Protecting Land, Air, and Water via Mass 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.

"When I was growing up in Detroit, my dad took the train to work," says Rachel Hood, Executive Director of West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC). "It allowed us to be a single-car family," she says, adding sadly, "That all went away in the '80s. First they limited service. Then the bus stopped coming altogether."

Her childhood experiences in Southeast Michigan have helped shape her views about how West Michigan can do it differently. "Detroit is a sprawling, sprawling, and now sprawling again place," she says. "Development is pretty continuous from Detroit all the way to Lansing now." And that's not necessarily a good thing when seeking the best uses for land and a high quality of life.

As a member of The Rapid's long-range planning task force, Hood is able to bring her experience and mission to help this side of the state achieve different results. "WMEAC is about sustaining our water, work and lives," Hood says. Mass transit helps on all fronts, she believes. "There are carbon savings, fossil fuel savings," she says, "and the land use issue is very important to me. Public transportation is a critical tool in dense urban centers. It enhances the quality of life."

Bill Kirk, Campaigns & Communications Director for the League of Conservation Voters, agrees. "We're very much in favor of expanding mass transit in urban areas," he says. "We want to see fewer cars on the road." Bill's personal lifestyle choices include living close enough to downtown and his work that he can mostly get around on foot or by bike, using The Rapid periodically for entertainment or personal needs.

"Mass transit goes a long way to cutting down on emissions and greenhouse gases," says Kirk. Like Hood, Kirk has been excited to work with The Rapid on its Transit Master Plan, or TMP, which is a comprehensive 20-year plan that will guide the future development of The Rapid transit system, primarily for its service area of East Grand Rapids, Grand Rapids, Grandville, Kentwood, Walker and Wyoming.

The local collaboration of these six cities has already had an impact, Kirk believes. "Politically, we're in much better shape than southeast Michigan," he says. "They have a lot more political hurdles. Not to say we don't have any challenges here," he adds. But here in West Michigan, he says, there are representatives at the table from all the key areas and "we have been able to collaborate effectively thus far. I have been very encouraged by the processes I have seen, to be very deliberate and to go to the voters for input."

"Transit is only a piece of the issue, though," says Kirk. "We need to match these efforts with farmland and open space preservation."

Hood agrees, and believes public transportation can help on that front, too. "It's about making sure that we can take the bus to our natural features, to make connections between the home, the workplace, and the bike trails and natural resources." She hopes someday it might even be possible to use mass transit to go to Lake Michigan's beaches.

"That connection would be very logical, a beach hopper," she says. "It's an environmental justice issue as well," since there are many kids in Grand Rapids who don't get to go to the beach due to lack of adequate transportation. "It's one of the most beautiful and important places in the world, and I've been to a lot of beaches around the world, and there are kids in Grand Rapids who don't get to go."

Of course, the beach would be one reason to use transit to the lakeshore. The idea for a mass transit link connecting Muskegon, Holland and Grand Rapids for commuting to work also is very popular. It's the kind of development that would make Andrea Faber, the Clean Air Action Program Coordinator with the West Michigan Clean Air Coalition (WMCAC) very happy.

"Anything you can do to get away from individual car use helps," says Faber, since cars contribute to ozone buildup as well as fine particulate matter.

The WMCAC is a partnership of businesses, academic institutions, government agencies, industry and non-profit organizations in Kent, Ottawa, Muskegon and Kalamazoo countries working together to achieve cleaner air in the region. Faber's mission is to educate the public and to promote voluntary emission reduction activities. People most often hear about "Clean Air Action Days" or, as they were formerly known, "Ozone Action Days." The name change occurred in 2009 because the program now monitors fine air particulates in addition to ozone build-up.

"The Rapid has always partnered with us by offering free bus rides on Action Days," says Faber. Last summer saw three Clean Air Action Days, "and bus usage really spikes on those days," she says. On all three "called" days, the region was able to stay below the threshold, which is important for many reasons.

"You want to avoid monitor violations," says Faber. "If we get too many violations, we could go into non-attainment and it would be very costly for the area." She says it would limit the number of new businesses that could launch and that increased costs would need to be borne by the entire community.

Planning for mass transit is natural as the larger Grand Rapids metropolitan area thinks about what it wants to be when it grows up. Kendra Wills, Land Use Educator with the MSU Extension, says mass transit typically makes sense as a city approaches a certain density. In cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco and others, "there are natural features that drive density," such as a body of water that blocks any way to drive around the obstacle. This has led to less-developed transit systems throughout much of the Midwest, she says.

"It's a chicken-egg thing here," she said "Is it mass transit first, then people, or people first and then mass transit." She agrees that it's easier to plan for mass transit before the need exists, and can help cities plan for development or redevelopment.
Wills provides technical assistance to United Growth for Kent County, a coalition of rural and urban citizens promoting positive land use in West Michigan. The mission of the United Growth coalition is to serve as a sustainable, citizen-based organization that unites people and organizations around the promotion of positive land use in Kent County and West Michigan.

Among United Growth's 11 "Land Use Principles" is one that says "Communities should incorporate pedestrian, non-motorized, and public transportation options into existing and future development." Another is that "a strong connection exists between rural and suburban growth and urban decline. These areas must join interests to impact collective problems."

For Wills, mass transit is not only key to better managing land use and development, but also represents a quality-of-life issue. She's concerned for the elderly, many of whom cannot or should not drive as much as they once did. Also, it's a matter of finances. "Transportation is the second largest expense of most households," she says.

Hood agrees with Wills on both points. "Safety is a big issue, and it's safer to use public transportation than it is to drive." As for expense, the average cost-per-year for each vehicle is $6,500. For about six months, Hood lived in Grand Rapids without a car, using The Rapid extensively. "I never had a negative experience and I never had a fear. There are many thoughtful people from all different walks of life on the bus," she said.
"It is hard for me to see mass transit first as an environmental issue," says Hood. "I see mass transit first from an economic and social perspective," she said. "The gains we get from using a shared or public resource are huge," she said. Urban sprawl requires investments in new roads and unnecessary infrastructure, plus "we're not using land for its best and highest use. Sprawl creates a lot of waste and it takes a lot of money out of the pockets of the families that don't live close to the things they need."

Hood is excited about her continued role on the TMP's task force. "It's a big kid's job," she laughs, "and it's been great to see the diverse communities of this region come together to create a state-of-the-art transportation solution for a mid-size city."
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.