Michigan by Bus and Train

When Andy Crosby travels around Michigan, he rarely drives a car. Instead, the doctoral student, a longtime resident of Grand Rapids, uses trains or buses when he visits his friends or works on academic projects around Michigan.

It’s not that Crosby dislikes cars. He just prefers to spend his time doing things that graduate students do: studying, reading and resting -- things that he couldn’t do behind the wheel. 

“When I ride the train, I can get a lot of work done,” he says. “It just makes sense.” But Crosby admits that getting around the state using bus and rail can be quite a challenge.

“You would think that the train would be more reliable than the bus, but it’s not. Amtrak is unpredictable. To get between cities, I usually use Indian Trails or Greyhound.” 

He also says that once he gets to a city, getting around can be a challenge. “I’ve taken Amtrak to Detroit. The hardest part about doing that is getting around the city once you’re there.”

Recently, when Crosby had to choose between attending one of two Michigan universities and the University of Illinois at Chicago, he chose the out-of-state campus that gave him access to a better transit system. 

“At Wayne State University in Detroit, it would have been tough to get around without a car,” he says. “I would have had to take a SMART bus out to a suburb if I wanted to buy groceries. I estimated that it would take about an hour get to a grocery store using the bus.”

He also opted out of Western Michigan University because Kalamazoo doesn’t offer Sunday bus service.

“I’m simply not going to live in a city where I can’t get around one day a week,” he says.

The University of Illinois at Chicago, on the other hand, is close to a train station and, for $88 per semester, provides students with unlimited rides using CTA, Chicago’s robust transit system.

Crosby is a great example of a growing trend: Young, talented people are choosing to live in places that offer more transportation choices. The Michigan Suburbs Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to revitalizing the inner-ring Suburbs of Detroit, surveyed 600 18-35 year-olds last year. Their findings: More young people cite poor transit systems as a barrier to staying in Southeast Michigan than cite the poor job market.

Business leaders are beginning to notice the large share of talent that leaves the state for cities with strong urban cores, quality of life and convenient transportation choices.

“If Michigan is serious about keeping and attracting young people as a way to stay competitive, it needs to invest in all forms of transportation infrastructure, including train, transit and non-motorized bike and trail networks,” says Rick Chapla, VP of business development at the Right Place Inc., a West Michigan economic development agency.

The Suburbs Alliance is part of a coalition of organizations from around the state, Transportation for Michigan (Trans4M), that is working to improve Michigan’s transportation future. The coalition, which also includes the Michigan Municipal League, the Michigan Environmental Council and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, believe that Michigan’s bright new future can be built on transportation innovation around rail and bus transit.

The coalition’s first order of business is building support for a Regional Transit Authority in Southeast Michigan. Once in place, transit service in the Detroit region will hopefully become better coordinated and more efficient. Trans4M is also pursuing solutions such as bus rapid transit (BRT) systems, which use buses, often on dedicated lanes, to quickly transport passengers to their destinations. The systems are easily customized to the needs of particular communities, and they incorporate state-of-the-art, low-cost technologies that reduce congestion. 

This month, the Trans4M coalition will travel around the state on what’s been dubbed the “Michigan Transportation Odyssey.” Their three-day journey, which begins March 21, will document the challenges and unique opportunities that exist within the state’s current transportation system. They hope to bring these challenges and opportunities to the attention of state lawmakers.

The group will travel from Detroit Metro Airport to Traverse City using only Michigan’s transit systems and statewide passenger train service. In addition to transit tours of Michigan cities, the Odyssey will include events in Birmingham, Grand Rapids and Traverse City. 

On March 21, a Metromode speaker series event at The Reserve in Birmingham (6:30 p.m.) will feature Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff, who will discuss the importance of a coordinated regional transit system to Southeast Michigan. 

The next day, the group will take an Amtrak train to Kalamazoo, then head north to Grand Rapids. The Michigan Environmental Council and Rapid Growth Media will host a speaker series event at The Rapid’s Central Station Conference Center (March 22, 5:30 p.m.). The subject of the event is the importance of a good transit and passenger rail service to economic development and thriving cities. Keynote speaker Amtrak Board Chair Tom Carper will discuss recent passenger rail investments in Michigan and how the state is a leader in the future of passenger rail development.  

The next day (March 23), Odyssey travelers will attend a legislative luncheon sponsored by Disability Advocates of Kent County before boarding an Indian Trails motor coach for Traverse City. The Odyssey will wrap up with a closing reception at North Peak Brewing Company in Traverse City (March 23, 8:30 p.m.).

The group hopes that someday, Michigan will have a robust transportation network that allows Crosby and everyone else to get around the state conveniently. And Crosby hopes that when he finishes his PhD in Chicago, he can move back to Michigan.

“If I move back to Michigan, I’ll likely live in Grand Rapids or Lansing,” he notes. “It has to be a place where I can get around without a car.”

James Bruckbauer is a transportation policy specialist at the Michigan Land Use Institute in Traverse City. He and his wife have one car.

For more information, or to ride along with the Michigan Transportation Odyssey, visit the Trans4M website at http://trans4m.org.


A regular user of the rail road, Andy Crosby is a working on a Phd in public administration, and is a devout public transportation enthusiast.

Photography by ADAM BIRD