UniverCities Blogger Unmasked; Green Regionalism Makes His Commute Possible

The very first post to this blog made a cryptic reference to one Joel Batterman, “UniverCities Connection Communications Fellow.” After that, he disappeared from this blog’s pages, never to be seen again…until now.

En route to work. Item attached to glasses is rear-view mirror.

You see, I’m Joel. As communications fellow, I’ve been the voice of the UniverCities blog for more than two months now. I also study transportation at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, so I hope you’ll allow me to describe my commute from home to office this summer.

Sounds thrilling, right? In fact, getting to and from work is often a joy for me. It also illustrates one of the biggest themes of this blog: going green through regional cooperation.

I commute mostly by bicycle, and occasionally by bus. The distance from my home in Ann Arbor to the western branch office of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance in Ypsilanti is just over nine miles on the Huron River Greenway Border-to-Border Trail. For me, that works out to about forty-five minutes each way.

Border-to-Border Trail in Ann Arbor's Gallup Park, along Huron River.

This is twice as long as it would take me to drive, but going by bike offers me lots of advantages, beyond the simple satisfaction of knowing I’m not contributing to climate change. I invariably arrive at work feeling more energized. I get in all the exercise I need. And of course, I don’t spend a penny on gas or parking. As metro Detroit cities are finding with their energy efficiency initiatives, sustainability and economy can go hand in hand.

There are some benefits, of course, that are harder to quantify. Traveling slower allows me to better experience the places I pass through. I’m more attentive to the changes in the air after the rain, the pace of the Huron River I travel beside, and the activity of the people fishing in Gallup Park. Few sights brighten my day more than Amtrak’s Chicago-Detroit Wolverine rushing by me, or the living poetry of a blue heron winging above the water.

Amtrak's Wolverine crosses the Huron en route to Detroit.

It took regional thinking to make this trail happen. Despite its name, the Border-to-Border trail actually crosses a lot of borders. The section I travel cuts across four different jurisdictions: the Cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, plus Ann Arbor Township and Superior Township. Not all of it is on public land, either. Portions run through the property of the University of Michigan, Washtenaw Community College, and Eastern Michigan University, as well as St. Joseph Mercy Hospital. Some, like the trail through Ann Arbor’s Gallup Park, existed decades before the vision of a cross-county connection. Bringing all the relevant entities together to link older segments and carve out new paths required years of legwork by the Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission.

The task didn’t faze people like the Commission’s Bob Tetens, who knew the trail would add up to something greater than the sum of its parts. It can be hard to advocate for regional connections in places where they’ve long been absent. Yet as Tetens likes to say, according to Concentrate magazine, “you don’t build a bridge for the amount of people who swim across the river. You build a bridge for the amount of people who will use it.” And people do use the Border-to-Border Trail: to get to work, recreate and enjoy some time away from the rush of motorized civilization.

Pedaling towards Ypsilanti.

To draw a larger regional analogy, greater Detroit is a region that could use a lot more bridges, bridges that traverse both physical distance and social divides. Too often, we give up and accept these gaps as inevitable, but they aren’t our destiny. We can overcome them, as the County did. Cementing bonds among people is often more challenging than laying down a strip of asphalt. But join together we must, if we’re to pull our region out of the dead end of disunity and set ourselves on the path towards a future that works.

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