AATA Speaks Volumes on Draft Transit Plan

Talks on governance continue, funding plan to come

Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board meeting (April 21, 2011): In its one piece of formal business, the board of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority approved a resolution to disseminate the draft of a countywide transportation master plan, which it has been developing over the last year. At least five public meetings will be held in May to introduce the plan to the community.

Charles Griffith AATA

Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board member Charles Griffith flips through his copy of the draft transportation master plan. (Photos by the writer.)

The plan currently comprises two separate volumes – one outlining a vision and the other outlining how that vision would be implemented.

[.pdf of draft "Volume 1: A Transit Vision for Washtenaw County"] [.pdf of draft "Volume 2: Transit Master Plan Implementation Strategy"]

A third volume, on funding options, is forthcoming. It will not include a detailed discussion of governance. But the tax revenue portion of future funding will depend in part on the future governance structure of whatever agency is responsible for public transit in Ann Arbor and the rest of the county. Options for future governance include a countywide authority, which could eventually supplant the AATA as the agency responsible for public transit. On Thursday, the board received an update from CEO Michael Ford on conversations he’s been having, and will continue to have, with elected officials about the governance of a countywide authority.

In general concept, a countywide transit authority could first be formed and exist simultaneously with the AATA, but with no source of tax revenue. At some point, probably not this year, a millage proposal to support the countywide transit authority would be put in front of voters across the county. And if that millage were to succeed, the AATA’s assets would be folded into the new countywide transit authority.

In other work at Thursday’s meeting, the board held a public hearing on its planned federal program of projects.

The board also entertained the usual range of reports from its committees. Highlights included the fact that ridership has increased in the last month slightly compared to last year, and cost per service hour is better than what has been budgeted. The board also received an update on efforts to improve its real-time information to riders by working with its current software vendor, Trapeze.

Transportation Master Plan (TMP)

Before the board was a resolution calling for a draft of the transportation master plan (TMP) to be disseminated to the public. The AATA staff are directed “to schedule and publicize at least five public meetings during the review period at locations throughout the County, and to undertake additional discussions with citizens, officials and organizations as those opportunities arise and to take comments on the draft Plan documents.” Those meeting are all scheduled for 6-8 p.m as follows:

  • May 9 at the Chelsea Library, 221 S. Main St., Chelsea.
  • May 10 at SPARK East, 215 W. Michigan Ave., Ypsilanti.
  • May 11 at the Ann Arbor District Library, 343 S. Fifth Ave., Ann Arbor.
  • May 16 at the Dexter Library, 3255 Alpine, Dexter.
  • May 27 17 at Saline City Hall, 100 N. Harris St., Saline.

After a 60-day review period, the document will come back before the AATA board, at its June meeting, for final approval. [Previous Chronicle coverage: "'Smart Growth' to Fuel Countywide Transit"]

The plan currently comprises two separate volumes – one outlining a vision and the other outlining how that vision would be implemented. [.pdf of draft "Volume 1: A Transit Vision for Washtenaw County"] [.pdf of draft "Volume 2: Transit Master Plan Implementation Strategy"]

A third forthcoming volume will address funding options.

TMP: Presentation to Board

Michael Benham, a special assistant for strategic planning at AATA who has directed the AATA’s transit master planning project, gave the board an overview of the plan’s two draft volumes.

TMP Presentation: Background Material

Benham noted that the development of the plan had been heavily weighted for public outreach and input, but also had a sound technical basis. He estimated that the AATA had spoken to several thousand people in the course of its meetings with the public.

Benham told the board that the report included a section outlining the solid performance of the AATA generally and its good financial health. A highlight from the report is the increase in annual ridership over the last 30 years, from 2.4 million in 1980 to 6 million in 2009. Findings from a recent audit included in the plan:

  • AATA had experienced annual cost increases of 1.2% compared to peer average of 4.3%;
  • Riders per-service-hour climbed from 22.8 in 2003 to 31.2 in 2008, surpassing the peer group average; and
  • Cost-per-ride decreased from $4.23 in 2003 to $3.18 in 2008, for an average annual decrease of 5.5%.

[The cost-per-ride figure does not reflect fares, but rather the cost of providing the service. The current full-price regular bus fare is $1.50 per ride. The difference is subsidized through other revenue sources, like Ann Arbor's transit tax and purchase-of-service agreements with other municipalities.]

Benham told the board that the plan includes a discussion of AATA’s place in the transit picture in the rest of the county – it’s not the only transit provider, he pointed out. The University of Michigan, the  WAVE, People’s Express, Amtrak and others also operate transit services. Benham also described how existing service in the county is limited by time of day or geographic scope.

TMP Presentation: Concepts, Goals, Growth

Benham presented a slide showing key transit issues that had been identified: (1) insufficient access to essential services by transit-dependent people; (2) increasing road congestion; (3) negative impact on the economy due to lack of transit connectivity throughout county; (4) increasing mobility needs of an aging population; (5) limited appeal of transit currently to “choice” riders – people who don’t have to ride the bus out of necessity, but who choose to do so; and (6) a need to attract younger residents.

Countywide goals that transit can help achieve had also been developed in the course of the public engagement process, Benham said. Those goals include: (1) supporting economic growth in Washtenaw County; (2) promoting livability in Washtenaw County; (3) improving access for all; (4) facilitating a healthier community; (5) protecting the environment; (6) improving safety and security for all; and (7) promoting efficient land use and development patterns.

Land use map of Washtenaw County

Projected development in Washtenaw County with transit-oriented development (left) compared to a projection that is more sprawl-like (right). (Image links to one-page .pdf file extracted from the master plan document.)

Benham went on to describe in more detail how transit can shape future growth in a region.

Of the three scenarios that the AATA and its consultant had developed, Benham said, it was the one labeled “Smart Growth” that had resulted as the preferred choice, based on public input and analytical study. Benham said that “smart growth” could benefit everyone who lives in the county. That scenario would result in the greatest return on the investment of transit operating dollars, he said.

The concept of the plan, said Benham, is to provide safe, affordable and attractive transit for everybody. The plan’s concept is as follows:

  • Provide attractive, safe and affordable transit options for all residents of Washtenaw County to promote liveability;
  • Help Washtenaw County retain and attract young people who desire an urban lifestyle without the expense of car ownership;
  • Provide independence for the growing population of seniors and enable many to “age in place”;
  • Stimulate job creation and economic growth across the county;
  • Promote healthier lifestyles using transit, walking and biking;
  • Provide much-needed service to areas that have little or no service at present;
  • Focus development in areas that can best accommodate growth;
  • Preserve green space;
  • Reduce reliance on foreign oil.

TMP Presentation: Strategies

From the plan, Benham highlighted the strategy of “essential countywide services.” Those include (1) door-to-door services, and (2) Flex-Ride. The idea is to bring door-to-door service up to a common standard for seniors and disabled people with no gaps, and to provide hours of service beyond what’s available now, Benham said. The Flex-Ride service would provide dial-a-ride access to the regular bus network for everyone. Between the door-to-door service and the Flex-Ride, everyone in the county should have access to transit, he concluded.

Another strategy highlighted by Benham in his presentation was “countywide connections.” Specific initiatives that are a part of this strategy include expanded hours of service for the WAVE interurban bus service connecting Chelsea, Dexter and Ann Arbor, as well as expanded express services similar to those that already exist between Chelsea and Ann Arbor, and Canton and Ann Arbor. Local circulators would be added to Dexter, Chelsea and Saline as a part of this strategy.

A third strategy highlighted by Benham are urban bus network expansions. In the TMP report, these expansions of service are described as assuming a continued commitment to the hub-and-spoke concept of route design. Improvements to the existing bus network would include increased frequency of service, and possibly expansion of hours into the evenings and weekend, where there is already bus service in the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti area.

That increase in frequency would be achieved in part through redesign of some routes. For example, some of the routes that are configured as loops on the west side of Ann Arbor could be re-configured as out-and-back type linear service routes. Also as part of the urban bus network expansion, a circulator service similar to The LINK – a downtown circulator bus service that was eliminated in 2009 – would be restored to Ann Arbor. Benham said that to improve the quality of existing service, the intent is to look for opportunities to give buses priority at intersections.

A fourth strategy touched on by Benham is high-capacity transit along key corridors like the Plymouth-State corridor and Washtenaw Avenue – either bus rapid transit (BRT) or light rail.

Regional connections would be a strategy embodied by east-west commuter rail from Detroit to Ann Arbor, and north-south from Howell to Ann Arbor, as well as an airport shuttle connection.

Vanpooling is also part of the regional connection strategy – a vehicle is typically stored by a participant in the program at the home of that person, who would then drive the van, with passengers arranged through the program. The University of Michigan has close to 90 such vanpools.

Although Benham did not dwell on vanpools during his presentation, later in the meeting, Mary Stasiak, AATA’s manager of community relations, gave an update on the status of AATA’s efforts to enter the vanpool market, which will begin this year in October. On Oct. 1, 2010 the state of Michigan announced that it’s discontinuing its funding for MichiVan, but is providing an additional buffer period through September 2011.

The state funding had depended on federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program (CMAQ) funds, which will no longer be available. At its retreat last August, the AATA board had discussed providing vanpool services. At Thursday’s meeting, Stasiak indicated that staff were now recommending that they initially adopt a “turnkey” operation for vanpool services, but the intent would be to look at “component contracting” for the future.

TMP Presentation: Benefits, Costs

Benham stressed that a basic theme of the TMP is integrating transit into the community. As far as expected impacts, the goal is to double ridership in the course of 30 years and to help shape the use of land over that period. Benham said that particularly for the commuter rail component of the plan, property values are expected to increase.

Chart of transit plan operating costs

(Image links to 3-page .pdf extracted from the TMP draft report on costs.) The largest teal-colored block is for countywide door-to-door service operating costs. The bottom two block are the basic bus service (dark blue) currently operated by the AATA and the basic door-to-door service (red) that currently exists. The green block is enhanced urban bus service. The top two blocks (lilac and orange) designate regional connections and high-capacity transit.

Other community benefits included in the report: new, local jobs created; benefits to existing road users (from people switching to transit and biking); accessibility and livability benefits to existing and new riders, people with disabilities, rural communities, students and seniors; accident-saving benefits from reduction in car miles traveled; reduced-emissions benefit from reduction in car miles traveled; and health benefits from increased walking and biking (in part associated with transit use).

When all those benefits are added up, it comes to $275 million over the course of 30 years, Benham said. Board member Roger Kerson wanted to know if increased property values were calculated into the benefits – no, they weren’t, because they weren’t necessarily as certain as the other benefits, Benham explained.

The presentation on costs was divided into operating versus capital costs – the difference between running the system and building it. The report distinguishes the costs to be borne by Washtenaw County versus other counties, because for some of the components – like commuter rail – some of the costs would not be expected to be paid for inside Washtenaw.

By 2040, the annual operating cost after implementing all plan components would be $85.8 million per year. Just under $70 million of that would be attributed to existing service, plus enhancements to regular bus service and expansion of door-to-door service countywide.

The report now annualizes the cost of the capital investments that would be required to implement parts of the plan, which board members told Benham they were happy to see. The high-capacity system for the Washtenaw Avenue corridor, for example, has a total price tag of $168 million, but that drops to $5.60 million when expressed as a per-year figure.

Benham told the board that based on the cost-benefit analysis, every operating dollar spent would yield $3 in benefits.

The implementation strategy is included in the second volume of the plan, which breaks down the 30-year period into three parts: years 1-5; years 6-15; and years 16-30. In the first five-year period, the focus of implementation would be on enhanced regular bus service and expanded countywide door-to-door service. Commuter rail and high-capacity transit would come later.

Benham sought to allay concerns that if the plan is “done,” then there wouldn’t be a chance to influence it or to change it in the future. He stressed that the plan is always subject to revision and update in light of new conditions – that’s part of the AATA’s general approach to continual monitoring of all their services.

TMP: Board Deliberations

David Nacht led off deliberations by saying he’d been a keen observer of the entire process and a pesky critic – and he couldn’t be happier with the result. He said the AATA staff, with the community together with the consultant, had achieved more than a vision or a concept, but was a model for how the Ann Arbor economic area can maximize its value – how it can take care of the people who live here, take care of the environment and move people around to take advantage of our potential.

Nacht urged all of those who were naturally skeptical about government to really seriously read the proposal. If you look at it carefully, he said, you can see how your region benefits, and here are the specific things that will be done over the next five, 15 years and 30 years. You’ll see a plan for the outlay of cash in exchange for specific benefits, and a sensible and careful approach to the future.

He invited some “serious conservative types” to subject it to a financial analysis. But he said that he was very proud of the plan.

Roger Kerson said the plan puts the AATA at a transition point. The AATA can’t do it alone – the  plan has to be a partnership, he said. The plan really does lay a foundation to work as partners. As highlights of the plan, he pulled out the 5.4 million cars taken off the road and the reduction of 700 tons of greenhouse gas emissions – those things have an impact on everyone, even if they don’t ride the bus, he said. Kerson reiterated a point made by Larry Krieg during public commentary at the AATA’s March meeting about not lagging behind the community.

Anya Dale echoed the previous sentiments of her board colleagues. She noted that the county doesn’t really have a planning unit any more. The TMP is a good example of people coming together to create the plan. She said it showed how the AATA could be a regional planning leader.

Charles Griffith said he was very happy with the plan. He called the quantification of the benefits very conservative – an approach he agreed with. He said it was important that the capital costs were presented as annualized. He noted that the bulk of the operational spending would be mostly on basic transit service – not the “fancy” types of transit that some people might never use.

Sue McCormick said that everything other board members had mentioned is absolutely true. She noted that it’s important not to stop here – the resolution calls on staff to continue to reinforce the kind of community interaction that had led them to this point. She called the process as open and publicly engaged as they’d seen on this kind of issue. She complimented the staff’s work, as did all of the board members.

Outcome: The board voted unanimously to release the transit master plan draft proposal.

Transit Governance

The third volume of the transit master plan (TMP), on funding options, is forthcoming. It will not include a detailed discussion of governance. But the tax revenue portion of future funding will depend in part on the future governance structure of whatever agency is responsible for public transit in Ann Arbor and the rest of the county. Options for future governance include a countywide authority, which could eventually supplant the AATA as the agency responsible for public transit.

As part of the report from the planning and development committee, which Anya Dale delivered in Rich Robben’s absence, she mentioned that committee members had discussed the status of meetings with community members about future governance of a countywide authority. The committee recommended that additional community members be looped in, to make sure that all bases are covered, Dale reported.

During question time, board chair Jesse Bernstein inquired about the status of governance discussions. He noted that concerns had been raised by members of the county board of commissioners at a recent meeting. [Chronicle coverage: "Concerns Aired Over Transit Governance"]

CEO Michael Ford told Bernstein that there were 28 people he wanted to meet with, including all of the county commissioners one-on-one. He characterized the meetings as positive, and said that he’d met with some commissioners who were still interested in seeing the AATA move forward, but who did not want to be as involved as the AATA had originally thought. He mentioned that some of the townships were interested in forming Act 7 agreements and that all of the conversations had been positive. No one he’d met with had voiced strong objections, he said.

Bernstein confirmed with Ford that they had many options for governance and that the county board of commissioners did not necessarily have to be involved.

Technology: Collaboration, Real Time Information

Part of  the presentation on the transit master plan (TMP) included integrating transit into the community by improving service through integration of information systems, from ticketing to travel planning. In the course of the board meeting, Michael Ford gave a CEO report that highlighted some work on information technology improvements

Technology: Collaborative Technology Agreement

CEO Michael Ford asked Jan Hallberg to the podium to give an update on a collaborative agreement between the AATA, the city of Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County on the use of technology. Hallberg is AATA’s manager of information technology. She reported that for a few years, the city, county and AATA have been doing IT infrastructure projects together. She pointed to the combination of the city and county data centers as an example of that. The city and the AATA currently share the same VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) system. The agreement will formalize the arrangement, Hallberg said. The idea of the interagency agreement for collaborative technology and services is to save resources and taxpayer money, she said.

The agreement will come in front of the Ann Arbor city council on May 2 for its approval. Two days later, on May 4, it will go before the Washtenaw County board of commissioners.

Technology: Real-Time Bus Information

As part of his CEO report, Michael Ford said he’d met the previous day at a roundtable with other CEOs on the topic of getting real-time data to transit riders. He said the AATA is focused on getting the data through its current software package – Trapeze. He reported that the AATA was making some headway on the issue and expected to make additional progress at a meeting the following day.

During question time, board chair Jesse Bernstein asked for clarification – can Trapeze provide real-time information about where the buses are and how long it will take to get to the next stop? Ford explained that Trapeze can provide that information, but the AATA is trying to take it to the next level so that the information is available to riders as well. Ford reported that Trapeze is used for a lot of AATA operations and they’re trying to make sure that any agreement on real-time information services is one that works for the AATA.

Bernstein observed that AATA would not be going at the problem alone – other transit agencies also use Trapeze. Ford confirmed that is the case. Hallberg clarified that Trapeze works quite well for AATA’s own in-house purposes. What the AATA would like to do now is provide that real-time information to customers, either on smart phones or on the web. It’s something new for Trapeze, Hallberg said. So the AATA is now going back and forth with Trapeze to determine how the contract is going to work. She said AATA would be the first client to try out the system.

David Nacht noted that the board has received specific requests from members of the public for this kind of service. People want to be able to look at their phones and figure out if they’re running late for the bus or if they have a few extra minutes. Nacht said it was a tribute to the kind of people who live in Ann Arbor that they were pushing an industry-leading vendor in a direction to be more customer-service oriented.

Sue McCormick noted that any time you become a beta-testing site for software, there’s an exposure to new development costs as well as new maintenance costs. AATA may be bringing Trapeze into the development of a software module that becomes very valuable for Trapeze. She said it’s very smart to negotiate a contract as the AATA pays Trapeze to develop the software – to figure out what the “prenup” is. It could become a profit-center, she said.

Roger Kerson asked what the other options are besides Trapeze. Ford said they do have a backup plan – not all the eggs are in one basket. Hallberg said that over the years the AATA had made a large investment in Trapeze, and could not change to a different system overnight. Some other products are more open-source, she said. Trapeze is not used to sharing the structure of their software.

Kerson followed up by saying that it really should be a requirement that the software allow for third parties to develop their own applications, especially given the nature of the Ann Arbor community.

During her public commentary turn at the end of the meeting, Carolyn Grawi of the Center for Independent Living cautioned that introduction of real-time data for customers should be accessible to those with disabilities. She said that sometimes technology is developed in order to make it available quickly. Accessibility shouldn’t came second, she said, it should come at the same time the technology is first introduced.

Federal Program of Projects: Public Hearing

Chris White, AATA’s manager of service development, explained to board members that they had approved the AATA’s capital and categorical grant program for the next five years at the Jan. 20, 2011 meeting the board. [.pdf of capital and categorical grant program summary] To carry out that program, the AATA will be applying to a variety of federal programs for grant support.

For example, the Clean Fuels program will be used to pay the incremental cost for hybrid electric drive on 10 replacement buses. State of Good Repair funds are being used to pay a portion of the costs for the reconstruction of the Blake Transit Center, White said. Funds from the Urbanized Area Formula Program (Section 5307) will be used for a variety of purposes: remainder cost for replacement buses; associated capital maintenance costs for those buses (spare engines and transmissions, for example); computer hardware and software; non-revenue support vehicles; a park-and-ride lot; and preventive maintenance.

A new item this year, he reported, was Art in Public Places in connection with the Blake Transit Center reconstruction. He also reported that AATA would be applying for Job Access Reverse Commute funds and New Freedom funds, the latter of which would help the AATA go beyond the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. A final source of federal funds mentioned by White was Congestion Mitigation Air Quality funds, which would include a portion of the cost of the getDowntown program.

White noted that the AATA had not received any written comments in response to its solicitation of feedback.

At the public hearing only one person spoke. Thomas Partridge told the board that applications for federal funds should be oriented more towards those who need assistance – seniors and disabled people. The AATA’s goals should include programs specifically designed to make important sites more accessible, including medical and educational facilities. He also called for making the AATA more user-friendly overall. He said that a schedule should be established for expanding AATA one step at a time.

Minutes Approval

Approval of minutes are typically a rote step in a meeting for any public body. However, at the board’s Thursday meeting, chair Jesse Bernstein reported that an amendment to the March 17 board minutes had been suggested, which he then read aloud. It turns out that the proposed amendment read aloud by Bernstein had actually been the original language. As properly amended, the minutes read as followed [Deletions in strike-through, additions in italics].

Larry Krieg appeared before the Board.  Mr. Krieg extended congratulations on the work completed on the Transit Master Plan.  Mr. Krieg echoed a sentiment expressed during a recent Planning and Development Committee meeting during which a Board member cautioned that AATA should not get ahead of fall behind county residents.  Mr. Krieg noted that the passage of the transit millage in Ypsilanti illustrates the willingness of citizens to support transit with their taxes. approval of the transit millage in Ypsilanti and the many benefits of public transportation.

Sue McCormick wanted to know whether the suggestion for the revision had come from Krieg himself – Bernstein confirmed it had.

Outcome: The board voted unanimously to approve the minutes as amended, with the change to the language to be made administratively, based on the language the board members intended to be approving.

Board: Communications, Committees, CEO, Commentary

At its January meeting, the board entertained various communications, including its usual reports from the performance monitoring and external relations committee, the planning and development committee, as well as from the CEO, Michael Ford. The board also heard commentary from the public. Here are some highlights not included elsewhere in the report.

Comm/Comm: Performance Data

Chart showing AATA operating expense per service hour

The AATA has budgeted $107.50 per service hour this year. Costs this year (vertical bars) have been under budget – the heavy horizontal line – and better than last year – the dots connected by trend lines. (Image links to higher resolution .pdf file.)

In reporting out from the performance monitoring and external relations committee, Charles Griffith noted that the cost per service hour was under budget for the year. [.pdf of performance data for through March 2011]

[During his time on the board, former board member and treasurer Ted Annis had pointed to the cost per service hour as a metric for which the AATA should strive for major improvement.

The AATA has budgeted for $107.50 this year. Back in September 2009, Annis had argued for a series of cost-saving measures that would have put the AATA's cost per service hour at $96.]

Griffith also noted that ridership was up 3% compared to last year. He said it was interesting to speculate about whether the increase was due to the increase in gas prices or rather to other factors. The focus recommended by the committee was to try to figure out how to increase marketing to target sustaining those additional riders. [The trend so far this year has mostly been even with last year's pattern, after several months previously when numbers had been down, reflecting a nationwide transit trend.]

Chart showing AATA fixed route ridership

Vertical bars are ridership numbers for this year. The trend line shows last year's numbers.


Comm/Comm: Washtenaw Transfer Center

Charles Griffith, reporting out from the performance monitoring and external relations committee, alerted the board to a slight delay in the construction of a bus pullout in conjunction with a bus transfer center on Washtenaw Avenue. The delay is due to the need for DTE to relocate some streetlights. The board had approved a memorandum of understanding with the city of Ann Arbor on the construction of the bus pullout at a special meeting on April 1, 2011.

Comm/Comm: User Friendliness, Mean-Spiritedness

During public commentary at the start of the meeting, Thomas Partridge called on the AATA to make itself more user friendly. He suggested that bus drivers should undergo training. He also said that the AATA should contract with a company for paratransit services that is of unquestioned integrity. He questioned the award of that contract to SelectRide. He suggested that the master plan should include money for board members to ride the bus system anonymously and to prepare monthly reports on what they observed.

At the conclusion of the meeting, when there’s another slot for public commentary, Partridge criticized the mean-spiritedness of retail companies that refuse to allow AATA buses to pull onto their property to drop off and pick up passengers.

Present: Charles Griffith, David Nacht, Jesse Bernstein, Sue McCormick, Roger Kerson, Anya Dale

Absent: Rich Robben

Next regular meeting: Wednesday, May 19, 2011  at 6:30 p.m. at the fourth-floor conference room of the Ann Arbor District Library, 343 S. Fifth Ave., Ann Arbor [confirm date]


  1. April 26, 2011 at 12:03 pm | permalink

    Regarding user friendliness, I’d like to comment on the high level of consideration and courtesy that I have observed in the drivers on my daytime Route 13 bus. This was especially notable during the snow period, when the driver made a special effort to pull over and then lower the level of the bus boarding step so that I could navigate over a snow bank. I’ve also observed that both drivers are very courteous to other drivers on the road.

  2. April 26, 2011 at 12:29 pm | permalink

    Re: [1] One way to file a compliment (or a complaint) with the AATA is to use this online form: [link]

  3. April 26, 2011 at 1:03 pm | permalink

    Thanks, Dave. Hope you didn’t think my comment was off topic. I commented in response to the suggestion by a speaker that bus drivers needed to be more user-friendly.

  4. April 26, 2011 at 2:03 pm | permalink

    Re: “Hope you didn’t think my comment was off topic.”

    No, sorry if it came across that way. My aim was simply to provide one tool the AATA uses for tallying and responding to compliments and complaints. The table for driver complaints (missed passengers and the like) is included in the following pages of performance data extracted from the board packet: [link]. For example for the first three months of 2011, the AATA determined that there were 11 valid complaints of a passenger being missed, 12 valid complaints of careless/unsafe driving and 5 valid complaints of rudeness.

  5. April 26, 2011 at 7:04 pm | permalink

    I hope the public sessions focus on actually finding out what the public wants with regard to county-wide transportation. All too often, public sessions with other units of government deteriorate into the staff making endless Power Point presentations, and not much public involvement.

    This is called “hypnotizing the chickens.”

  6. April 26, 2011 at 8:31 pm | permalink

    RE: “staff making endless Power Point presentations, … This is called ‘hypnotizing the chickens.’”

    It’s not necessary to use all that technology. The old school way is to use a ordinary chalk: [link]

  7. By jcp2
    April 27, 2011 at 8:01 am | permalink

    I misread Draft for Daft.

  8. April 28, 2011 at 1:21 pm | permalink

    Response to David Cahill: Mr. Cahill, I share your aversion to “hypnotizing the chickens” (although I would like to try that chalk thing!). At all of our past meetings, we have emphasized having a dialogue. Yes, we have a powerpoint presentation, but questions and comments are welcome throughout the event. We have had some very high quality discussions at these events, and I can say without reservation that the plans have been influenced as a result. We also use tools like surveys and interactive games to coax feedback from people who may be reluctant to speak up in a public forum.

    I would welcome your attendance at one of our meetings and I think you will see for yourself – we really do listen!

  9. April 29, 2011 at 1:55 pm | permalink

    Re – genuine engagement vs hypnotizing chickens:

    I went to one of the public mtgs in the last go-round (when the various scenarios were presented), and my observation was that attendees were given a lot of attention and room to participate. It was certainly not a sale job by staff of a certain scenario – most there seemed to not just enthusiastically prefer the “smart growth scenario”, but to provide criticism along the lines of wanting even *more* than that scenario provided.

    It’s true that there’s a difference between public engagement and public lecture, and I’ve thought Michael and the rest of the team did a good job in facilitating actual engagement in the meetings I attended.

  10. By Tom Whitaker
    May 1, 2011 at 11:20 am | permalink

    I think the more important question is, “What kind of chickens are attracted to an advertised public meeting on a specific topic?” My experience is the majority of attendees fall into three categories: 1. People who have a very specific, direct interest in the topic and are already proponents going in, 2. People who have a very specific, direct interest in the topic and are already OPPONENTS going in, or 3. People who generally take an interest in local politics and are there to learn more (but also likely already have an opinion at least partially formed).

    By the same token, putting up an anonymous online survey will only attract an internet-savvy subset of these same groups of people, plus maybe some people who don’t even live in Michigan anymore, let alone use the service in question or pay local taxes. Many of these surveys can be easily manipulated to accept multiple votes from the same party or are further disseminated by advocate groups to their supporters. (In fact, I would be interested in seeing a list of IP addresses for several recent government surveys to see if they might include multiple entries from the same location–external or even internal.)

    So does it make sense to hold dozens of public meetings that will likely only draw different individuals from the same basic groups described above, or would it make more sense to get on the agendas of multiple community groups that meet regularly and try to get a better feel for what the general population really thinks? In Portland, I understand they actually have formalized a city-wide network of neighborhood groups that meet on a regular basis with various city officials–not just when there is a hot topic, but routinely. Even without such a network, why not reach out to schools, retirement homes, civic groups, neighborhood associations, business associations, houses of worship, etc., and get on their regular meeting agendas? Why not include a post card survey in our tax bills or water bills?

    I empathize fully with staff who probably feel “damned if they do and damned if they don’t” in regard to getting public input, but I think they need to be a little more creative, assertive, and scientific about their efforts. If not, then they shouldn’t make statements in front of councils and boards purporting widespread public support for something that has only been seen and discussed with a very small, and very interested fraction of the total population.

  11. May 1, 2011 at 12:05 pm | permalink

    What Tom said.

  12. May 1, 2011 at 12:59 pm | permalink

    There are two separate problems here:

    1. How do you inform a broad spectrum of the public; how do you educate them as to the issues, alternatives, costs and likely outcomes?

    2. How do you determine the will of the public at large? What is a true representation of the preferences of the entire affected population?

    These demand somewhat different approaches, though each is somewhat dependent on the other, especially since people need to understand the issue before having an opinion.

    Our public institutions have been doing pretty well with the first problem but have had a slapdash approach recently to the second problem. In particular, I hate those surveymonkey devices when used to determine public policy. (They are fine for bloggers who want to discover the favorite flavor of jelly donuts.) Aside from the questions of electronic manipulation, the questions are often not well-constructed or are misleading or do not adequately identify alternatives, and as has been said, the survey takers are self-selected. The same problem of self-selection occurs in public meetings (as identified by #10).

    It is ironic, in a town that houses the Institute for Social Research and also that must surely count the largest number of trained planners of any Michigan community, that we have had such poor survey design. This is a well-understood science. Some years ago, I participated in the Detroit Area Study, conducted by Robert Marans of the UM (who also has served on public bodies). I was chosen on a random basis to receive the survey booklet. The makers of the survey had done their demographic homework and sent these booklets to people in many different Detroit-area communities to ask preferences about many quality-of-life issues, including transportation and housing density. The booklet had diagrams that clearly outlined the different alternatives in each question group. They then subjected the answers to statistical analysis.

    This type of careful scientifically accurate survey may be beyond the scope of such groups as the AATA, but it should serve as a model. In particular, if survey results are being used to justify such an enormously expensive and consequential decision as this transit plan, they deserve to be subjected to methodological scrutiny.

  13. May 1, 2011 at 1:43 pm | permalink

    On page 14 of the May Ann Arbor Observer, in the article called Bus City USA, there is the following statement: “The AATA is spending $300,000 on PR during its ‘master transit plan’ public campaign….”

    So, Mr. Benham, is the cost of this next series of meetings part of the PR budget for the campaign?