This was part of my November 5, 2023 newsletter:
This week’s agenda item DC-4 is a stunning departure from past city policy regarding data-driven decisions. City staff is asked to prioritize reconfiguring all existing multilane roads under the City’s jurisdiction, narrowing and reducing traffic lanes. Council no longer wants traffic data for specific locations or projections for safety improvements and traffic delays.
DC-4 (23-1851) Resolution to Accelerate Safety Improvements on Multilane Roads
This resolution explicitly repeals previous policy:
RESOLVED, City Council repeals the following resolved clause from R-18-275 which requires that “in conjunction with any proposed lane reduction proposals, city staff shall provide council current traffic volume data including peak hour volumes and volume-to-capacity ratios as well as projections for safety improvements and traffic delays.”
LESSONS FROM 2020
At the beginning of the pandemic (2020), parks and other indoor public gathering places were closed in the interest of public health. In response to a neighborhood need for outdoor activity space, I co-sponsored a program called “Healthy Streets” that called for a large number of street closures— the City accepted requests to temporarily close 26 residential side streets to through traffic and downtown street closures were instituted to expand outdoor space available for local restaurants. Temporary traffic reconfigurations were also made on South Main, East Packard, and Broadway/Swift. The vast majority of these changes were successful and residents appreciated them. However, lane closures on South Main, East Packard, and Broadway/Swift prompted significant negative feedback, most especially complaints about safety hazards and traffic spilling over onto low-traffic neighborhood side streets.
For anyone unfamiliar with the city street closure program of 2020, I wrote a brief summary at the time:
In 2020, the Healthy Streets program specifically included data collection to better understand both benefits and unintended consequences (e.g. hazards observed by residents). Pedestrians, cyclists, and families living on (previously) quiet side streets offered some very detailed feedback about how road and lane closures actually functioned, as compared to how we had HOPED they would function. Elected leaders attempted to develop policy based on data.
Anyone who lives in proximity to a major corridor understands the concept of spillover traffic and how the disabling of a larger street impacts smaller streets nearby. The development of way-finding apps makes these local ‘shortcuts’ available to everyone with a phone— drivers now regularly use these apps to avoid traffic jams and traffic delays. You can read an article about the problem here:
It would be an extreme position to oppose all road reconfigurations that promote safety for cyclists and pedestrians. Conversely, demanding that these changes happen as quickly as possible — without considering facts on the ground or location-specific concerns — is also an extreme position. Neither of these extremes will lead to the best solutions.
This is why data matters.
In an educated community like Ann Arbor, the people we elect to represent us should care about measurable data, not purposefully and explicitly reject it, as is happening in DC-4. In the past, elected leaders have recognized that the observations and day-to-day experiences of residents are also helpful data. That idea, also, has been rejected by current elected leaders. In September 2023, Council unanimously rescinded a policy that at least 50% of residents on local, neighborhood side streets support traffic calming changes before implementation. You can learn about that here:
From that video: in a public meeting, a Mayoral appointee on the Transportation commission discounted local neighborhood perspective because “those people” will always show less support for improvements. An elected member of Council described a requirement for 50% neighborhood support as a ‘veto’ worth eliminating. This approach to local democracy should alarm anyone and everyone who cares about the community we share and the issues that might impact us in the future. Council has voted unanimously that your concerns about the street where you live do not matter, even if your position is shared by a majority of neighbors. This week, Council explicitly states that objective, measurable data does not matter, either.
Data – both measured and observed – is key to anticipating and identifying unintended consequences.
For anyone who does not know: this is an issue that I care a lot about because I am a cyclist. This year, I started a project to bike to every street in Ann Arbor in alphabetical order — since May, my son and I have biked to 345 streets and over 1300 miles, discovering locations that I had no reason to visit before. I am learning a lot about the best, safest routes on my bike in all parts of town and also identifying hazards and dangers. I am certain that local residents in those neighborhoods could educate me about a whole lot more.
I want our transportation network to be as safe as possible for all users and I believe a majority of residents want this, too. In a democracy, local neighborhood residents are not “those people” who should be ignored. In a democracy, over 50% is a majority, not a veto. This week, Council will vote to explicitly ignore measurable data in order to make the quickest, most uninformed decisions. A community as educated as Ann Arbor should expect better.