Additional Thoughts (Aug 3, 2019) – Sidewalk Gaps, Traffic Reconfigurations, Short Term Rentals

Aug 3, 2019 | City Council

The following was originally published in my Aug 3, 2019 Newsletter in the “Additional Thoughts” section

Additional thoughts…

Last week, CM Griswold led a public meeting to present data on pedestrian safety trends and discuss city efforts to improve pedestrian safety. Many topics were discussed, but what I found most interesting: the formula used to prioritize the filling of sidewalk gaps in the city. In just the last few months, Council has been asked to vote on filling sidewalk gaps that were opposed by neighborhood residents; the people living next to the proposed sidewalks had concerns, did not welcome the city’s efforts. Meanwhile, in other parts of Ann Arbor, neighborhood residents are begging the city to fill sidewalk gaps. There are many places where you can find paths where sidewalks should be— the ground is worn away from where people walk every day. 

CM Hayner recently asked for information about all the sidewalk gaps filled in the last ten years. Below is the table of data he received in response:

Ann Arbor sidewalk gap projects 2009-2019

In the past 10 years, there have been only 15 projects to fill sidewalk gaps, and nearly half of the gaps filled were part of other planned projects, not stand-alone improvements based on resident-request or demonstrated needs.

The problem of under-investment in infrastructure is not new, it’s been allowed to fester for years. However, several of us on Council are committed to addressing it. There are approximately 150 miles of of sidewalk gaps, some of them in areas of high pedestrian traffic. The list of crosswalks in need of equipment improvements is huge. There was a period of years when the city made the deliberate decision not to fund any new street lights outside of major projects. Our city’s existing network of multi-modal paths and sidewalks are often impassable because of poor surface conditions or overgrowth that isn’t cut back frequently enough.

Like so many challenges facing our city, with a limited amount of resources there’s no easy answer to how we best direct those resources. There is a logic to coordinating improvements with other planned city work, but that often means that streets most desperate for intervention have to wait years. If every potential new sidewalk or bike lane is just “tacked on” to adjacent sewer work or road surface work, we will often prioritize and pursue projects that are not necessarily the best solution for a given area.

This week, City Council will consider three traffic reconfigurations: Earhart Road, Green Road, and Traverwood. One of these proposed traffic reconfigurations is “tacked on” to other city work already occurring, the other two represent relatively small investments of paint/street markings. In considering these reconfigurations, I talked to area residents about what they see every day, what they think of the potential changes. The changes are meant to improve non-motorized safety in the area, so I biked to all these locations, too.

When I biked to that neighborhood with my son, I had a harrowing experience using the bike lane on the north side of Plymouth Road between Green and Upland. Further west, the multi-modal paths on the south side of Plymouth are not much better, with overgrowth and gaps leading into town. On Earhart Road, where the proposed reconfiguration shifts bike traffic to the street, I found multimodal paths that would be functional if the city maintained them and cut back overgrowth. There is much work to be done and we need to be strategic in our choices. 

I’ve seen some people earnestly characterize the proposed reconfigurations as “science.” Anyone with questions or skepticism about the proposals— so the argument goes— is “anti-science.” Each of the traffic reconfigurations happens in a specific environment with its own set of trade-offs, unique potential benefits and consequences. Instead of debating or even discussing the pros/cons of each proposal (most especially among residents who know the area or travel the area, the people most likely to be impacted), Council has been urged vaguely to “support science.” I’ve seen this style of argument on other topics Council has considered, but not quite so boldly. The charge of “anti-science” in this situation is the equivalent of abandoning debate altogether and simply calling people stupid. 

I look forward to serious conversation at the Council table Monday night that takes into account the broader needs of that area on the north side of town. I look forward to conversation that includes all appropriate detail and context, the conditions specific to each of those three locations. The results of our decisions will have a real (not theoretical) impact. City Council is the forum where we weigh what some people HOPE will happen against what some people FEAR will happen and arrive at our best guess of what is LIKELY to happen. Ultimately, the goal is to make our city safer for everyone, whether you are walking or biking or driving.

On another topic: many residents have reached out to us about potential regulation of short-term rentals (a.k.a. AirBnB) in the city. Short-term rentals are a concern to neighborhoods but more importantly they are, city-wide, an affordability issue. An explosion of short-term-rentals — particularly those rented year-round, i.e. not primarily owner-occupied— will deplete the supply of housing available for long-term-rental. Anyone who has ever pitched theories of supply and demand around our affordability challenges should be concerned about unrestricted short-term rental in Ann Arbor. I introduced a resolution in March of this year, asking staff to provide input and feedback on this issue by July 31st. (19-0528, passed Mar 18, 2019, enacted as R-19-112) The whole of the update we received was this:

Council budgeted funds in support of this work beginning in FY20. Staff has solicited consultant assistance for this work, and is currently working to refine the proposed study scope. The initial stage is anticipated to be completed by the end of 2019, which will include community engagement on short-term rentals in the community, including identification of goals for any regulation.

CM Ramlawi and I asked for more detail in our questions to the agenda (see pages 1-3 of the attachment in this link: 19-1473). Among the answers, we were told: “Discussion with Council and the public will take place over the next 30 – 90 days with recommendations/options provided to Council within 90 – 180 days.”

I look forward to more community conversations on this topic and I continue to be hopeful about our ability to address it. Last week, the city attorney assured me that his department will provide information to Council re: what is legally permissible in terms of regulation, so I look forward to that update as well.