Column: Chevy Volt – Private Transit Choices

How public transit is like a private backup plan

Last week The Chronicle received a cold-call from Suburban Chevrolet out at Wagner and Jackson roads with an offer to test-drive a Chevy Volt.

Chevy Volt

Even if you don't know me, this photo is a dead give-away that I am not a car guy. I deliberately shot that photo from an angle that would include Suburban Chevrolet's sign in the background, And I thought I'd nailed it – because the sign said "Suburban." (Photos by the writer.)

The sales consultant was keen to point out that Suburban Chevrolet was the first area dealership to have a vehicle available for test drives. But test-driving a car is pretty remote from The Chronicle’s mission, and even more remote from my personal transportation choice.

I share a membership in Zipcar with my wife, but don’t even remember the last time I’ve sat behind the wheel of a car myself. Zipcar, a car-sharing service, is like an insurance policy – a backup plan I never use. I get around by bicycle.

Still, in the Chevy Volt, I spotted a chance to write about a major public works construction project in downtown Ann Arbor – the Fifth Avenue underground parking structure, which will feature around 640 parking spaces on a lot that previously offered 192 spots.

Twenty-two of those new spots will be equipped with electric car charging stations. Dave Konkle, former energy coordinator for the city of Ann Arbor who now consults for the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority on its energy projects, identified the federal grant that’s helping to pay for the stations. The grant is worth $264,100 and will also pay for photovoltaic panels that will provide the energy for two of the spots – it was obtained through the Clean Energy Coalition’s Clean Cities Program.

That public project is closely tied to the assumption that visitors to downtown Ann Arbor will continue to make a personal choice for private transportation in the form of an automobile, and that some of those people will choose electric cars like the Volt.

The idea I want to think about in this column is that public choices depend on the sum of many private, independent choices made by actual people. It’s an idea that was driven home to me at a public transportation forum hosted earlier this week by the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority at SPARK East in Ypsilanti.

At that forum, Bob Van Bemmelen – recent Republican candidate for the Washtenaw County board of commissioners – had this advice for the AATA as it pitches to the public the idea of countywide public transit: You have to make it personal, he said.

So I’ll begin by telling you a little bit more about the Suburban Chevrolet sales guy who gave me a ride in the Chevy Volt – who is as much a car guy as I am a bicycle guy: Nic Allebrodt.

Test Riding the Volt with a German

On the phone with Nic, I pitched the idea that I did not want to drive the car myself. Rather, I wanted simply to ride along in the Chevy Volt with someone who is actually passionate about cars, really loves cars, lives cars, breathes cars, likes nothing better than to drive a car – a car guy. Nic did not hesitate in answering: “That’s me!”

If the name Allebrodt looks and sounds German to you, you’re right. Nic’s light accent signals his German origins, but does not betray that he moved to the U.S. just last year. I’ve written about my friends Hans and Walter before – two characters from my eighth grade German textbook who taught me various stereotypes of Germans, among them that Germans love cars. The first German dialogue I ever had to memorize concluded with Hans showing off his car to Walter: “Dort ist mein Wagen!” [There is my car!]

Nic lived up to that stereotype. He told me that in Germany, he’d worked for a rental car company, thus had a chance to drive a vast range of cars on a regular basis, including the Audi RS6. This meant nothing to me, of course, but a bit of rummaging on the Internet revealed that if you need to go 150 m.p.h., that’s the car for you.

Chevy Volt dashboard

The yellow ball on the righthand side of the dash display is an indicator of less efficient driving style.

As Nic put the Chevy Volt through its paces for me, and I rode along in the passenger seat, we didn’t come anywhere close to 150 m.p.h. But as he navigated onto I-94 west, using the entrance ramp at Zeeb Road, the acceleration pressed me back into the seat. The dashboard also knew we were accelerating – the green ball that provides feedback on driving style floated upwards and turned yellow. That indicated less efficient driving. But efficiency is not exactly a priority when entering the freeway.

I asked Nic to drive us through downtown Ann Arbor. I wanted to see if the car would draw stares – it didn’t. Nic’s colleague Michael Jackson, who rode along in the back seat, offered a theory that the Volt had been test driven during its development phase in this area, so people were familiar with it. Also, he said, it’s a fairly normal-looking car.

We got to downtown by getting off I-94 at the Weber’s Inn exit and heading east straight down Huron Street, south onto Fifth Avenue to Liberty, where we turned west towards Main Street.

Parking, Charging Underground

At Fifth and Liberty, we had no choice but to turn, because the construction site of the new underground parking garage blocks southbound traffic.

When I mentioned that the garage will offer some spots with electric vehicle charging stations, Nic pointed out a feature of the Volt that might allay concerns about drivers who use those public stations – what if someone comes along and unplugs the car while it’s parked?

The OnStar mobile app for iPhone or Android monitors charging, so a driver would be alerted if it got unplugged. Likewise, the mobile app lets a driver know when the battery is fully charged. So a driver who wanted to time their visit to the downtown just until the battery was topped off could do that pretty easily.

Volt Navigation Screen

The Volt's navigation screen as we rolled into downtown Ann Arbor. I guess we could have been treated to the strains of "On the Road Again" if we had actually turned on the XM radio station displayed at the top of the screen.

According to Chevrolet’s standard data on the Volt, that topped-off battery would get you around 35 miles with no extra assist from the Volt’s gasoline engine. Even without charging during the day, based on a 2009 survey of downtown Ann Arbor workers, 35 miles of range would get 77% of them to and from work each day. [.pdf of getDowntown survey]

The gasoline engine would give you an additional 340 miles of range. During our test ride, we didn’t turn on the Volt’s gasoline engine. It’s not actually hooked to the drive train – it just works as a generator for the electric battery.

When I think about the Volt’s gasoline engine and its electric battery, I imagine that many drivers will treat the two options the same way I treat my Zipcar membership and my bicycle: The gasoline engine will work like an insurance policy that rarely, if ever, gets used.

Other drivers might build the Volt’s gasoline engine into their expected normal use of the car. That’s how my wife treats the Zipcar membership. If the trip would require her to navigate her scooter on roads she perceives as too dangerous, she reserves a Zipcar. We make different personal transportation choices within the same set of options.

The public parking system can also be seen as serving a variety of different personal choices. And I think our investment in that system should take the range of personal choices into account when we’re budgeting for its continued maintenance.

Even though the talks between the city of Ann Arbor and the Downtown Development Authority were supposed to have concluded by the end of October 2010, discussion continues about how much revenue the city of Ann Arbor should withdraw from the public parking system to shore up the general fund.

That conversation has not included the possibility that it’s not just basic maintenance activity that could be jeopardized by the city’s revenue expectations. What could also be threatened is the ability to meet possible future demands placed on the public parking system – not for more spaces, but for a different kind of space, one that allows you to charge your electric vehicle while it’s parked.

When the bonds for the Fifth Avenue parking garage were approved, part of the argument included rhetoric along the lines that this would be the last parking deck Ann Arbor would ever build, because the future belongs to public transportation – we won’t need more spaces. But what if we need different kinds of spaces – spaces that allow you to charge your personal electric vehicle? Where would the funding be sourced for the capital investment required to retrofit parking structures with charging stations? A natural place to look would be to fees paid by parkers – which would be unavailable if they’re allocated instead to the city’s general fund activities.

John Mouat, who chairs the DDA board’s transportation committee, has kept the issue of alternate vehicles in front of the DDA over the last several months at committee meetings and board meetings. His scope includes all manner of two-wheeled vehicles, very small four-wheeled vehicles, and electric cars as well. But Mouat’s perspective does not seem to have percolated up to the level of the Ann Arbor city council, which seems to see public parking system revenue as simply that – another revenue source that can be tapped.

Of course, it might be that massive investment in public infrastructure to support electric vehicles is not actually necessary – even if electric vehicles become a significant part of the U.S. automobile fleet. In a phone interview with Joe Malcoun, an associate with DTE Energy Resources, he offered the perspective that in largest part, the owners of electric vehicles will probably charge them at home. DTE offers a special program for electric vehicles that includes incentives for investing in a home charging station and a discounted rate, through separate metering, for the electricity used.

Malcoun did allow that the availability of at least some charging stations as part of public infrastructure might be driven by another factor: A psychological need for some drivers to have access to charging stations. But 22 stations in the new underground parking garage might be sufficient to address that need, he said.

As a side note, I had originally contacted Malcoun not for this column, but rather to track down some information about the charging stations in the Edison building parking lot at Main and William. Whether widespread availability of charging stations is a requirement to support a large U.S. electric vehicle fleet, will, I think, be a matter of how many actual individual people are willing to make a personal choice for an electric car in the absence of that infrastructure.

Public Transit: Making It Personal

The idea that individual, personal choices are at stake was a central theme that emerged at a sparsely-attended forum held on Tuesday, May 10 on the topic of countywide transit. The Ann Arbor Transportation Authority is hosting another series of meetings to get additional public input on its draft transportation master plan (TMP), which AATA has been developing over the last year. [Most recent Chronicle coverage: "AATA Speaks Volumes on Draft Transit Plan"]

The half-dozen attendees at Tuesday’s forum, held at SPARK East on Michigan Avenue in Ypsilanti, had ample opportunity to weigh in with their own reactions to the draft plan. The plan was presented by AATA’s Michael Benham, who’s leading the TMP project. Also on hand were AATA manager of community relations, Mary Stasiak, and AATA chief executive officer, Michael Ford.

The advice offered to the AATA by attendee Bob Van Bemmelen was to make it personal for people. [Van Bemmelen might be familiar to Chronicle readers as the Republican candidate in November 2o10 for the District 4 seat on the Washtenaw County board of commissioners, which was won by Wes Prater. Or they might remember him from his attendance at a forum hosted by Think Local First last year on local currencies. ]

Bob Van Bemmelen, Michael Ford

Bob Van Bemmelen at the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority forum held on May 10 at SPARK East in Ypsilanti. Standing is Michael Ford, AATA's CEO.

At the transit forum, Van Bemmelen was encouraged to hear another attendee, Larry Krieg, make the same point that Krieg has made during public commentary at AATA board meetings: The American Public Transit Association (APTA) has calculated that a family using public transit would save around $10,000 per year, compared to owning a car. Van Bemmelen said you’d need to prove that number, but that was the kind of thing the AATA should be talking about, to bring the discussion down to a personal level of how much money residents might save.

Van Bemmelen also wanted a more persistent transit sales pitch on a personal level. He described how someone selling lawn service might send a mailing or put a flyer in the door, not just one time, but on a repeated basis. After a while, it might begin to stick. The lawn care guy might then pay a personal visit and say, “Look, I see you out struggling on that lawn trying to push the mower – I can do that for you and here’s my rate, you’ll see it’s competitive.” Van Bemmelen wanted to see the equivalent sales pitch for transit. He said that he does not use the bus now, but he might. [Given the job he took recently with the VA hospital in Ann Arbor, he might be able to commute from Ypsilanti by bus.]

Responding to Van Bemmelen, Stasiak said she agreed with him: You have to sell transit one person at a time – it requires a face-to-face conversation. Sometimes it takes holding someone’s hand to make them feel like it’s not difficult, she said.

One of those face-to-face conversations took place at the forum – with John Dawson, who in addition to advocating for a particular bus route, wanted to know how to get his ADA card for the AATA renewed. Stasiak took his information so that she could follow up. [As a side note, Dawson told The Chronicle that his grandfather previously owned the building where the meeting was held.]

My Personal View

Part of the reason that Van Bemmelen was interested in the idea of “selling” public transit is that he’s looking down the road to the point when county residents might be asked to support a countywide system with a countywide tax – public transit would require some kind of additional support beyond fares. A countywide transit tax is something that will likely not be put before voters for another year at least.

A first step would be to create a kind of placeholder organization that would serve as a countywide governing body, in the event that such a tax were approved by voters. The AATA itself is a local, Ann Arbor authority. At the forum, Michael Ford presented some of the alternatives, including what the countywide membership on a board might look like. [Previous Chronicle coverage: "Concerns Raised Over Transit Governance"]

You don’t have to sell me very hard on the importance of public transit. I’m willing to continue to pay at least the roughly 2 mill Ann Arbor tax that is passed through to the AATA and generates roughly $9 million in revenue for use on public transit. While I understand the public policy issues – like land use, environmental impact, access for seniors and the disabled – if I reduce it to a personal level, the reason I value public transit is that I want it as my backup plan.

That’s reflected in my transit choice for the evening of the transit forum – my bicycle. I did mull over the choice of a bus – it’s roughly a nine-mile trip each way from Ann Arbor to Ypsilanti, and it was threatening rain. But I figured if was raining when it was time to return, or if I felt too tired to pedal back home, I could take the return trip by bus, and take advantage of the bike racks mounted on the front of every AATA bus.

The fact is, my current personal choice is for private transportation. I want the freedom to go exactly where I want to go – which in most cases is a bike rack or a vertical pole near the entrance of my destination – and I want the flexibility to travel when I like. I noted that Larry Krieg had to leave a few minutes before the meeting ended, because he had to catch a bus. I was able to stay until the end. Bicycles beat buses on that metric.

Even so, I’m willing to pay to support the public transit system. Not because Larry Krieg wants to ride the bus. Not because it’s better for the environment. Not because it will lead to better land use and reduce sprawl. Not because it provides mobility to seniors and disabled people.

For me, the public transit system is like the gasoline engine is for some drivers of the Chevy Volt: I’m willing to pay for it to be there, just in case I personally need it.

About the writer: Dave Askins is editor and co-founder of The Ann Arbor Chronicle.


  1. May 12, 2011 at 3:46 pm | permalink

    As with you, I’m willing to pay for the public transit system. I do use it and have been working out strategies to use it even more. (The route to my nearby bus stop does not operate on evenings and weekends, but I’ve figured that I can walk less than a mile to another route.) I’d even vote to extend more bus service to the rest of the county.

    But the problem with the plan that the AATA board is promulgating is that it asks local government and local taxpayers to pay for an outsize system more suitable for a large metropolitan region. It includes trains to Livingston County, the East-West commuter train, possibly light rail or other high-cost transport down State Street, and a new train station at Fuller Road. The federal and state funds are not in place for this, despite the optimistic statements that we continually hear. For example, the East-West commuter train was turned down for “New Start” programming and explicitly must rely on local funding to get a ridership history. It is a classic chicken-and-egg problem. The recently announced grant for Fuller Road is only for planning studies, and there is no reason to suppose that in our current state of national and state governance, hundreds of millions of dollars will be made available to develop the full system.

    Yet this is being put onto the back of our local transit system. I hope that we can keep the bus system, because I know I will need it.

  2. By Kaaren Strauch Brown
    May 13, 2011 at 9:19 am | permalink

    I am a habitual bus user, despite the fact that the bus only runs once an hour for most of the day to my neighborhood and despite the fact that there is no evening or week-end service. Given the difficulties in finding parking on the weekends in downtown AA, I would welcome an expanded bus service rather than expanded parking structures. I am VERY concerned that the expansion of bus service to the county will be at the expense of bus service in the city. We pay for our local transit system with our taxes. Let’s make sure it serves the local community adequately before asking us to use our taxes to pay for county wide services.

  3. May 13, 2011 at 9:51 am | permalink

    The AATA master plan proposes to expand services across the county, and increase the frequency of services on certain “trunkline routes” like Washtenaw Ave.

    However, rather than expand those trunkline routes like #3, #4, #5, and #6, it also proposes to continue the hub and spoke arrangement around the Ypsilanti Transit Center, creating new “loop routes” to funnel riders from around eastern Washtenaw County downtown to link up with cross-county routes.

    Unfortunately, too many potential riders view the Ypsilanti transit center as unsafe. It is not a pleasant place to wait for a bus, both because of the blatantly dehumanizing design of the place, the appearance (and apparent lack of maintenance), and the sense of isolation that comes from having a parking lot at your back and the butt-end of the Deja-vu in your face while you wait.

    For example, the master plan proposes to replace the #6 route in front of the Ypsilanti Senior Center with a new loop route. Unfortunately, this arrangement makes no consideration for the fact that seniors who would be served by this route would likely be very uncomfortable with hanging out at the downtown transit center – they simply won’t make the trip.

    Worse yet, the expanded loop system increases the number of transfers needed to get to places the system serves. Rather than extend the trunkline routes across the entire service area, the proposed loop plan would require someone on the east side of Ypsilanti who works at the Plum Market in Ann Arbor to transfer twice each way!

    I don’t believe that a better plan to discourage ridership on the east side of the county could have been put together than this one – and this one came from highly-paid consultants who ought to know better.

    Public transit needs to go quickly where people need to go without great complication, offer flexibility and some redundancy when it comes to routing, and be available when people need to go there. The proposed AATA master plan fails to follow these basic principles as it applies to the east side of the county.

    As an Ypsilanti resident who does ride the bus as needed, the proposed plan will actually decrease the likelihood that I or my family will make use of the service.

  4. May 13, 2011 at 10:13 am | permalink

    Re: [3]

    For readers not familiar with the concepts for changes to the urban bus network mentioned in [3] ( which are included as an appendix to the TMP) I’ve extracted the TMP appendix: [link]

  5. May 13, 2011 at 6:31 pm | permalink

    @BP -

    Can you clarify what you’d like to see done? I’m confused by some of your statements, relative to the draft implementation recommendations that I looked at.

    “rather than expand those trunkline routes like #3, #4, #5, and #6, it also proposes to continue the hub and spoke arrangement around the Ypsilanti Transit Center, creating new “loop routes” to funnel riders from around eastern Washtenaw County downtown to link up with cross-county routes.”

    But, the implementation sketch reduces the number of loop routes, replacing most of them with out-and-back routes. Am I misunderstanding your use of the term?

    “the master plan proposes to replace the #6 route in front of the Ypsilanti Senior Center with a new loop route. Unfortunately, this arrangement makes no consideration for the fact that seniors who would be served by this route would likely be very uncomfortable with hanging out at the downtown transit center”

    Where are these seniors going to or coming from? Ann Arbor? As it is now, the #6 only runs one-way past the senior center, eastbound on its trip from Ann Arbor. A senior trying to get there from elsewhere in Ypsilanti would have to ride the #6 all the way to Ann Arbor and back; the #47 in the draft proposal would seem to be a much better situation. (Besides which, the #6 as it stands takes riders directly from the senior center to the transit center, so that would not be any kind of “new” stop on their route?)

    “without great complication, offer flexibility and some redundancy when it comes to routing,”

    The plan suggests fewer one-way loops and more out-and-backs, which seem to me to reduce complexity; as well, the suggested new routes would offer a lot more redundancy, in the form of finer-grained coverage and more options for transfer points.

    So I’m genuinely confused by your criticisms–maybe you were looking at a different plan than I?

    Is your real concern with the transit center itself? Wouldn’t that seem to be an issue best addressed at the transit center, rather than taking that as a given, and designing the entire system to avoid that issue?

  6. May 14, 2011 at 3:58 pm | permalink

    Vivienne and Kaaren -

    I agree that bus service should be a priority. But that doesn’t need to foreclose higher-quality transit in the city (preferably bus rapid transit), or connections to the broader region (Detroit definitely takes priority over Livingston County), or vice versa. To that end, the draft AATA plan proposes dramatically improved bus frequencies (every 5-10 minutes on core routes during peak hours), and extended service hours, to 11 pm on weekdays.

    Plenty of other places – including places our size – have better local transit than we do, as well as enhanced transit and regional connections. I don’t believe we should rest content with what we have.

  7. May 14, 2011 at 5:34 pm | permalink

    Joel, if someone wants to give us a train, I’d love to have one, but steps to get from here to there are murky. There is a difference in magnitudes between the costs of a local bus system and a regional train system. I just want to see it spelled out rather than depending on the “confidence” that somehow the money will be forthcoming.

  8. May 16, 2011 at 4:57 pm | permalink

    Sure thing. The feds typically cover the bulk of the capital costs, but a local match would be needed, and the region would need to work out how to share operating costs for Ann Arbor-Detroit rail. A regional transit authority for metro Detroit would be useful; I guess re-electing the president would help, too.

  9. May 16, 2011 at 7:24 pm | permalink

    Joel, the word “typically” is the problem here. We have no assurance that the Federal government is even going to be paying its debts in the future, much less expanding rail subsidies. We can’t assume that because such subsidies were forthcoming in prior years, they will now be. And in fact this system has not been competitive in receiving grants even during better times – several TIGER grants were refused, and Detroit-Ann Arbor did not qualify for New Start money, the usual route for such things.

    Also, Congressman Dingell is not as influential as he once was and with redistricting may not even be our congressman in the future. Further, the State of Michigan local match funds are already inadequate to match grants already approved. Governor Snyder is cutting many programs. We simply can’t assume that someone else is going to cover these costs.

    As for a regional transit authority for metro Detroit – we’ve been through that too and the decisions made were to favor Woodward Avenue, for example, over any Detroit-Ann Arbor route. There is a long history.

  10. By Jack Eaton
    May 17, 2011 at 11:04 am | permalink

    I agree with Vivienne on the potential for federal funding. We probably missed our chance to get federal assistance for building regional transit, especially rail systems.

    Equally bothersome is the question of state funding. Michigan has had difficulty raising sufficient state transit funding to meet the federally required local share minimums. Governor Snyder is unlikely to seek increased transit funding (ie: higher gas taxes).

    In the short term, the state’s support of the high speed rail project may reduce the amount of state funding that is available for existing transit. Without state matching funds, we may lose a portion of the available federal funding. This is probably not a good time to be planning for expansion.

    I am willing to pay for transit services. I do not support expanding service in a manner that encourages sprawl, such as the commuter rail service to Livingston County would. Let’s focus on improving the service we have before expanding beyond our ability to pay.

  11. By CASnyder
    June 4, 2011 at 3:07 pm | permalink

    I would rather put transportation funding $ towards county wide public transit than electric charging infrastructure that can only serve a few, even though my family owns an electric car. I think the narrow options in service locations & times is what keeps many folks like me from using public transit more, and thus that should be addressed first w/ transport dollars. Right now there is too much of the county that is not within even biking distance of a transit stop, which keeps people car dependent. I think that per $ spent, the investment on widening the service areas & times of public transit will benefit far more people of all walks of life than will the investment in electric car charging infrastructure.

  12. June 5, 2011 at 2:53 pm | permalink

    Re: #4, Thanks for supplying the link to the TMP, Dave. I checked out their new bus schedules proposed on the PDF and tried to send my feedback (I am very distressed that there seemingly will be no improvement in transportation to UM’s East Ann Arbor Health Center, a destination that is important to many and yet quite complicated to get to without a car), but their website ( responds only with a 404 message, and the email link for Mary Stasiak, Community Relations Manager for The Ride, is rejected and comes bouncing back to me.

  13. June 5, 2011 at 3:36 pm | permalink

    One slide at the recent Board retreat lists “East Ann Arbor Medical Services” as “New Services under development”. There are some funding issues.