been cut into a maze of orange barricades, with yellow machines raising dirt into the air. (It had been completely shut off to cars.) With the new construction, the DDA expects the new renovations to revitalize businesses and enable more outdoor dining.
“I think it looks alright,” LSA senior Lennox Nicholson said. “I’m glad it’s over though. I was breathing in a bunch of dust.”
I asked Nicholson if her experience with State Street was different than it had been before.
“It’s not,” she said.
As with most construction in Ann Arbor, I’ll usually complain, or grumble about the inconvenience it causes. But I’ll completely forget about the trouble once it’s finished. State Street’s issues, on the other hand, seem to be sticking around.
As I was walking back to my car, which was parked in the 15-minute zone just outside of Ashley’s, I overheard a conversation between two people walking across the street: “Didn’t they just build this? And it’s already breaking? And yet Roman concrete lasts for thousands of years.“
I’d have laughed, but instead I opened my car door and stepped inside. From my left window, I saw a procession of cars edge forward slightly. I turned on my blinker and sat still for a minute. If I was lucky, they would let me merge without trouble.
I rubbed my hands together and wondered how long it would take to drive home. I thought about how many of those other cars were trying to get home, too.
Statement Correspondent Steve Liu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.