Defining Division: Transforming the future of transportation is equitable mobility

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For our third feature in the Defining Division series, we are highlighting the modes of transportation and mobility used by those who live, work and play along the South Division corridor. The physical boundaries we have defined for this series are from Wealthy Street to 28th Street, from Cass Avenue to the east, and from Buchanan Avenue to the west. These are the boundaries the Planning Department of the City of Grand Rapids has allocated for the South Division Development Area Specific Plan.

Residents along the South Division corridor and surrounding neighborhoods explore the future of transportation and mobility they would like to see available for themselves and their communities.

By bike, car, bus, uber, taxi, on foot, or by wheelchair—these are the ways residents along the South Division corridor are coming and going from home, school, and work. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, residents of West Michigan are spending about 10 percent of their income on transportation and mobility. This means that for every $10 a resident earns, close to $1 goes to transporting them to work and back home.

For Gabriela Lopez (name changed in order to protect her and her family’s identity), a resident along Buchanan Avenue, and a mother of three, getting outside is a rare occurrence as they do not own a vehicle, and previous negative experiences using the bus have discouraged her from using it on a regular basis. Both Lopez and her husband Miguel do not legally qualify to be able to receive a Michigan Driver’s License, and so they have to rely on friends and relatives for rides. Her husband, Miguel, works outside of the area and pays a sum of about $150 dollars per month to get a ride to work with a coworker. Gabriela contributes to the family income by caring for two children out of her home—a job that does not require her to leave her neighborhood.

When frequenting outside of the neighborhood with her children for an evening out, Lopez chooses to go to Panda Express on 28th Street.

“Era un fin de semana y quisimos llevar a los niños a comer comida y China y caminamos desde nuestra casa en la avenida Buchanan hasta la 28,” says Lopez.

[It was a weekend and we decided to take the kids out to eat Chinese food and we walked from our house on Buchanan Avenue all the way to 28th street.]

When asked why Lopez didn’t take the Silver Line to avoid the long, cold walk, she said that the cost and her unawareness of the way the bus system works are significant barriers.

“Yo he tratado de subirme en el bus pero como no se ingles me ha sido muy dificil comunicarme con el conductor. Aveces como que me he sentido que me dan un cara de asco,” states Lopez.

[I’ve tried to get on the bus before but because I don’t know English it has been hard to communicate with the bus driver. Sometimes I have felt that they are disgusted by me.]

Her friend, Maria del Carmen León, explains that when going out of the neighborhood for medical appointments downtown at Cherry Health, she usually takes an Uber.

“Me siento muy segura tomando un Uber y aunque es caro yo siento que es muy facil,” explains León.

[I feel very safe taking an Uber and even though it is a bit expensive, it is very easy to use.]

León explains that she usually spends about $13 to $15 per ride, a total of about $30 dollars round trip. Although the Silver Line runs near her home and her clinic, she explains that she just doesn’t know how to use the system well and feels nervous that language will be a barrier.

Shontaze Jones, a resident of South Division with a physical disability, shares that to get around she takes the bus, Uber, Lyft or she drives. Jones has been living in the area for the last two years, but she is originally from Benton Harbor. Mobility for Jones is something she constantly has to give more thought than others do.

“I have to think about whether the bus stops and whether the sidewalks are shoveled, and the time of day because of the lack of visibility and lights at night on South Division,” shares Jones.

For Jones, speed of vehicles on South Division is also a barrier because most of the vehicles are going faster than the speed limit as they are just exiting the highway 131. The speed limit along the corridor varies from 25 miles per hour to 45 miles per hour.

“Basically the speed limit is 25 on South Division and traffic does well over that because they are coming from the highway ramp and they are still going at a rapid speed. Trying to cross the road is very hard. It’s hard to get around—cars don’t stop and yield for anybody,” says Jones.

Jones waiting for the bus at The Rapid's Central Station in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Jones, who also serves as an apprentice at Disability Advocates of Kent County, expresses the necessity of including people with disabilities. “It cannot be done without us,” she says. “People with disabilities include the majority of people who are not able to drive and because of that they have a harder struggle trying to get around."

Clark Goodrich was born with Arthrogryposis, a physical disability impairing mobility of legs, arms, or hands. He is also the founder of Grand Rapids Adapt, a chapter of the national organization ADAPT, which focuses on empowerment of people with disabilities, community integration, and educating the community at large. Goodrich uses his power wheelchair and public transportation to get around the city of Grand Rapids. The resident of Kentwood echoes Jones’ sentiments in that much of the sidewalk area of South Division is not level, which makes it difficult and dangerous at night with the low visibility due to lack of streetlights.

Clark Goodrich

“I can’t safely drive with any speed after dark on these sidewalks for fear of my front tires catching an uneven pad of sidewalk and being thrown from my chair.  Proper lighting is critical to safety,” shares Goodrich.

Josh Naramore Josh Naramore, Mobile GR and Parking Manager for the City of Grand Rapids, explains that he is interested in going deeper into the pedestrian process and helping improve lighting conditions in the areas where people wait for the bus.

“We are looking at making some improvements to transit shelters and providing arrival information and  increase lighting for safety,” says Naramore.

In order to roll over the South Division area in the winter time, Goodrich, and others with significant mobility impairments depend on the property owners to shovel their sidewalks. When these are not shoveled, Goodrich is required to take a different route and put himself at a greater risk of having to cross the street to the other side. Crossing the street for Goodrich and others with disabilities may also be limited by the placement of the button for the crosswalk lights.Goodrich explains that at some crosswalks in the area the button is placed out of reach for him, either because of the surrounding terrain or the height of the button.

In the city of Grand Rapids, property owners are responsible for shoveling the sidewalks around their property—this includes shoveling curb cuts and the area around bus stops if there are any on their property. Many property owners are frequently cited for failure to comply with this local ordinance..

Michael BulthuisHowever, Michael Bulthuis, Marketing and Communications Manager at The Rapid, explains that with 1600 bus stops in the city of Grand Rapids and surrounding areas which include Walker, Wyoming, and Kentwood it is not feasible possible for the company to take care of shoveling every stop when it snows.

“We have 1600 bus stops and its not physically possible to clear all those stops. We need to develop some kind of partnerships with property owners or the city to help clear these. The Silver Line has built in snow melts, but its the individual stops we need to reassess,” says Bulthuis.

Currently, The Rapid uses a ramp system to be able to make it easier for riders using wheelchairs, canes, walkers, or crutches to get on to the bus. However, Goodrich explains that in his experience riding the bus for the last 25 years, since arriving to Grand Rapids in 1992, he has seen a poor understanding and awareness from able-bodied riders who do not give him the space or the time when he is getting on the bus.

“It makes everything easier if people understand that for everything to run more efficiently, those in a wheelchair need to get on to the bus first,” says Goodrich.

Goodrich would like to see an awareness campaign on the Rapid to educate riders on the importance of acknowledging and prioritizing riders with disabilities.

“The entire system and the entire community needs to be open to those of us with disabilities. We all have equal rights to ride the transportation that exists,” says Goodrich.

Goodrich understands his experience as a person with a disability as someone who has been disabled by the environment and prioritizing addressing an environment that allows for everyone to have equitable access to transportation is most important. According to the U.S. Census, the disability community represents 19 percent of the population; that means that one in five people must navigate their daily lives with a disability.

Saul Ulloa, a resident of Burton Heights, and Career Coach for refugees at West Michigan Works!, rides the Silver Line or route #1 every day from home to work and back. Ulloa’s daily rides are among the 2700 week-day rides per average the Silver Line takes every day.

Ulloa waits for the Silverline bus going north on his daily commute to work.
To make the most out of the bus, Ulloa purchases a monthly bus ticket for $47, which allows him unlimited rides on any route during the month.

“For someone like me with a full-time salaried job, the cost of this ticket is very accessible, but I know that for a lot of people it is not,” shares Ulloa.

A single ride on the bus for an adult costs $1.75; there are special rates for children, seniors, students and riders with disabilities. Riders are also able to purchase ten ride tickets, unlimited 31-, seven-, and one-day passes.

“I don’t have a license and it is a lot cheaper for me than having a car,” says Ulloa.

According to Bulthuis, the Rapid has a contract with the City of Grand Rapids for the “no-fare” zone north of Wealthy Street on the Silver Line Route. This means that the area from the Wealthy Street to downtown does not require payment from riders.

Ulloa would like to see this program expand south of Division to those communities experiencing greater socio-economic barriers.

Unlike the other bus routes in the city, the Silver Line does not check the validity of every riders’ ticket during every single ride. Riders are not able to purchase tickets from the bus itself, but are required to buy these from the electronic vending machines at the bus stops. There are fare enforcement officers that take care of enforcing these rules, and those who are found breaking them are given a $65 dollars fine.

The Burton Heights resident explains that if he is going to other places than work or home, he takes an Uber.

“The time it takes to go somewhere like eastown from where I live on near Burton and Division is almost prohibitive,” says Ulloa.

Ulloa takes The Silverline every day to his job at West Michigan Works!
Ulloa, who has lived in Poughkeepsie, New York, and Amman, Jordan, shares that he feels that the public transportation system in Grand Rapids is a good system for this size of a city, but would like to see an increase in connections between routes.

“I would like to see more connections between the east and west sides of the city on the bus and better education for riders on how to use the bus especially for those with a language barrier,” says Ulloa.

Ken Miguel-Cipriano who serves on the steering committee for the South Division Area Specific Plan and is a resident of Burton Heights, whose primary use of transportation is the bus and his bike, shares that in his experience route #1 and the Silver Line has some of the most diverse ridership he has ever seen in Grand Rapids.

“I have been squeezed in between a man wearing a tweed suit, and buffed brogues, a nurse, a student, a mother and child, and a factory worker while riding the bus,” shares Miguel-Cipriano.

According to the Rapid’s most recent passenger survey from 2017, 78 percent of Rapid riders do not own a personal vehicle. The annual median income of riders falls between $12,000 to $20,000 dollars annually. 

“The typical Rapid passenger is age 25-64 and rides The Rapid every day or several days per week to get to employment-related activities,” says Bulthuis.

This past November the tax millage renewal passed which means The Rapid has long-term funding to continue providing transportation at current service levels.

“If the public would like to see more service improvements in the future (e.g. increased frequency to 15 minutes on all routes, running later on weekends, etc.), this will require a ballot request to increase the property tax millage for additional funding,” says Bulthuis.

During the winter, Miguel-Cipriano uses the bus about 80 percent of the time and during the warmer months he bikes about 70 percent of the time. The rest of the time Miguel-Cipriano walks, ubers, or takes rides from friends.

Ken Miguel-Cipriano“Living on the southside and riding my bike everyday to work downtown means I have to keep spare tubes and a repair kit at work because there is so much broken glass on South Division.”

In addition to that, he explains that cyclists have a hard time biking on south division due to the lack of a bike lane.

“The southside is terrible for people with mobility issues. These issues are often ignored or perpetuated by a lack of consideration and planning for those with mobility constraints,” share Miguel-Cipriano.

Lynee Wells, member of the Mobile GR and Parking Commission for the City of Grand Rapids, explains she wants to make sure the commission listens and attends to the concerns of the residents of the area.

“I do not think it should be up to them to come to us, but us to come to them,” shares Wells, who is interested in continuing to partner with the Planning Department to ensure the resident’s voices are heard for the development of the area specific plan.

As plans of future development along the South Division corridor and surrounding areas begint to emerge, Lopez, Jones, Leon, Ulloa and Miguel-Cipriano want to see their neighbors have equitable access to public transportation and safe mobility in and out of their community.

To get involved as an advisor in the Steering Committee for the South Division Area Specific Plan process or to find out more about the Community Ambassadors positions please contact Courtney Magaluk at [email protected] / 616-456-3585.

Defining Division

This article is part of our Defining South Division Series, a monthly series over the next two years focusing on the community engagement and development process for the South Division Development Plan. We welcome your comments and feedback below.

To connect with Michelle Jokisch Polo (read more about Michelle here), editor of this series, follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Defining South Division is made possible by the City of Grand Rapids, a local government organization working to foster a city where everyone is welcomed.

Photography by Dreams by Bella.

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