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A World of Ideas for Grand Rapids Transit


To promote conversation about mass transit in metro Grand Rapids, The Rapid has sponsored a series of articles and videos that will be published in Rapid Growth during the year. The articles were not written or edited by The Rapid's staff.

Two weeks ago, members of the Mobile Metro 2030 Task Force gathered at The Rapid's offices to brainstorm what Grand Rapids regional transit should look like 20 years from now. A variety of backgrounds are represented on the task force, ranging from business and development to the government and non-profit sectors. Participants came to the table equipped with reports of best practices from other cities, as well as their own experiences on transit systems elsewhere in the U.S. and around the world.

The task force is looking at all sort of options for West Michigan, from expanded and enhanced bus service to light rail to modern streetcars. Even the Zipcar so popular in other major cities is being discussed as a public transportation enhancement. The task force is looking at in-town circulation, neighborhood service, commuter services, and services geared to seniors and people with disabilities.

Among innovative cities The Rapid has looked at are Austin, Texas; Portland, Ore.; Tucson, Ariz.; Freiburg, Germany; Bilbao, Spain; and Bogota, Columbia. Each is being examined because of its reputation for progressive transit policy and effective system. While the MM2030 Task Force examines "best practices" cities, locals compare The Rapid to other transit systems they've used in travels.

Lyndsie Post, for instance, looks to her experiences using the systems in Chicago, New York and Paris, where she has family. "My favorite system is in Paris," she says. "It's incredibly simple to use, clean, and provides easy access when you need to switch trains."

In the U.S., she favors Chicago's "L" transit system, although it took her some time to figure out its color-coded navigation. She really doesn't like using New York's subways, saying they're "a bit scary, and very smelly. I tend to rely more on my own two feet and taxi cabs if I'm in the Big Apple."

"I wish Grand Rapids had a rail system that allowed people to travel from Grand Rapids to the lakeshore," says Post, an account manager at Holland-based The Image Group. She also wishes transit in West Michigan did a better job of connecting the suburbs to each other, rather than primarily revolving around the downtown hub. Post doesn't currently use local transit because it doesn't get her where she needs to go.

"I live in Jenison, work in Holland, and enjoy the nightlife of downtown Grand Rapids. It's much easier and more convenient for me to drive, park and walk than to take any transit system. If there were a transit system available at the times I need it, I would be more inclined to use it, especially from Jenison to downtown Grand Rapids and back," she says.

Jennifer Luth, a public relations associate at downtown GR-based Clark Communications, has used The Rapids extensively. "I've been impressed with the routes and times of the buses," she says. "It's convenient for a city the size of Grand Rapids. People just don't use it enough to know that it does work! The only problem is getting anywhere east of East Paris Avenue. I spend a lot of time in Ada and Cascade."

Luth has used systems in Chicago, New York City and Atlanta, as well as buses and trolleys in Quito, Ecuador, where she resided for a previous job. "Atlanta's MARTA system is clean and has little TVs to watch," she says, while Chicago's system is the "noisiest by far." Everything beats Quito's system, however, which was overcrowded to the point of discomfort with the constant threat of pickpockets.

Luth's wish list echoed that of some on the MM2030 Task Force. She envisions an elevated light rail system for West Michigan that takes commuters in and out of the city with service all the way to the lakeshore. "I would use it EVERY day," she says emphatically.

For GVSU student Christina Torri, New York's system is her favorite. "It seems to be the most efficient and convenient to use. There seems to be more stops and more routes." She doesn't think Chicago's system is nearly as convenient. "You still have to walk a long distance, and in the winter in Chicago, it's really cold!" She also liked Atlanta's MARTA, citing its efficiency and cleanliness.

A Detroit native, Torri says it would be difficult to overcome her love of driving in order to ride transit: "I pretty much always prefer to drive somewhere versus taking a public transportation system if parking is available." That said, she noted the bus would be very economical for her since she gets to travel GR's transit for free with her student I.D. "Mainly I do not use it because it does not stop near where I live. I looked, and the closest stop is about a mile away."

Tim Penning, an associate professor at Grand Valley State University, has used transit systems in Japan, France, and major North American cities like Boston, Miami, Milwaukee, New York, San Francisco, Toronto, and Washington. Sometimes he even uses The Rapid's service from the Allendale campus to downtown. Of the U.S. cities, "D.C. is the best," he says. "I lived there for a summer without a car and didn't miss it. It would be nice if we could get around Grand Rapids and West Michigan without driving and parking."

In Angers, France, Penning checked out an exhibit at their local museum with computer graphic images showing visitors what a planned transit system would look like. He says it was a great way to get the public behind their program because they could see what it would look like. He also noted that "while digging as part of the project, they uncovered sarcophagi – coffins – from the 6th Century. That probably wouldn't happen in Grand Rapids."

Penning says he'd use transit more if it existed where he was. A lakeshore resident, he'd love to see rail service connecting Holland, Muskegon and Grand Rapids, with local bus service originating from the train stations. "It's a big project," he concedes, "but the economy, the green movement, change in the auto industry and increasing public acceptance of mass transit could mean the time is right."

Andy Guy, director of metropolitan and environmental initiatives at Wondergem Consulting, has used a variety of public transit modes around the world, including the trains of Japan and Europe plus systems across the U.S., including San Francisco, San Jose, Memphis, Chicago, Buffalo, Cleveland, Washington, and Detroit.

For Guy, it really pretty simple. "It's good when they're clean and on-time. It's not good when they're dirty and slow." He also appreciates the savings one can achieve with transit systems, the convenience of going wherever and whenever you want, and reading or doing work while on a bus, train, or streetcar.

Guy now lives so close to where he works that walking and biking are his preferred transportation mode. But he knows how important transit is. "Expanding modern public transportation is essential to West Michigan's economic competitiveness, environmental health, and cultural wellbeing. As a city, state and region, we are way behind on these important infrastructure investments."

Every person with an opinion on mass transit bases it on their experiences, locally and elsewhere. Those opinions also are shaped by where they live, where they need to go, how they feel about the environment, their financial situation, and more. Whatever people's opinions are about mass transit, The Rapid's long-range planners want to know! They've created a survey at http://rapidtmp.org/ that allows the public to express what their top priorities are.

What have your experiences been? What are your top priorities for mass transit in Grand Rapids? Share your opinions at http://rapidtmp.org/ so long-range planners know what this community wants and will support!

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