Go Blue. Go Green. Go Amtrak. Getting To Ann Arbor Without A Car
I should begin this dispatch with a confession: If I wasn’t sans automobile, I probably wouldn’t have trekked to Ann Arbor for the Michigan-Michigan State game. I went to Wayne State (Go Tartars!) and I haven’t been inside Michigan Stadium since 1989. Rocket Ismail ran back two kicks for touchdowns and it rained. A lot.
But since I’m carless this week and looking for ways to test the local transit system, riding Amtrak to Ann Arbor on this fine fall Saturday seemed like a good idea.
Generally, when we talk about transit in southeast Michigan, we talk about how the systems are lousy and inefficient. Amtrak from metro Detroit to Ann Arbor, however, is a nice ride.
The train left Royal Oak at 10:59 and was scheduled to arrive in Ann Arbor at 12:17. I stepped off the platform at 12:21, so they were basically on schedule. Track slowdowns in the western part of the state can make play havoc with Amtrak’s schedule—the ride home left Ann Arbor 20 minutes late—but from Royal Oak to Ann Arbor there was no problem.
I live about a mile from the Royal Oak Amtrak platform, so I walked into town to meet the train. In fact, I left home early and stopped at the post office and Bruegger’s before arriving at the platform. It’s still early, but this living without a car shtick started off right.
I wasn’t the only headed to the game on the train. Nick Metzler lives in St. Clair Shores and along with two friends took the train to Ann Arbor for Saturday’s game.
“It was kind of spur of the moment," said Metzler. "We can party on the way up and don't have to worry about driving. It's a little more expensive, but it's more convenient."
Metzler and his friends may have made it into Michigan Stadium, but I didn't.
Ticket prices were too steep for my blood and, after enjoying the pregame festivities around Michigan Stadium, I grabbed lunch in town at Blue Tractor and watched it on TV. At halftime, I took the bus out to the Wolverine State Brewing Company—1.8 miles from downtown—for the second half.
Ann Arbor has a fantastic transit center on Fourth and Liberty. Even though I’m unfamiliar with Washtenaw County’s “The Ride” bus system, it was easy to find the right bus. One hitch, though, bus service out in this pastoral three square miles surrounded by reality shuts down early on the weekends. I was basically stranded in a strip mall-ish part of town without a (ahem) Ride.
So I hoofed it back downtown—the wait for a cab was at least an hour—and killed some time at a coffee shop before procuring dinner and catching the 11:20 train home. The late train was the only train available after the game.
For the ride home, I upgraded to business class. Because I’m all business. Or something. Amtrak’s business class is nice, with leather seats spaced through the car so you’re not really sitting next to anyone, plenty of legroom, and complimentary soft drinks. Was it worth the $14 upgrade charge for this short trip? No, not at all. Amtrak coach is comfortable enough. That said, I could see the value of business class on a longer trip if you wanted room to spread out and work or sleep in a quieter car. For my purposes, though, the upgrade was more about curiosity than utility.
Better Than A Car?
Much of that answer is relative. From a cost standpoint, if you’re heading to Michigan Stadium alone or with one other person, Amtrak makes a lot of sense. A round-trip ticket costs $30/person. Parking around the stadium was running between $40-$50. Assuming 25 miles/gallon and $3.50/gallon, gas for the round trip would’ve cost me a little under $12.
So, two people going to the game by train costs $60. It would cost that same couple $62 to drive and park at Ann Arbor Pioneer High School. I suppose there are cheaper parking options further away from the stadium, so arguably driving could be less expensive.
Still, the train offers other advantages. Game day traffic is hellacious. Even factoring in my 15-minute walk to the Royal Oak station and 25-minute walk to Michigan Stadium, I’d wager to guess Amtrak might be the quicker travel option door-to-door.
It’s certainly the less stressful choice. I might have gone full-on Michael Douglas in Falling Down trying to endure Michigan Stadium traffic. Seriously, traffic jams before and after the game were like a goddamned REM video. Instead of living out traffic hell scenarios from early 1990s entertainment, I sat on the train and watched an episode of The Wire on my iPad.
What’s more, if the planned Detroit-Ann Arbor commuter rail line ever comes to fruition, the train to a Michigan game could be even more cost-effective. Compared to fares for the long-haul Amtrak, commuter rail is generally less expensive. The most expensive ride on the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority commuter rail, for example, costs $11 and MBTA lines run with greater frequency.
It could be argued that taking the train eliminates the one activity that makes these games such a draw—tailgating. Sure, train riders can’t do the kind of tailgating that involves an RV, massive grill, corn hole sets and plasma televisions connected to satellite dishes.
On the other hand, there are plenty of vendors grilling outside Michigan Stadium several liquors stores between the station and stadium. Pick up a 12-pack and a couple brats, wander into a parking lot, and you’re good to go. And plus you could drink your liver into a pickled state and avoid the DUI risk by sleeping it off on the train ride home. From the looks of it, about a dozen or so weary fans in both green and white and maize and blue were doing exactly that on my ride home.
Ultimately though, the size of your group, your patience with traffic, and the availability of a designated drive all factor into the car v. train decision. The train could be a cost effective choice, and it could make sense for the sake of convenience, or you just might be better off driving.
Still, the very idea that public transit could be a viable option to get to Michigan game is a welcome aberration from the usual metro Detroit transit quagmire.