Erica Briggs

Erica Briggs
Coordinator, getDowntown; Ann Arbor, Michigan

Tottered on: 20 April 2006
Temperature: 71 F
Ceiling: mostly sunny
Ground: spring grass
Wind: ESE at 10 mph

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TT with HD: Erica Briggs

[Ed. note: detailed background on the Curb your Car Month Program mentioned in the conversation below can be found here.]

HD: Is this going to work for you?

EB: Yeah, that works!

HD: So does this April weather worry you at all, in that we're using up all the really nice weather in April? It needs to be nice in May for the Curb your Car Month to be a success, right?

EB: No, it'll just be perfect all through May, too! Although I haven't planned quite as many outdoor events. I think I was incredibly lucky last year. I had all of these outdoor events last year. I felt like I was getting married every other weekend. As long as it's kind of nice on May 1st, I think I'll be really happy after that.

HD: So for the kick-off.

EB: Exactly.

HD: Also having the whole month as Curb your Car Month, a month-long event, it puts less focus on the one week that needs to be, it used the Bike-to-Work Week in the past, right?

EB: Well, I don't know if it puts less focus on it exactly ...

HD: ... less pressure it for the weather to be nice, if you have one shitty week, then ...

EB: ... yeah, that's true. But I think it's easier when you're on your bike to just put on some outerwear and not have to worry about it in terms of biking outside. What I heard from people who did the Bike-to-Work Week in the past was that they liked that, but not everybody bikes, so why are you dismissing all this other stuff that you're supposed to be promoting with the getDowntown Program? Like riding the bus, and walking, and sharing a ride.

HD: Do you think of it more as an opportunity to reward and celebrate the people who already are doing the non-car transportation, or is the focus more on winning new converts? How would you assess the balance between those two?

EB: It's both. What I want to do is not only celebrate but engage the people who are using a sustainable mode of transportation. And then also get them to use their influence on their friends, their colleagues. Because when I look at myself, in terms of changes that have happened in my life, it's because I've had a friend, or I've had a colleague or somebody I've talked to about something, and then realized, Oh that's not as hard as I thought! Or people have challenged me and said, Well, why aren't you doing this? And I didn't really have a good answer.

HD: You walked here today. I don't know if you walked from work or from your home. In either case, it would have been a very short walk.

EB: Yes, I only live about two blocks away from here.

HD: Do you even own a car?

EB: I do. I actually share a car with my mom, who lives right next door to me. She walks to work downtown. Neither of us need to drive to work, so we pretty much just use the car for errands and stuff like that.

HD: So do you worry about using the car, that people will see you and say, Ah Hah, Gotcha!

EB: I do feel bad when I drive downtown. I kind of crouch down ...

HD: ... so how often do you actually do that?!

EB: It's not very often, because I do feel a little guilty. No, I think that since I've had the job, for the past couple of years, I find myself driving less and less. I'm starting to realize it's easy for me to bike up to the CVS up on Liberty and Stadium, whereas that's not a place I would have thought of. It's not very far away, I just for some reason never thought to bike that direction.

HD: It's actually much nicer that it used to be ...

EB: ... with the bike lanes ...

HD: ... I don't know if you were in town back before they renovated Liberty Street, but it used to be almost like a country road once you got past, I think it's the Lutheran Church there on the left as you head out of town. Now it's just a beautiful piece of pavement.

EB: Yeah. So I find myself biking and riding the bus more. But I think it's just a good lesson to balance: you don't have to always bike; you don't have to always drive. There's just all these different modes that we could be using. We get just fascinated with one particular one sometimes. We take the car and forget about all the other ones that are out there.

HD: Right. I forget the exact words you just used, but it was something along the lines of, 'It's easy for me to ride my bike ...' And I know a lot of people would look at you and say: Well, yeah, you know, Erica, it is easy for you, because you're young and you're athletic and it's easy for you to bike or walk or whatever; but those of us who are 50-plus, who may not be in the best physical shapes of our lives, who may not necessarily even be interested in becoming 'fit', you know, I just want to drive my car, that's all, leave me alone!

EB: That's right. For one, I don't consider myself to be particularly athletic. I am outdoorsy, I like hiking and camping and that kind of stuff. Part of why I moved to this whole month of Curb your Car Month: it's not just biking. If for some reason, you don't want to bike, there's a whole lot of other options. There's walking, there's riding the bus. There's bus stops within a quarter-mile of 90% of households in Ann Arbor. You can carpool, all these different modes ...

HD: ...what was that exact stat again?

EB: I think there are bus stops within a quarter mile of 90% of the homes in Ann Arbor.

HD: So theoretically, you should not have to walk further than a quarter mile, which is what, 5 minutes?

EB: For most of us. So there's that. There's lots of reason why we do need to start thinking about it. I mean 50-plus is not particularly old these days. If you start feeling old at 50?! I think you have to ...

HD: I'm not there yet, and I'm already feeling old.

EB: You can't feel old yet! When I moved to Ann Arbor when I was 5 years old, I lived with a woman who was in her seventies. And she was out on her roof cleaning her eves and stuff. She's now moved down to South Carolina to be closer to her family at like 91, so perhaps our perceptions of what is old is getting a lot older. Active transportation, 'active transportation' being something like biking or walking or roller-blading, is something people have to think about. I think it's 22% of all motor vehicle trips are under 1 mile in distance. That's within easy walking distance, or biking distance.

HD: But not when it's cold outside!

EB: It's not bad!

HD: Well, you mentioned earlier that you would feel ... what was the word you used, it wasn't 'shame' but it was something to the effect of embarrassed, or you would feel bad, 'guilty', there's the word ... if you were to drive downtown. I think guilt is a powerful and motivating force, but I fear that sometimes people's guilt or shame about driving downtown might not cause them to ride the bus downtown, or walk downtown, or bicycle downtown, they just simply ...

EB: ... don't go downtown, yeah ...

HD: ... right, at all, which is not the effect you want to achieve.

EB: Right, no. No, guilt is what motivates me. But you know I don't think that's generally what people are facing. ... ... I think I've become influenced by this position, since I've started looking at the public health impacts, and the environmental impacts and the cost impacts. It's 22 million dollars to build a parking structure downtown. My job with the getDowntown Program is to work with downtown employees and businesses and commuters to think about using some of their other options when they're coming downtown. And leaving that parking space open for residents, and people who are coming downtown to shop, for example. Because we can't have ample parking for everybody. It's just not possible.

HD: It's kind of the same principle, if you've ever worked in a grocery store or in a huge retail store where's there's a gigantic parking lot, there's always something in the employee manual that prescribes that if you drive to work, you must take the parking spots that are furthest away. It's essentially the same principle: that the best parking should be available to the people who are coming in to downtown generating revenue through retail sales. So that means if you work downtown, even though you are important, you're supposed to take the least convenient parking spaces.

EB: And there's a lot of good reasons to. If you're parking in a parking space downtown, if you buy a parking permit, it's $105 per month. Or you could stop at a Park and Ride lot, one of which is Pioneer High School, and there's bus service coming in every 15 minutes and you can park for free.

HD: You know, I didn't realize that Park and Ride was, in fact, just generally accessible to the ordinary public.

EB: Yeah!

HD: For some reason, I'm not sure why, I was under the false impression that it was somehow a DDA-specific thing or else a U-of-M-specific program.

EB: No, it's just generally open! Anybody can use it.

HD: You just have to pay for the bus ride, right?

EB: Yeah, but if you're a downtown employee, we have something called the goPass, and that's discounted bus passes for downtown employees. Businesses sign up for it, rather than individuals. So they sign up for all their full-time employees. It's $5 for the entire year for each employee.

HD: I understand the rationale behind requiring businesses to purchase goPasses for all their full-time empolyees. I mean, $5 an employee sounds really cheap. But if you're a large employer, where there's not a lot of usage, it starts to look less attractive. So I was wondering if there's any thought of relaxing that standard at all?

EB: No. There's not. It's based off of the same principle as insurance: that people who are not using it are helping to pay for people who are. But even for a large employer, if you're paying for parking for employees, then that is a little over $1200 a year for a space. So you get a couple of people using their bus passes and it more than pays for itself. It's just a difficult concept to for people to wrap their minds around: I know that I'm not going to use this, and yet I'm buying it for the entire organization. We're trying to encourage shifts in behavior, we're trying to keep it affordable. And we've now made it so that you can use it as a discount card at a number of different downtown businesses.

HD: How does that work exactly?

EB: You just show your goPass and you can get, say, a discounted massage at the RelaxStation on Tuesdays ...

HD: ... oh really?! ...

EB: ... or something. So, another reason to have a goPass, even if you're not going to ride the bus ever!

HD: I was thinking that one of the larger employers downtown is the newspaper. And they have an employee pool that's not particularly suited to this program, because you have a reporter or a photographer, they need to have easy, ready access to a vehicle through their work day. They need to know that there's going to be an automobile available for them. So if you're the newspaper, you say, We need a system designed to accommodate peak demand. Well, what's peak demand? One car per staff person, really. So the best system seems to be: everybody drives their car to work. I don't know. I've done a bit of thinking about that kind of situation. Not just reporters and photographers, but people who have some need, on an unpredictable basis, to leave their place of employment downtown during the day. Say you're a sales agent, and a client says, Yeah, I can meet you out by Briarwood in a half an hour. Do you really want to say to that potential customer, Hmm, you know, that doesn't really work with the bus schedule, I've got to catch the whatever-number bus and then transfer? I guess you don't need to transfer to get to Briarwood, but you understand my point. So this category of person, who's got unpredictable offsite needs, what do you say to a person like that?

EB: The bus isn't going to work for everybody! I mean, it's not designed to work for everybody's needs. I think that chances are that it can work for you sometimes. Maybe it just can't. You're a salesperson and you're getting in and out of your car and it's just not going to work for you. And that's fine. We're not saying everybody needs to ride the bus.

HD: So you're not taking a moral stance?

EB: No! Nothing like that! It's just one of the many options and our thought is if you're a business the goPass could work for some of your employees. For $5, for the entire year, it can offer a really great benefit. And it's going to work for some people and it's not going to work for other people. Someplace like the Ann Arbor News, where maybe they just have a few employees that are interested, they could just, instead of buying the parking space for that person, or subsidizing a parking space, why not just subsidize a bus pass? They don't do that though, most places. The City of Ann Arbor, I've talked to folks who work there, who sometimes feel frustrated that their colleagues get subsidized for their parking, but their bike locker isn't paid for. And that's not really equitable treatment of transportation options. We kind of get behind the car idea without thinking of the other options.

HD: So I heard, I'm not sure where I heard this, that the DDA or else the getDowntown Program was going to launch some kind of a bicycle rickshaw program?

EB: [laugh] I don't think so.

HD: No?

EB: Although my former program assistant, Scott, who's moved off to Thailand, it may have been a rumor that circulated from him at some point. Because he was working really hard to get me to buy a rickshaw. But I haven't heard of any news, or any push towards rickshaws.

HD: I nosed around a bit on the internet and you can get a very cool looking, front-loading rickshaw from the Bikes at Work people ...

EB: ... I know! Don't those look neat!

HD: I want one, actually.

EB: I have a trailer from them.

HD: Do you really!

EB: Yeah, for the Program. It's good for me because I can put plastic tubs in it. I find myself going from event to event and table-ing so that's nice to have.

HD: I assume their main innovation there is with the attachment mechanism to the bicycle? That they've figured out how to make something that's sturdy and still has the universal pivot?

EB: Actually, I don't like their attachment as well as something like Burley, because it's not as easy to ...

HD: ... hitch and un-hitch ...

EB: ... yeah ...

HD: ... I think they sacrificed ease of operation for something that really is going to be great and bombproof, if what you're doing for a living is hauling cargo by bicycle.

EB: But it is really great in terms of being able to carry stuff. I think you probably saw the one where the woman is carrying the ...

HD: ... the refrigerator ...

EB: ... the refrigerator, yeah. Then there's one for your sailboat.

HD: So have you done any research at all into what it would take to operate a pedicab business? I would assume that the City would want to license that?

EB: I haven't done any research on that. I don't know what that would entail. Probably whatever goes into regular Yellow Cab or something like that. The places where I've seen that are places that are a little bit more dense, so I don't know if we'd be quite there yet. But we might be.

HD: Well, if you ever decide that you want to have a getDowntown bicycle rickshaw, I will volunteer to pedal the thing.

EB: Really?

HD: Absolutely. I'm not even kidding when I say that.

EB: I was looking at them again the other day for some reason. I think it's going to be a while. I may take you up on that.

HD: Okay, there's all these events planned for the Curb your Car Month in May, and some of them overlap. So I know you can't personally attend all of them. For example, there's the Border-to-Border ride at the same time ...

EB: ... actually, I'm going to try to do both of those.

HD: Well, that's heroic! [laugh]

EB: That'll be a lot of biking for me. That will be like 30 miles, which for me is a lot.

HD: So it's the Border-to-Border, Ann Arbor to Ypsilanti, and what's the other ride?

EB: Michigan Mountain Biking, MMBA, is going to host a loop or a tour of the official and un-official mountain bike trails in Ann Arbor. That's on May 20th, I think. I wanted to make it possible that if people were interested in doing both, they might be able to squeeze in part of the mountain bike thing, and still make it to Ypsi.

HD: If you had to pick one of all these events, just one to recommend, what one would you pick to highlight?

EB: It's hard to think of just one. The old stand by is Bike-to-Work Day. I think that's something I always want to see be successful. I want people to come down for it, I want bicyclists to come out in numbers. It's just a good day to raise awareness about the fact that you can not only be a recreational bicyclist, but you can also think about using your bicycle as transportation: whether it's riding your bike to work or using it for doing errands or something like that. But I am excited about the Ypsi bike ride, too. Because, for me, that is an indication that Curb your Car Month is sort of spreading out to some of the surrounding communities. This year Ypsi is going to have a few biking and walking events that week.

HD: Are you coordinating with somebody over in Ypsi, or are you running that as well?

EB: No, I'm not. It's a fellow named Vic Randall, who's been the Recreation Coordinator for the City of Ypsi. He was kind of pushing to have it happen there. And the Washtenaw County Health Coalition, I think, has also been organizing the walks and the bike ride as well.

HD: I would have picked May 8th, the drawing for the free stuff from the AATA.

EB: Yeah, that's true! The AATA has gotten really into it this year and they're doing all these give-aways ...

HD: ... yeah, they're giving away a free bike!

EB: They are giving away a free bike.

HD: So where's the bike coming from?

EB: Great Lakes Cycling and Fitness.

HD: And I guess it's a deal where you get a gift-certificate for a bike and you go there and they help you pick one out that fits you, and there's some price range?

EB: I think the idea is that they're going to work with Great Lakes Cycling to figure out what bike might work, but then recognize that the person's going to have to go in and get fitted. So they're giving away a free bike, gift certificates, free bus rides for a year, bus tokens ...

HD: ... so the free bus rides for a year, is that in the form of just a pass that you can, if you wanted to, you could go and ride the bus all day long every day of the year?

EB: Yeah probably.

HD: Not that you'd necessarily want to do that.

EB: I don't know if they have a yearly bus pass. I thought that what they have is a monthly bus pass

HD: Maybe they just give you 12 of those, or something like that.

EB: Maybe. So they're getting into it a lot this year and they're helping me a lot to promote. They're hosting their own events during Try Transit Week, to raise awareness about all the things that AATA offers. They don't just do bus service. They do ride-share matching, which is trying to get people hooked up for being able to car pool and things like that. They provide a lot of services to employers. If employers want, AATA can come in and do a survey of their work force, and look at where people are coming from, and look at what are the transportation options that would work for their employees. And they have all their specialized services for a lot of different age groups.

HD: So for some of the prizes, it's clear that you wouldn't have any interest in signing up, unless you rode the busses on some kind of regular basis. But the free bike and the Ann Arbor Gold certificates up to $200, that's a pretty sweet deal for somebody that doesn't even ride the bus. I was surprised that they didn't actually make it a requirement, that the boxes for entering the drawing were not on the buses themselves ...

EB: ... actually, I think you are not legally able to exclude anybody, you have to make it open to the public ...

HD: ... oh, so like no-purchase-necessary-to-enter kind of deal?

EB: Exactly.

HD: But there's a principle involved here, don't you think!

EB: I think so! To win my prizes for the Commuter Challenge, you have to participate in the Commuter Challenge! I don't know I'll have to look into that to make sure I'm not excluding people.

HD: So what are you giving away for prizes?

EB: The Grand Prize is a car-free weekend for two in Chicago. Amtrak tickets, hotel accommodations, and bike rentals from Millennium Station in Chicago. That's the Grand Prize, which everybody who's a participant in a winning organization is put into a pool and then we do drawings for it. And a lot of different gift certificates, like to Performance Network, or bike shops, or stuff like that.

HD: Who won last year?

EB: We had a bunch of winning organizations, we had ...

HD: ... wait up, this is not one of these deals where, Everybody's-a-winner, is it?

EB: Not everybody, but everybody who gets a hundred percent is a winner! In the 1 to 9 category it's hard not to be a winner, because I only ask that you do it once throughout the entire month to count as a participant. So for a 1-person business, if they sign up, I think they're pretty sure they can get that. So in the 1 to 9 category we had a bunch of winners. The larger employers last year were organizations like the County, Pfizer, EPA. There was a University Center for Child and Family with the University of Michigan, and they had one hundred percent participation. And they have 44 employees! Which is pretty great.

HD: Yeah! I don't know if this means anything or not, but U of M is not highlighted at all in the whole Curb your Car Month. If you look through any large city-wide program you might expect to find some University of Michigan participation in a overt way. And I thought, Gosh, that component seems to be missing! Maybe I missed it, but is there a reason for that? Are they not on board, or do they just sort of do their own thing?

EB: Well, they have people who sign up for the Commuter Challenge and it's departments or schools, enthusiastic people who get on board that way. They haven't really, as an institution, gotten on board with hosting events.

HD: Do they need a kick in the pants?

EB: Uh huh, they do! No, I think they certainly understand. They do a good job internally of promoting transportation options, because they understand, just like the City, that it's really expensive to build and buy parking. They just hired an alternative transportation coordinator a couple of years ago, or maybe just a little over a year ago. And they've long been doing van pooling. They have the M-card now for employees to be able to ride for free on the busses. So I think they're behind the idea of offering the services. They just haven't gotten behind the idea of maybe doing events and that kind of promoting.

HD: Or just taking part in the community of which they are a part. I don't know, maybe it's unfair to sit here on a teeter totter and criticize the entire University on this count. But it seems to me that there's a lot of examples where the University says, We will just proceed in thus-and-such a manner. And it's a large enough community that they don't notice that, Oh, there's an even larger community just outside the campus, called 'Ann Arbor', that might well amplify some of the efforts that they're making.

EB: One of the exciting things that U of M is doing that will benefit the community at large is that car sharing is coming to U of M. They just sent out the RFP. I got a call a guy from Zipcar today, saying that they had just received the RFP, and that hopefully Zipcar gets it because they've been pushing really really hard. They did all the ground work to come in and they're hoping that Flexcar doesn't manage to squeeze in and offer a lower bid.

HD: Holy crap! But when Gaia Kile was here, he said he'd heard that the whole deal had foundered on the insurance question.

EB: I think there are a lot of those details, but they must have worked through them. I think that the big thing is how you deal with the 18 to 21 age group. I think right now that they'll be excluded, which is probably for the best! At least for a little while.

HD: Well so at least, graduate students, the majority of them anyway, ...

EB: ... graduate students, staff ...

HD: So this going to be for the exclusive use of the University community?

EB: No, that's what's so great about it! Initially when they were talking about it, I thought it was just going to be open to U of M. But no, anybody's going to be able to sign up for a membership with Zipcar. And all the cars will be stationed around University areas, but ...

HD: ... but that basically equates almost to downtown. So I take back everything negative I said about the university not behaving like they're a part of the community. I maybe should just delete that part. Okay, I know you're feeling under the weather today, and you've been a real good sport to even come over today, so I don't want to exhaust you any more than you already are.

EB: No, that's fine, my ibuprofen has kicked in!