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Limiting Transit Options Limits Opportunities For Kids

In the conversation about mass transit and whether or not we develop a county-wide service one type of rider often gets overlooked: kids. What do limited transportation options mean for students car-less volunteers who work with kids?
Cecilia Latiolais is 22 years old. She graduated from the University of Michigan last year and now works as the membership coordinator at the Ann Arbor Hands on Museum. She walks to work and to the People's Food Co-op for her groceries and to volunteer at 826Michigan's downtown Ann Arbor office and just about anywhere else she needs to go from her home on the city's Old West Side. She does this because she doesn't own a car. She doesn't own a car because she can't easily afford one, doesn't really need one, and doesn't have much interest in owning one.

"Most of the time I find a car to be a hassle," Latiolais says. She's part of a growing trend, young Americans who have decided against auto ownership.

What Latiolais wants instead is to lend more of a hand to those who need it. She enjoys volunteering at 826Michigan, working with kids who take advantage of the non-profit's free events and workshops. However, she wants to work with these children more directly, through one-on-one tutoring and other mentoring opportunities.

What holds her back is the challenge of getting from Point A to Point B and back again. Point A is her home in Ann Arbor. Point B is the Ypsilanti area where much of the demand for tutoring resides.

"I'm limited in what I can do with 826Michigan because I can't easily get to Ypsilanti," Latiolais explains. "I can only volunteer for the programs downtown at the Robot Shop (826 Michigan's storefront headquarters) unless there are people going to an event I can ride with."

Latiolais can't afford her own car without putting great strain on her finances. Purchasing a car means dipping into her savings, taking out a loan, paying for gas, maintenance and parking. That adds up quickly for someone who makes little more than $20,000 per year. Latiolais can take buses from Ann Arbor Transportation Authority's fleet but she finds the system doesn’t have the reach and speed she needs to get to kids she wants to tutor on the east side of Washtenaw County. Her experience isn't unique in a place where many of the young people who need help live in one section and many of the young people who can and want to help them live in another.

"Not many people (who volunteer at 826Michigan) have cars - maybe a quarter of them," Latiolais says. "More people would love to go to Ypsi to volunteer but don't have the opportunity."

Point A

This isn't an indictment of AATA's effectiveness. The transportation system connecting Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti is renowned for its promptness, cleanliness and ability to accommodate many passengers. Where the system comes up short is in coverage. AATA is not a transportation authority that comprehensively serves Washtenaw County because it's not a transportation authority that represents all of Washtenaw County.

Often those who suffer from this situation are those who can do the least about it, young people who, more often than not, can't vote and are reliant on their own feet, public transit or adult people of means with personal transportation. These are usually the kids of working parents trying to participate in after-school activities, children who can ride their bikes to the end of the block but not over a freeway overpass, or young adults who have more time on their hands to do good than money in their pockets.

826Michigan runs into that last group more than its organizers would like. The non-profit helps support primary and secondary school students with their creative and expository writing skills, and helps teachers inspire their students to express themselves with words. The nonprofit services about 2,500 school-aged students each year thanks to more than 10,000 hours of volunteer time. 826Michigan's volunteer list has 1,700 names on it, but the organization's leadership estimates only about 450 people are active each year.

"We feel like we have a really rich resource in tutors here because of the University of Michigan," says Amanda Uhle, executive director of 826 Michigan. "Part of the problem is a lot of these tutors at the university don't have transportation. A lot of our programs take place in Ypsilanti, which isn't walkable from here. It makes it difficult to get our tutors where we want them."

826Michigan doesn't keep a waiting list for tutoring, but frequently turns away teachers who want to schedule in-school programs due to lack of transportation for its volunteers. It recently had an opportunity to run a much larger after-school tutoring program at Ypsilanti Middle School but couldn't capitalize on it because the non-profit's tutors couldn't easily get there. Uhle estimates that 826Michigan could serve at least 25 percent more students if it didn't face the transportation barrier.

"The problem is our organization is doing less than it could because of transportation issues," Uhle says.

Point B

826Michigan isn't the only local organization that struggles with transportation issues. The Ypsilanti District Library has a branch in downtown Ypsilanti and in Ypsilanti Township on Whitaker Road, among others. Both have active, vibrant youth programs for pre-teens and teens. The problem is that unless these kids have access to a car they probably can't use both facilities.

"I see the same teens everyday because this is a place that they can walk to," says Jodi Johnson, the young adult librarian at the Ypsilanti District Libary's downtown branch.

That library branch is walkable/bikeable to all of the Ypsilanti's near-downtown neighborhoods and just a few short blocks from the city's main transit center. The Whitaker Road branch in Ypsilanti Township is also walkable/bikeable from surrounding neighborhoods through a few walking paths or even along local roads. What separates the two libraries is the I-94 overpass.

"Getting over I-94 is not an easy task," says Donna DeButts, community relations coordinator for the Ypsilanti District Library. "If you're a walker or a bicycler you are literally taking your life in your hands trying to cross I-94."

An AATA bus line called Route 19 used to connect the city with the Whitaker Road branch. It was funded by a federal grant between 2001 and 2003. At the time ridership was low, averaging 11 riders per service hour and not growing. Other Ypsilanti-local routes averaged 26 riders per hour at the time.

"AATA discussed the status of the route with Ypsilanti Township, and they decided not to provide the local funds that would have been necessary to continue the service," AATA spokesperson Mary Stasiak wrote in an email. "The library was open during the time the route was operating, but the Kroger store at Paint Creek opened after the route started, and most of the other stores in this area opened after the route was discontinued."

That was also when gas averaged close to $1 per gallon. Today it averages close to $4 per gallon. Stasiak points out that owning and maintaining a car can cost upwards to $9,000 annually. That's a lot of money to a kid trying to consistently attend an after-school activity or trying to get their first job, not to mention working families trying to make ends meet.

"With the cost these days to fill up a car with gas, being able to take public transportation could make a difference whether a dad has to work a second job or is home instead to help their child with homework," Stasiak wrote in an email.

Walter McAdam used to take Route 19 to the Whitaker Road branch. The 19-year-old Ypsilanti resident just finished his first year at Washtenaw Community College and plans to transfer to Eastern Michigan University this fall to pursue his ambitions of becoming a librarian or an English teacher. Last year he served as the president of the Ypsilanti District Library's Teen Advisory Group, and he would like to see Route 19 reinstated.

"It was a good way to get the library," McAdam says. "Now I only make it there once in a long while."

McAdam has been using the Ypsilanti District Library branches for most of his life. It has always been a go-to place for him to hang out with his friends or find what he needs for school. "It has everything I need for school," McAdam says. "If I need a school book, I can find it fast here. It's really helpful." Unfortunately, his access is limited because he doesn't have a car. He adds that a lot of his friends are in the same boat, and they also can only go to the Whitaker Road branch on an infrequent basis at best. If he could speak to the people who decide whether Route 19 exists or not, he would tell them to put it back.

"I would tell them that people who can't come to this one (the downtown library branch) need to go somewhere," McAdam says. "People need to go to the library."

And back again

There are examples of mass transit working in favor of young people in Washtenaw County. Ann Arbor's Pioneer High School has a covered stop in its main parking lot facing Main Street. Students use it all the time. Sometimes to help them get to and from after-school activities. Sometimes just to get back and forth from a normal day of school.

Pioneer has the highest level of students using AATA buses from Ann Arbor Public Schools' four high schools. Community High School in Kerrytown also has a high usage rate, mainly because it is located in a dense area built to facilitate walkability and mass transit. Huron High School has less usage from its students.

"I know lots of students would use it more if there was a wider reach," says Liz Margolis, director of communications for Ann Arbor Public Schools who previously worked in marketing for AATA. "

Skyline High School, the newest school on the city's north side north of M-14, has the lowest level of use by high school students. Ann Arbor Schools and AATA officials worked to facilitate public transit buses into the school's design - to the point that AATA buses pull into Skyline using the same lanes dedicated for the school's yellow buses. However, the school's low usage numbers can be attributed to its location at the edge of the city, in an area not necessarily designed with walkability in mind. Furthermore, the school draws its students from the more rural sections of a school district that services 128 square miles.

Ann Arbor Public Schools is working with AATA to consolidate and reroute some bus routes to better serve the school district's high schools. The idea is to get more kids on AATA buses with school district-provided student bus passes. This will cut costs from its yellow bus fleet.

"We have a lot of students who live inside AATA area who use it," Margolis says. "We have a lot more students who live in the outlying areas who would take advantage of it if they has access to it. It's a huge limitation to us."

Jon Zemke is the Innovation and Jobs News Editor for Concentrate and the Managing Editor for SEMichiganStartup.com. His last feature was The Eternal Entrepreneur: A Conversation with Mike Burns


All photos by Doug Coombe


Cecilia Latiolais outside the Hands On Museum
Cecilia with the plasma ball at the Hands On Museum
The AATA's Blake Transit Center in downtown Ann Arbor
Amanda Uhle at 826Michigan
Amanda hanging out with the robots at 826Michigan
Drop-in tutoring at 826Michigan
The AATA Ypsilanti Transit Center
Jodi Johnson at the Teen Zone at the downtown Ypsilanti Library
Jodi Johnson and Edward Jones at the Teen Zone
Students at the Teen Zone after school
The Pioneer High School AATA stop

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