ANN ARBOR, MI – The Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority is considering what it can do to help the community achieve its carbon-neutrality goal.
In the coming years, that could mean an expanding and improving transit services to get more people out of cars and onto buses, and eventually making them electric.
AAATA CEO Matt Carpenter talked about those issues during a city sustainability forum Thursday night, Feb. 13.
“What do we need? Money,” he said pointedly of what it will take.
Carpenter recently served on the city’s A2Zero technical advisory committee exploring carbon-neutrality as it relates to mobility. One of the goals, he said, is to make public transit a more attractive and practical option for people to reduce the number of single-occupant cars on the road.
That can be achieved through increases in service frequency, more direct routes and dedicated bus lanes, he said.
“Having those buses come more often really is the magic key,” he said. “We like to say frequency equals freedom, because then you can travel when you need to without having to consult a timetable.”
There’s a lot of other things to do, he added.
“We need to straighten the routes. We need to have better on-time performance, better customer service in some cases,” he said.
But cost is a challenge and it would require voter approval of a new property tax, he said, without citing specific figures.
“It will take a millage to expand public transportation,” he told residents. “We’re funded by property taxes, as the city is, so we’re going to need your support in order to do that.
“That could happen probably any time in the next two-year window,” he added, noting there’s talk of putting a regional transit tax proposal on the November ballot.
“We have some aspirations beyond that, so there may be some opportunities there, and then it could take between months and years to implement all of those changes.”
AAATA has seen both ups and downs in ridership in recent years, but it has ticked down recently.
Fixed-route bus ridership was down 5% in fiscal year 2019, according to a year-end performance report showing bus boardings dropped to 6.3 million — down from 6.6 million each of the previous two years.
“We are continuing to see a general trend downward in ridership in the last three quarters, which follows the national trend,” the November report stated. The agency cites “severe ridership losses” happening nationally.
In addition to fixed-route rides on local and express buses, reports show AAATA clocked 243,717 vanpool rides and 135,609 paratransit rides last year.
A new chart included in the AAATA’s February board packet shows annual ridership of just under 6.6 million for fiscal year 2019, down less than 1% from 2018, though a separate performance report still shows 6.3 million fixed-route rides.
AAATA officials did not immediately have an explanation for the different numbers.
The agency’s new fiscal year started Oct. 1. A first-quarter report shows fixed-route ridership dipped another 3.4%.
Even when people drive electric cars, Carpenter said, those still are being charged by a power source, and it’s really an energy-intensive way of moving people around, whereas buses provide economies of scale.
Carpenter said the Ann Arbor area’s transit mode share for trips to work — 6% — is the highest in southeast Michigan, and he wants to see that go up.
“The challenges here are really cost,” he said. “Public transportation is money-intensive. It’s capital-intensive and labor-intensive. Operating costs, in particular, can be high.”
Service improvements also don’t happen overnight, Carpenter said, noting it can take 10-12 months for a new bus to be delivered once ordered.
As for shifting to electric buses, he said, that’s still years away. The technology just isn’t ready and it’s cost-prohibitive right now — 50% higher than a typical bus, he said.
Electric buses could be phased in over time as technology matures and cost comes down, he said.
The lifespan of a bus is about 12-14 years, he said, so diesel buses being ordered now may be around a while.
AAATA has used some hybrid buses over the years, but it has shifted back to standard diesel buses for financial reasons, Carpenter said. He maintains the newer diesel buses are as clean as the old hybrids now being retired.
New features with the next generation of diesel buses coming this summer include cushioned seats and USB chargers for riders, Carpenter said.
The earliest AAATA might see full deployment of electric buses is probably the mid-2030s or 2040, he said.
“In the meantime I have this huge industrial building on South Industrial Highway with a big roof with great southern exposure that I think would be great for solar,” he said of the AAATA headquarters. “So I think there are some intermediate steps that we could make along the way.”
Some of the current challenges with electric buses, Carpenter said, include low range, being mechanically unreliable and the charging infrastructure that’s needed. Also, more buses would be needed to provide the same level of service and the electricity may cost more than diesel fuel, he said.
Carpenter said he has great hopes for breakthroughs over the next five to 10 years in terms of technology, particularly battery capacity, “that will really enable us to move that ball down the field a lot faster.”
He wants to focus first on improving services to get more people out of cars, with cleaner technology being a secondary priority. He thinks the carbon-reduction benefits of getting people out of cars will be greater anyway.
There are about 150 buses in the Ann Arbor area today, between AAATA and the University of Michigan.
“I could easily see that hitting 200 if we increase the frequency of service,” Carpenter said.
In addition to reducing emissions, there are other benefits that come with expanding transit — things like social equality, access to affordable housing and jobs, economic development and bypassing traffic, he said.
“So it will require community support, investment and time, but I do know that we can get there,” he said.
As for possibly eliminating rider fares someday to encourage more people to hop on, Carpenter said that would punch a hole in his budget and he’d rather have service increases.
The general rule of thumb in the industry is that a bus needs to come in 10 minutes or less for people to disregard using the timetables, Carpenter said.
Otherwise, they feel like they have to schedule their trips, rather than just walking to a bus top any time.
“That’s a very high level of frequency and a high level of cost,” he said, adding there’s only one or two corridors that could sustain that right now, Washtenaw Avenue primarily.
“I have aspirations for other corridors being able to sustain that, but with the amount of housing and low density of housing that’s there, for example, on the west side up Huron, I don’t know that I could fill a bus every 10 minutes.”
MORE FROM THE ANN ARBOR NEWS: