Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Stream Welcome to Commie High today and tomorrow

Welcome To Commie High – Trailer from 7 Cylinders Studio on Vimeo.

Welcome to Commie High is a documentary about Ann Arbor's Community High School, my alma mater. The documentary was supposed to premiere over the weekend at the Film Festival. Now though, you can stream it online today and tomorrow. It costs $10, and half the proceeds go to the Film Festival. One very important detail about the documentary is that you will have a chance to hear one of my high school ska band's songs. That surely is worth the cost of admission. You can watch the movie here.

Monday, March 30, 2020

My favorite hikes in Washtenaw County

I find nothing boosts the spirits like a nice walk outdoors. These are some of my favorite hiking areas in the County. I hope they are not too crowded.

Sharon Hallow -- This is a property owned by the Nature Conservancy and located just north of Manchester in Sharon Township. The area features some complex interaction between glacial and riparian landforms. As such, it has very diverse plant life.

Pickerel Lake -- There are lots of Pickerel Lakes in Michigan. I'm talking about the one in Pinckney Recreation Area. There are several hiking trails that originate here and you can do anything from a 1 mile to a 10 mile hike. There is also a spooky old root cellar.

Mud Lake Bog -- This is a really challenging hike. It's hard to get to. You will get wet. You will get poison sumac. Bring a compass so you don't get lost in the bog. Mud Lake Bog is owned by the Botanical Gardens. It is located southeast of the intersection of Hamburg and Barker Roads in northeast Webster Township. There is a poorly marked path through a swamp that turns into a beautiful bog. There are tons of blueberries. There is tons of poison sumac. The path is often submerged in 1 foot to 3 feet of water. You will have to park on the side of the road within the right of way. Still, this hike will take your mind off of the current situation.

Stinchfield Woods -- This property in northern Dexter Township off Dexter-Pinckney road is owned by the School of Environment and Sustainability. It used to be a an experimental forest for the School of Forestry. I'd recommend starting at the eastern entrance, which means parking across the street about 100 yards north of the entrance. The site is very hilly as a result of glacial kame topography. One of the most xeric sites in the county, you can find dwarf chinkapin oak (Quercus prinoides) within the oak hickory forest present at the site.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Ann Arbor City Council Preview: March 16, 2020

The world feels like it has turned upside down since the last #a2council meeting. Still, the gears of government grind on. Here's the agenda for the March 16 meeting.

The evening kicks off with a 20 item consent agenda. There are 4 street closings for various festivals, concerts, and races between May 10 and July 10. Will these events happen? Maybe. Hard to say at this point.

There is one public hearing on a township island rezoning.

On to ordinance first readings. C-1 is the entertainment noise district, though the link on the agenda isn't there so I don't know what's up with that. C-2 is a routine township island rezoning. C-3 through C-7 are all rezoning land as parkland. All in all we are getting 35.8 new acres of parkland. Nice.

The item I am most excited about is DC-3. This resolution would direct Planning Commission to create a Transit Supported Development District. My understanding is that this would allow for greater density and remove parking minimums along transit corridors (e.g. State, Plymouth, Washtenaw). I think this would be a great way of helping the city reach its carbon goals and I hope it passes.

Well gentle reader, that's a pretty short preview. What items are you most excited about? Remember to tune into CTN at 7pm and follow all the action on the #a2council hashtag.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Ann Arbor City Council Preview: March 2nd, 2020

Gentle readers, tonight is the first March meeting of #a2council. Here's the agenda. Of note, it will be the first meeting since the council fired Administrator Howard Lazarus. DC-4 appoints CFO Tom Crawford interim administrator.

The evening kicks off with a modest 13 item consent agenda. Highlights are street closings for the Monroe Street Fair, Fool Moon, and FestiFools.

There are two public hearings on the docket this evening. PH-1/DB-1 is approval of the site plan for the Satndard, a new building going in at 405 S Main, which is currently a DTE Building. This is coming to council with unanimous support from planning commission. My understanding is that this is a by-right development so I don't expect too much oposion. PH-2/DB-2 is a routine township island rezoning in Ann Arbor.

Elsewhere, DC-5 is a resolution regarding the Police Chief. It basically acknowledges the Norris Report and says the Chief "acknowledges and affirms those fundamental police values in his response letter; and that Chief Cox demonstrates an understanding of his need to provide clear communication of those fundamental values and is committed to that practice."

Well gentle reader, what do you think about the plan to fire Administrator Lazarus? What agenda items are you most interested in? Make sure you tune into the action tonight at 7 on CTN. As always, you can follow the #a2council hashtag on twitter too.

Complete Streets in the Winter: A case for municipally-funded snow and ice removal on our sidewalks

A Tragic, Preventable Death

Where Mr. Derick fell. The crosswalk continues
to be neglected after another snowfall

On Saturday, January 18th of this year, snow began to fall in Ann Arbor, slowly tapering off through the next day. By the end of the weekend, 6 inches of snow blanketed the city.  The local news stations warned of its weight, calling it “heart attack snow.” Many millions of dollars in municipal snow removal equipment sprang into action, clearing the city and county streets for cars and trucks in time for the morning commute on Monday, January 20th.

And while our community pays to keep our streets cleared and salted, the sidewalks are a different story. After the heavy snow, many residents began the task of shoveling the wet and heavy snow, but too often, areas remained neglected for days. What was left was a treacherous, patchwork network of sidewalks and crosswalks for pedestrians to navigate, with the snow steadily compacted into ice.

Richard Derick, an 88 year old Ann Arbor resident, stepped outside into the afternoon sunshine days later to walk his dog, Sammy. It was one of those rare beautiful Michigan winter days - crisp and cool but clear - perfect for a short walk to Sweetwater’s in Kerrytown. It would be his last. As Derick approached a crosswalk at Division, cars stopped to let him safely cross. According to this account, a mound of snow and ice remained uncleared at the crosswalk, and as he stepped over it, he fell. He would die the next morning from a bleed in his brain.

In the days afterwards, some on our City Council spoke out about the importance of residents promptly clearing snow and ice from crosswalk ramps and sidewalks. Just a month later, four days after a snowfall in February, we visited the site of Mr. Derick's accident and found it still slick, the ice slowly melting as temperatures hovered just above freezing.

A Climate of Unequal Accessibility

January 25th: Clear roads. Crosswalk ramps were still
iced-over at Huron High, a week after snowfall.
A compliance officer would investigate, 4 days later. 

Our local government makes it a priority to clear our roadways - there's even a tracking tool for anxious drivers who want to know when their street will be plowed. Drivers are often frustrated with the speed of local road plowing, but imagine if we required local homeowners to clear the road in front of their property, and your commute to work required faith that your neighbors would get the job done quickly. How long would we tolerate it? As Amy Crawford recently argued in Slate the way a city handles snow says everything about how it treats pedestrians..

This is exactly what we do for sidewalks, and when snow falls, it forces our most vulnerable citizens to use poorly-plowed and icy walkways for days, sometimes weeks at a time. We mandate private property owners to maintain, shovel, and de-ice their adjacent sidewalks, but all too often it's not done in a timely manner, if ever. Using a stroller, walker, or wheelchair becomes a nightmare, and winter weather can leave our disabled and elderly citizens stranded.

The City of Ann Arbor has recently launched a few initiatives that emphasize the importance of using nonmotorized transit, including declaring a climate emergency in 2019. A2Zero is a plan to become carbon-neutral by 2030, and non-motorized transit is key to achieving that goal. Vision Zero is "prioritizing investments in the transportation network, including roads, sidewalks, paths, bike lanes, and public transit." If our sidewalks remain treacherous for days after each snowfall, how can we expect our population to embrace walking, biking, or public transit?

Our Current Model: A2"Fix"It

In 2014, Ann Arbor partnered with SeeClickFix to launch A2 Fix It, a citywide reporting application, which accepts citizen reports of everything from pothole repairs to missed trash pickups, and routes them to city staff for review. In winter, app users can notify the city that some sidewalks remain uncleared. To put it another way, you can use it to tattle on your negligent neighbors. 

The system should work like this: a pedestrian notices an uncleared sidewalk, and promptly notifies staff through the app. The city sends out staff quickly to investigate, who clear the snow and ice, and fine repeat offenders to promote compliance. In practice, there are often days of lag time between each of these steps in the snow removal process, and fining those in violation has not been an effective deterrent.
This area was reported on January 25th, 1 week after the snowfall.
The app showed it was investigated a month later.

In one recent example, a long stretch of sidewalk near Huron High School was reported via A2FixIt to be still iced over a week after a snowfall, on January 25th. The City of Ann Arbor acknowledged the issue and closed the ticket on February 20th, a full month after the snow had fallen. 

In a recent Michigan Daily article, the Ann Arbor Community Standards department admitted the trouble in ensuring prompt response times, due to chronic understaffing. It’s easy to see why such a system would work poorly for this purpose. There are multiple potential failure points - perhaps the sidewalk isn’t reported for a couple days (or longer), and city staff is often overwhelmed with requests and must prioritize. Judging by the number of repeat offenders, the fine-based system does not seem to incentivize good snow removal practices. 

SnowBuddy: "Simply Transformative"

One local neighborhood has shown a different way. The SnowBuddy program in Ann Arbor's Water Hill neighborhood, where a team of volunteers operate and maintain snow removal equipment, ensures every sidewalk and crosswalk in the neighborhood is walkable all winter. In the same year A2FixIt launched, Paul Tinkerhess and a group of neighbors came together to create a nonprofit volunteer-run snow removal service, with the mission of keeping all the walkways in the neighborhood clear, all winter long. They solicited donations from those in the neighborhood, and purchased commercial-grade equipment designed to remove snow all the way down to the concrete, using plows and brushes, and spray treatments for ice. Lisa Brush of SnowBuddy says the service has been "simply transformative" for the neighborhood in winter, allowing all to freely and safely use the sidewalks regardless of disability or income. 

The program has been both effective and popular in the neighborhood. After a couple years of operation, the team began to advocate for winter sidewalk maintenance citywide. To gather data, they traveled to Burlington, Vermont, where the city assumes responsibility for all winter sidewalk maintenance. 

In Spring this year, the SnowBuddy team will be releasing a report to the city, updating options for citywide clear and safe winter sidewalks. The previous 2018 SnowBuddy report already showed, from surveys of Ann Arbor citizens, are that our sidewalks remain impassable during the winter months, that there is broad support for municipal snow clearing, but that a volunteer-driven service is not a sustainable model for municipal snow removal. "It's a heavy lift," Brush says. The volunteers work hundreds of hours, and it's not something that could scale up to cover the whole city.

The Burlington system, where the city owns the equipment and pays the staff, could also be difficult to replicate here - our parks department has said it does not have sufficient year-round work for such a large team of employees - and maintenance of equipment. It is possible that the city would contract walkway treatment out to private companies.

The city of Grand Rapids did just that in 2019, with a small pilot project to contract out snow removal for 100 miles of selected sidewalk routes in the city, when 2 or more inches of snow falls. The City of Holland, Michigan heats its sidewalks with miles of underground pipes carrying waste-heat cooling water from the local powerplant - a dream energy-efficient solution, but impractical in our city.

$50 a year, for completely clear sidewalks, citywide

Snow turning to ice, as children walk to school.
Near Clague Middle School, uncleared sidewalks abound.

The city has estimated a Burlington-type program to cost $2.7 million to launch, with an as-yet-unknown amount of money for yearly costs. The SnowBuddy team has their own set of estimates set to be released in early Spring, but in the meantime our crackerjack team of Damn Arbor mathematicians came up with a conservative estimate for yearly cost, at  less than $2M dollars annually. This number is based on the cost of walkway snow and ice management in Burlington, adjusting for miles of sidewalk, but not for snowfall, even though Burlington has much more snowfall than A2. 

Because the city of Ann Arbor does not have an extra $2M of headspace in its yearly budget for such a program, funding options must be considered. Funding could come from a public-private partnership seeking grants (if any are available), setting up special assessment districts, or a new millage with dedicated funds be put before the voters. 

If we choose a millage, the exact amount required could be determined by further study, but a Headlee override of 0.4 mills would more than cover the startup cost and yearly estimates above. Such a millage would cost the average Ann Arbor homeowner just $48 a year.

Next steps

With the recent declaration of a climate emergency, the time is now to push forward on this. SnowBuddy has already proven the transformative power of having walkable paths all winter long, serving as a pilot project for our city. It is an election year for city council, with every ward in the city holding competitive elections. We have reached out to candidates and current City Council members, and will be posting their takes soon.

We have a simple choice to make. We can accept our current situation, where miles of sidewalks remain unsafe for weeks each winter, or we can spend a reasonable amount of money each year to ensure safe sidewalks citywide year round, and make Ann Arbor walkable for everyone.