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getDowntown is Ann Arbor's alt-commuting program, running Curb Your Car Month and administering the go!pass program, among other things. Program Director Erica is leaving the country in a few weeks, so her position came up for grabs recently.

And, well, I couldn't help myself. This is, after all, essentially the job description that got me into planning, and I've been lusting after Erica's job since I knew it existed, about six years ago. Rumor has it I got the job. The rumor mill is apparently both (a) slow and (b) wrong, though - I know a week and a half ago that it took somebody like Nancy Shore to beat me out. Nancy is, until now, SOS Community Relations Coordinator (and the party responsible for the SOS News and Views blog), and also has served on AATA's Board of Directors. Congratulations, Nancy!

In the meantime, somebody asked me, "So, what would you do if you ran getDowntown?" Well, I think gDt is pretty darn good at what it does. Both the go!pass and CYCM seem to me pretty well-established programs by now, and Bike Winter and appearances at Green Fest, etc, seem to round things out pretty well. So - and once more falling back on certain influences - I'd say it's probably high time to jump to the other end of the commute. The CYCM Commuter Challenge, go!pass, and so forth all work from the assumption that people have established commute patterns, and that the task is to get them to change travel modes. "Get people out of their cars!"

But even better than getting people out of their cars is getting to them before they even get into their cars - help them establish good routines to begin with, rather than trying to break them of their established habit. After all, some of them aren't in much position to get out of their cars. As of the 2005 survey of downtown employees (pdf), 30% of respondents said that there was no bus service near their house, or that bus stops were too far away from their house. (And anybody too far from the bus system to use it is definitely too far to walk or bike to downtown Ann Arbor.)

But this can be addressed.

As of 2005, the Census Bureau reported that 65% of Ann Arbor households had occupied their home for less than five years. (The national figure is just about 50% - it's not just students doing the moving.) So, as of 2005, 2/3 of Ann Arbor households had moved since the go!pass existed. Planners are often mocked for a, "well, move closer to work," attitude towards complaints about congestion, but this isn't unrealistic - just impolitic. Try it this way: "When you next move, consider your commute alongside other factors." When stated that way, well, sure! You'd be stupid not to! Thus far, getDowntown's been pretty successful at getting to people where they work. In my mind, the next step would be to get to them where they live, before they live there.

One part of this would be working with realtors. When was the last time your realtor asked you where you worked, and then offered to show you houses along the bus lines that go there? (Probably never.) Realtors should be pitching the go!pass to anybody who works downtown, both as a means of helping the buyer out, and also selling more of those close-to-downtown-and-therefore-pricier homes.

go!pass information should also be a part of any benefits information offered to new recruits. Google plans to hire 1,000 people in the next few years, and in downtown for now at least. They'll be drawing people from around the area and around the state - make sure those people know how to get to work without driving before they start looking for housing in town! So far, the narrative about Google has had a lot of focus on their desire to have 1,000 parking spaces for their 1,000 employees, but Google's no stranger to alt-transportation. Heck, at their headquarters, they even provide an in-house free commuter shuttle. If Google's willing to drive their own employees around at that location, passing out go!pass lit to potential hires here should be no problem.

Finally, find a bank willing to offer location-efficient mortgages. Sure, we all know that not driving to work frees up money for other things, and that the higher housing cost of living close to work is offset by the lower transportation cost (okay, so maybe it's only planners who know that), but some banks are going further, and taking that into consideration when writing loans. An LEM allows the homebuyer to qualify for a somewhat larger mortgage, or get a slightly better loan rate - since they're spending less on gas/etc, the bank knows they're better able to pay the loan. To my knowledge, no bank in the area offers LEMs.

So, while I didn't get the job, I've just booby-trapped it with a whole lot of work to do. Nancy, you can thank me later.

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I am listening . . . and it sounds good

I really value your insight into the gDt issues and I look forward to putting some of your suggestions into practice. It just so happens that one of the reasons I moved into this job was so I could walk/bike/bus to work in a timely manner. And I think you are right: we need to focus on both ends of the commuting spectrum. That's part of a proactive solution to commuting alternatives.

I will be starting at getDowntown next week and am opening and willing to have anyone give me advice and feedback. I am also interested in creating a getDowntown commuter advisory committee. I envision 5-10 people on this committee meeting once a month or so. Sitting on the committee would be a one year commitment. Murph, I am sure you will be the FIRST to sign up, right?

Anyway, keep the suggestions coming. I have thoughts and ideas, too and look forward to continuing to make gDt a successful program!

Nancy Shore

"The first to sign up"

Boy, I sure walked right into that one, didn't I?

Sign me up - I can rarely turn down an excuse to geek out about transportation issues. (Considering that my commute is to downtown /Ypsi/, though, I may have ulterior motives...)

Do you know Scott TenBrink? You should - he interned at gDt for a while, and, more recently, ran the Carfree Ann Arbor blog. (Hmmm, the CFA2 blog seems rather quiet lately. Wonder what Scott's up to now? Oh, look - he's your equivalent in Jackson.)


Thanks, Murph, I'll put you on the "list." And yes, I have been in communication with Mr. TenBrink. I am sure we will continue to chat.

Nancy Shore

the higher housing cost of

the higher housing cost of living close to work is offset by the lower transportation cost (okay, so maybe it's only planners who know that)

Like many, I grew up in a suburb where car ownership and the need to drive places were taken for granted. When they compare the costs of downtown and suburban living, people who take driving for granted treat auto-related costs as fixed. (Though fewer people consciously weigh those costs and benefits than we hope.)

My sister went to Rutgers as a commuter student and lived at the Jersey Shore. She said it was cheaper living at the shore and that she made good money waiting tables at this particular restaurant in the summers. Yet she drove 150 miles round trip three to five days a week for years. Even in the days of $1.50/g gas, she was spending $5-$10 every weekday on fuel. That's $100-$200 a month, not counting time wasted on the road, maintenance and risk of accident. None of that went into her rent comparisons.

When I visited her and her husband in Las Vegas, we spent a lot of time driving around to look at houses. They would check out "the neighborhood," by which they meant the neighboring three or four streets in the sub-division. They had some vague notions about the locations of schools, but never did they consider the house's location relative to any other amenity--grocery, post, coffee shop, bookstore, hardware store.

Yet they were not exceptionally careless. Why bother with such calculations when nearly every single house in the city is outside convenient walking distance of said amenities?

In New Jersey, not thinking about gas, parking and maintenance costs led to different choices than thinking about them might have. In Las Vegas, thinking about them probably would make little difference (aside from convincing you that you need to get the hell out of Las Vegas!). This is the thing we should remember. Too many people live in a built environment where these calculations are an exercise in futility. The answer is always bad; where they live, auto costs are fixed. For them not to be in the habit of considering whether or not to use a car is not strictly sloth or stupidity. We ultimately want them to consider the relative costs and benefits carefully, including all the hidden costs of car ownership, but first we have to convince them that it is worth doing that calculation at all.

fractured thoughts on an accessibility report

Give people a way to compare homes when they're shopping -- some kind of accessibility report, presented in a nice, easy to use way (and avoiding phrases like "accessibility report") that shows people what's available within certain distances of their homes (by routes, and avoiding transportationally dangerous areas). Groceries, shops, bus stops -- give people something concrete to compare their housing options based on, in this regard.

I think this information would be the first step toward getting LEMs, anyway. Get the most out of it by providing it as a free service, while you're pulling banks into the market.

Brandon just sent me a link to the other day - it uses google to determine how far you are from various types of businesses and parks, schools, etc. Doesn't do transit, but still pretty neat. My house gets a 75 on their 0-100 scale; the house I grew up in gets a 0.

It's not quite as useful/thorough as you're suggesting, but it already exists...

My house gets a 51...20

My house gets a 51...20 points higher than the old apt. The hotel in Atlanta is a 12....and I'm a little surprised it's that high. I suppose the plethora of hotel-based restaurants is skewing it a bit. Also, I don't really count things named "Food Mart" as groceries, which it is doing.

"food marts"

Yeah, the "counting gas stations as groceries" thing is a bit of a bug. But, as they say, it's more a proof of concept thing / blunt demonstration of the idea.

Fuzzy Math

I get a 62. If I lived three blocks to the west, I'd get a 77.

78 seems to be the highest possible score for Ypsilanti at the moment, however, Dos Hermanos is not used in their calculations yet. That may not have a huge impact as the convenience we are lacking is a movie theater.

movie theater

Well, there's always Riverside Park, right?


Yup, I saw that, too. Definitely the right idea. I think you've got to have a better data source than google, though. (Did I just say that out loud?) It dumps some very odd stuff in there--in my neighborhood, it's got places I've never heard of, and this is just not a part of town with enough nooks and crannies to hide, say, a grocery store in.

It got me wondering, though, whether permits and licenses could be used as part of the features data to run something like this off of. I don't know nearly enough about what's regulated and how, but I can't imagine that the data isn't out there, somewhere. Certainly restaurants and pharmacies. I'd assume grocery stores have some sort of something.