RapidChat: Thomas Tilma

Executive Director of the Greater Grand Rapids Bicycle Coalition (GGRBC), Thomas Tilma, has been a long time advocate for livable communities. In honor of Bike to Work Day, which promotes bicycling as an option for commuting to work, we sit down with him to discuss the importance of alternative transportation options and find out what our community is doing to help promote them.
Executive Director of the Greater Grand Rapids Bicycle Coalition (GGRBC), Thomas Tilma, has been a long-time advocate for livable communities. In honor of Bike to Work Day, which promotes bicycling as an option for commuting to work, we sit down with him to discuss the importance of alternative transportation options and find out what our community is doing to help promote them.
RapidGrowth: Why was the Greater Grand Rapids Bicycle Coalition originally formed?
Thomas Tilma: There are so many benefits: economic, environmental and health. The economic benefits include everything from the fact that alternative transportation is more affordable, it saves on infrastructure cost, and it makes the community more attractive to the creative class and millennial generation. In regards to heath, the public health consequences are of high concern and Michigan has high rates of obesity. Employers want their employees to be more fit and a more productive workforce. On the sustainability side of things, obviously biking, walking, and taking a bus are greener forms of transportations. 
We encourage people to try biking (to work) one time and seeing what they think. Prepare for it a couple of weeks in advance, try out your route on a quiet Saturday or Sunday afternoon, talk to a bike shop about what you need; just giving it a shot. We encourage employers to be supportive and understanding if their employee wants to bicycle commute.
RG: On the GGRBC website, it states that the “Room to Ride campaign is currently actively advocating for 100 miles of bike lanes in Grand Rapids by 2015” – is this something we have accomplished?
TT: The Room to Ride campaign began in January of 2012 and is our primary advocacy campaign; it runs through the end of 2015. When we started there were bike lanes in about five miles of space in metro GR. Now there are on-street bicycle lanes on about 66 miles across six cities: Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids, Kentwood, Rockford, Walker and Wyoming.
RG: How did you first get involved with GGRB?
TT: I was looking for a new opportunity and heard this group had been established and I offered my help. I volunteered as the interim director for six months. After that I was hired as a consultant. In June 2013 I became the executive director.
RG: How did you get your start in this field?
I have been an advocate for livable communities my whole life. I got my masters in urban planning at the University of Michigan, and have worked at the regional, county and city level, as well as in the private sector for a large architecture firm. Unfortunately in all of those positions I had to rein in my passion for alternative transportation. But now, for the last four and a half years since I’ve been working for the bicycle coalition, I’ve been able to spend my time actively embracing this love of mine. It’s been rewarding to be able to be directly advocating for changes that I’ve been passionate about for a long time.
RG: Bike to Work Day is coming up soon on May 15th. Why is this something people should be aware of?
TT: We are organizing Active Commute Week for the fourth year in a row. Individuals can compete in an online challenge and on Friday May 15th, which is national Bike to Work Day, and we have about 20 pit-stops open from 7-9 AM. What is new to this year is that we have 10 bike trains, where bicycle commuters will meet at rendezvous points and trains will be lead by experienced bicycle commuters. We are excited to see if some of the bike trains become permanent.
RG: Pardon my ignorance, but what is a bike train?
TT: A bike train, also known as a bike pool, is much like a car pool. It is when bicyclists meet at rendezvous points and bike together and commute together.
RG: Are there any other organizations that you are involved in?
TT: Well, I do hold the title of an AICP (American Institute of Certified Planners) certified planner. In addition to that, I am a long time advocate for livable communities and sustainable transportation. I support other cycling advocacy groups at the local, state and national levels.
RC: What are the gaps in public transportation that you see in our community?
When Grand Rapids received the bronze Bicycle Friendly Community Certification in 2009 from The League of American Bicyclists, we already had a thriving cycling culture with many cycling events, clubs, teams, rides, and races. We already had great bike shops and an outstanding system of multiuse trails. The big gap was the on-street infrastructure and not thinking about cycling as a form of transportation. The idea of biking as daily life hadn’t arrived yet.
It’s been a national movement. Grand Rapids began to join the national movement for urban daily cycling and the bicycle coalition began working hard to fill that gap and over a few years we found that strong partner in the city of Grand Rapids. We really started by advocating for the bike lanes, which we felt was a low hanging fruit approach. Bike lanes are inexpensive and have quickly changed. Their rapid implementation has started to transform how people think about getting around.
RG: Next steps? Does the GGRBC have any other upcoming developments?
We will continue to advocate for bike lanes and help both Grand Rapids and the other cities with that, but we have begun to focus on safety education. We are also encouraging the city to prepare a cycling plan and hire a bicycle and pedestrian planner. 
RG: Do any of these developments tie into any of the other planning projects that are going on in Grand Rapids?
TT: Yes. There are incredible planning processes on their way that have been completed just recently. There is the Michigan Street Corridor plan, GR Forward plan, Grand Rapids White Water project, and the Grand Rapids bicycle education safety project. But, all of those, in addition to a new cycling plan, will need adequate professional staffing for the city to implement the dozens of exciting recommendations in those documents.
After the bicycle plan is done and the city has hired the necessary specialists, we will be in a much better position to have a successful launch of a bike share system in downtown Grand Rapids. Bike share discussions are happening as part of the GR Forward planning process and we could be looking at a 40-station system concentrated in downtown Grand Rapids in a couple of years.
GGRBC is also evaluating and recognizing Safe Routes to School (SRTS) programs. This is a national movement that encourages walking school buses, cycling trains, and supports as many kids as possible to walk and bike to school. We are looking into partnerships with local school districts such as GRPS, since there are 10 GRPS campuses that would be suitable for SRTS programs.
RG: Any last words?
TT: At the Greater Grand Rapids Bicycle Coalition, we raise awareness and work with local governments and agencies and businesses, and we advocate for and provide technical assistance with making changes to the cycling infrastructure and programming, which means we go to lots of meetings and serve on lots of committees. It’s actually hard to explain to our supporters what we do. We are not a bicycle club, we are a unique organization advocating and educating. Our work benefits all kids of cyclists and we want cyclists and cycling groups to think about us as their advocacy partner.

Jenna Morton is the RapidChat correspondent for Rapid Growth Media
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