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Moving Ahead

Despite sky-rocketing gas prices and mounting traffic congestion, people are not standing idle in Grand Rapids. Instead, people like Anne Vanhuisen are giving up their cars for walking, biking, busing, and other ways of getting around the city. Last September, Vanhuisen and her husband owned two automobiles. Today, the couple is down to one and counting.

“I wanted to lead a more sustainable, sensitive life and make choices that are easier on the environment and that promote a healthy, urban lifestyle,” said Vanhuisen, a 22-year-old Calvin College grad who works for Second Story Properties, a downtown redevelopment firm.

Vanhuisen is part of a growing movement of young professionals, students, and retirees who are looking for – and finding – less expensive and more convenient transportation options in Grand Rapids. Since selling her car, she has grown accustomed to walking and riding The Rapid, the metro area's public transit service. Vanhuisen now counts three different ways to get from her Heritage Hill condo to her downtown office a 12-minute walk, an approximately 9-minute bike ride, and a 2-minute bus trip that costs just $1.30. She also walks to the boutique shops, restaurants, and other local businesses in and around her neighborhood.

The Vanhuisens still own one car because, unlike major metropolitan areas such as Chicago and New York City, development in Grand Rapids tends to organize more around the automobile, which increases the distances between destinations, rather than organizing around pedestrians and public transit, which encourages schools, businesses, restaurants to locate more closely to one another.

“We build based on car transportation instead of walking transportation, which is wrong because it results in unnecessary land use, like big parking lots,” Vanhuisen said.

But local development patterns are changing. Mass transit service is improving. And giving up the car was easier than she expected, Vanhuisen said, especially after assessing the financial benefits. “One less vehicle means one less vehicle to put gas in, one less vehicle to pay car insurance for, and one less vehicle to pay a car note on,” she said.

In fact, owning one less vehicle enabled the Vanhuisens to book a holiday in Guatemala. Now she hopes to never own a car again in her life. “The (bus) system is more efficient than what people think,” Vanhuisen said. “There has been an increase in people under 30 who are looking to get away from SUVs and suburbs.”

GR Gets a New Start
Surveys conducted by The Rapid confirm the growing popularity of public transit. The agency counted approximately 35,000 annual riders in 2000. But the latest reports show that, as of March, ridership is up nearly 18 percent from last year. If the trend continues, annual ridership will exceed a record 7.6 million, up from 6.4 million in 2006. What's more, a clear majority of riders, a full 62 percent, depend on the mass transit system as their main transportation to and from work.

The Rapid allows people of all economic levels, ages, and physical abilities the opportunity to move safely and cost-effectively around the metro area,” said Jennifer Kalczuk, external relations manager at the transit provider. “A significant portion of our riders are those that can't afford or can't drive a car. But the system does attract choice riders.”

Kalczuk said a partnership with Grand Valley State University is one of the major drivers of the system's growing popularity – the escalating price of gas is another.

“I think the longer gas prices stay high, the more you will see people leaving their cars at home,” Kalczuk said. "But we have also put in system improvements that are increasing the appeal of using public transportation, things like more frequent service and putting schedule information at individual bus stops.”

Mass transit service is expected to expand significantly in greater Grand Rapids during the next decade. The Rapid's Great Transit, Grand Tomorrow task force soon will identify the specific route and projected costs for a modern streetcar or high-speed bus system serving the central city. Two corridors currently are under consideration – south from the heart of downtown toward 44th street and southeast from downtown to the airport.

The entire process, governed and funded through the federal New Starts program, could take seven to 15 years to complete. And the lack of state funding for mass transit is a serious impediment, even as local residents raise their property taxes to pay for expanded service.

An Economical Option
But, Kalczuk said, heightened transit planning comes amidst emerging consensus in Grand Rapids around the idea that the metropolitan area’s ability to modernize the economy, generate jobs, conserve energy, and stem traffic congestion and sprawl depends to a growing extent on the availability of transportation choices beyond the automobile.

“One thing that stands out is the significant improvement in public perception of the agency, the work we do, and our importance to the community we serve,” she said. “Individuals, organizations, the business community, and elected officials at all levels have been more supportive of public transit – and more vocal about that support – than ever before.”

Jason Erb, a 21-year-old senior at Grand Valley State University, views The Rapid as a cost-effective and earth-friendly way to travel. Erb has owned a car since the age of 16. But riding The Rapid is free for students with a GVSU ID. So Erb takes Route 50 from Allendale to classes on the university's downtown campus a few times a week. Like a growing number of GVSU students, he also uses the system to visit friends and run errands.

"The only complaint I have pertains to the route's limited weekend summer schedule," Erb said. "Other than that, the system really comes in handy – car or no car."

“The bus is economical,” he added.

All Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved

Photos top to bottom:

The bus terminal canopy was designed by Progressive AE

Anne VanHuisen at her downtown bus stop

Bus stations underneath the terminal canopy

Anne VanHuisen walks less than a block from her bus stop to her office

Nearly every passing bus has bikes loaded on the front rack

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