Clad in a smart blazer and crisp button-down shirt, LSA senior Yousef Rabhi looked out of place on a bus filled with otherwise casually-dressed commuters heading home on Friday afternoon.
But for the 22-year-old Democratic candidate for the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners, this was no ordinary bus ride — it was a stop on the last leg of his campaign.
Standing in the middle of an Ann Arbor Transportation Authority bus, Rabhi introduced himself to the surprised-looking passengers as a political candidate eager to engage the community.
“I want to know what issues are important to you,” Rabhi told the passengers.
Rabhi’s unconventional presentation was part of a week-long series of on-board “office hours” in which local political candidates rode AATA buses to raise awareness about a long-term, city-sponsored plan to improve busing countywide.
The plan — which is still in its development phase — is an attempt to gain community feedback in order to implement concrete changes to public transit, according to Mary Stasiak, manager of community relations for the Ann Arbor Transit Authority.
“We’re not in this business just to run buses,” Stasiak said in an interview on an AATA bus Thursday. “We’re really in the business to try to enhance the quality of life in the community.”
According to Stasiak, short-term changes could include adding stops, extending routes and increasing coverage to heavily-trafficked areas.
Stasiak added that the plan would also address more ambitious, long-term projects like extending AATA service to other areas countywide.
“There will be short-term, immediate things we can do … and then we’ll be looking at things we can accomplish within 30 years,” Stasiak said.
Stasiak said the AATA is using this initial phase to gather as much feedback as possible so it can propose a plan that will be widely supported by the community at large.
“Now is the time that we’re really trying to get people’s input,” Stasiak said.
To do that, the AATA has been holding a series of public meetings to gather feedback that it can use in developing the plan.
At one such meeting on Oct. 6, AATA officials echoed Stasiak’s comment and said the main goal of the plan is to accommodate public transportation concerns.
“At the center of all of this is the people who are benefiting from the system,” AATA Strategic Planner Michael Benem told the crowd gathered at the meeting at the Ann Arbor District Library’s main branch.
Though no concrete plans currently exist, Benem said he hopes city officials will have plans to implement in the near future.
“We don’t want plans that just sit on the shelf. We want plans that … have a life,” Benem said at the meeting.
But Stasiak said the public meetings haven’t been well-attended by the AATA’s most important demographic — people who actually ride the buses.
According to Stasiak, only 40 percent of the feedback the AATA has received so far has come from riders.
In order to reach the riders, officials decided to take AATA public meetings straight to the buses — and that’s how Rabhi ended up crammed in a bus headed to Ypsilanti several days before the election that will decide his political future.
Far from being distracted by pre-election anxiety, Rabhi said he felt immediately engaged in his conversations with passengers.
“People really want to … share what’s important to them,” Rabhi said in an interview after the bus ride Friday. “It’s a really great experience.”
During his AATA “office hours” Rabhi spoke with a number of riders who voiced concerns about bus service as well as proposed transportation changes.
Max Bonilla, a sophomore at Ann Arbor’s Community High School, told Rabhi that though she enjoys talking to fellow passengers on her daily ride home from school, she wishes the bus was less crowded.
As Bonilla spoke, the bus was almost completely packed, with Rabhi estimating upwards of 50 riders.
According to Bonilla, the high number of passengers “makes it harder to get to school on time” because of the amount of times the bus stops for passengers.
Charles Morey, an Ypsilanti resident who works at Pizza House on Church Street, told Rabhi that he wishes the AATA would extend its weekend hours so he doesn’t have to catch a bus four hours before his job begins at 10 p.m.
Despite their criticisms, though, both Bonilla and Morey said they enjoy AATA’s service.
After the ride, Rabhi said he appreciated the opportunity to talk to passengers far more than he’d expected.
“My first impression was that it might be kind of awkward,” Rabhi said of the event. “But today I experienced that people really want to talk.”
Thinking about the future, Rabhi added that, if elected, he plans to help the AATA in its long-term vision for county-wide transportation.
“My role (is) asking people … if they want the AATA bus to go a little further,” Rabhi said, adding, “Transportation is a regional issue. It’s about how the city connects … to the rest of Michigan.”
Among the events’ other participants was Newcombe Clark, a 29-year-old graduate student in the Ross School of Business who’s running as a Democrat for Ann Arbor City Council in the fifth ward.
Clark — who rode an AATA bus on Thursday — also said he left the event feeling inspired about the future of busing in Ann Arbor.
Clark added that he has a bold vision for the AATA’s future.
“In five years there will be a new Blake Transit Center, WiFi on all the buses and we’ll have most of the fleet converted to hybrids,” Clark said.