The future of public transportation in Grand Rapids: New services, partnerships, and tech

The Rapid is looking forward, working to switch to more sustainable fuel sources, decreased wait times, more efficient tech, and possibly even communication with autonomous vehicles. 
The Rapid’s latest innovations will ensure the independent public transportation authority remains an essential part of passengers’ commute for decades to come, thanks in part to high-tech, new partnerships and out-of-the-box thinking. Yes, that means autonomous mobility is in the mix.

The end result: passengers’ anxiety will be abated because of real-time arrival apps, lower fuel emissions, reduced traffic congestion, and shorter arrival times during peak hours. They are must-have trends with a rich heritage. 

In this four-part series focused on public transportation in Grand Rapids  series, Rapid Growth has previously reported how The Rapid became the Interurban Transit Partnership with Kentwood, Wyoming, East Grand Rapids, Walker, Grandville and Grand Rapids, and thereby established a dedicated millage and “The Six Promises of the Interurban Partnership.”

We have also covered the Rapid’s launch Michigan’s first bus rapid transit line, their introduction a smart card called The Wave, and their evolution into the first LEED certified public transit facility in the United States.  

New The Rapid CEO Andrew Johnson.But the Rapid won’t just rest on their laurels. Like most institutions seeking to appeal to a new generation, The Rapid is looking forward.

“We have a lot of innovations that are going to lay a great foundation for the future,” says The Rapid's new CEO Andrew Johnson.

“We’re not just looking at buses and only buses. We’re looking at the entire mobility model, and how can we help coordinate that for partnerships and really make something other than the single occupant vehicle a convenient way to get around.”

Known formally as the Interurban Transit Partnership that serves the greater Grand Rapids metro area, plans call for converting one third of The Rapids’ fleet of 150 buses from diesel to compressed natural gas by 2020 and full conversion of the fleet by 2027. The advantages are that natural gas releases 30 percent fewer emissions than conventional diesel, costs half of diesel fuel, and is produced within the United States.

“[The United States is] like the premiere producer of natural gas, so we don’t have to worry about fuel shortages,” says Johnson.

In addition to sustainability, another reason that mass transit is attractive to future riders is the costly premiums of car insurance. And according to the American Public Transportation Association, millennials in particular are much more inclined to live in communities that are walkable and have transit nearby. They think multimodal.

“Car insurance is exorbitant in Michigan,” says Mark Bjeiland, a professor of urban studies at Calvin College. “And so if I can have one fewer vehicle and bike when the weather is nice, and ride the bus when it’s not so nice, I can save a lot of money.”

Mark Bjeiland, professor of urban studies at Calvin College.

Autonomous buses are not on The Rapid’s radar, but the city of Grand Rapids’ Autonomous Mobility Initiative that aims to place self-driving vehicles on the streets, could have some cross fertilization for The Rapid, according to Johnson. The Grand Rapids Autonomous Mobility Initiative will pilot four six-seat electric shuttles on the streets of downtown Grand Rapids from March 2019 to March 2020.

“Pretty soon, whether it’s buses or our own cars, they’re going to be talking to each other and talking to the infrastructure to make sure everybody is getting along as safely as possible and as efficiently as possible,” says Johnson. “So when the city rolls out the pilot, we’re excited about it because it might have applications in the bus world.”

The Rapid earlier this year launched a smart card called The Wave that makes boarding the bus faster, and, in some instances, at a lower rate due to capped fare. The new e-fare system can be used for all of The Rapid’s routes.

Capped fare system makes equity of treatment possible because once passengers have reached the cost of, for example, a monthly pass, they will receive unlimited rides for the rest of the month, giving them the savings of a pass without the upfront cost.

Bjeiland says The Wave and The Rapid’s MYSTOP app that provides riders with real-time arrivals (one of six apps The Rapid has that can be found here) helps ease passengers’ anxiety because they know when the next bus will arrive.

“I’m excited about the ease you can find when your bus is going to arrive with your smart phone,” says Bjeiland, who rides The Rapid to Calvin during the winter months. “I think that really improves the transit riding experience. The Wave is going to be the wave of the future to make it easier because you don’t have to fumble for change.”

Bjeiland says he can’t emphasize enough how important apps are for riders of all ages, particularly millennials and Generation Z. Bjeiland says he “forces” his urban geography students to take themselves on three self-guided field trips throughout Grand Rapids by riding the bus. Anecdotally, he estimates 80 percent have never ridden mass transit before their assignments, but they know their way around their smart phones, which eases their qualms to get on board public transportation.

“My students will say that was actually pretty easy after they’ve done it,” says Bjeiland. “Students continue to use transit after I’ve shown them how to do it.”

The next step for The Wave, says Johnson, is to make it available for purchase at retail outlets. Currently they’re available for purchase at The Rapid’s central station at 250 Grandville Ave. SW in Grand Rapids and online.
“Once that’s done by the end of the year, early spring, there will be even more widespread use,” says Johnson. “We are looking at phasing out our magnetic stripe cards and just have everything on The Wave card.

“With that spirit of innovation we’ve got going on here we’re really going to revolutionize how people get from point A to point B.”

In an attempt to make utilizing public transportation even easier, The Rapid has also recently expanded their free Downtown Area Shuttle (DASH) enjoyed by more than 1,000 riders on weekdays. 
Andrew Johnson
The Rapid was the also first in Michigan to launch a bus rapid transit called the Silver Line, a 9.1-mile route that became operational in August 2014.
Among the Silver Line’s features are traffic signal priority; heated platforms; and the app, RapidConnect, which is powered by GPS technology and accessible by smartphone, tablet, or computer, that provides real-time information; and “bus only” dedicated lanes during peak hours on weekdays. Riders pay via a ticket vending machine that’s available on the platform, which saves boarding time. 

A second BRT will be the Laker Line, projected to become operational in August of 2020, which will run along the Lake Michigan Avenue corridor spanning the cities of Walker, Standale, and Grand Rapids, with features akin to the Silver Line.
In an attempt to offer greater access for those with limited mobility, The Silver Line buses are accessible because of low-floor vehicles equipped with ramps, as well as kneeling features that lower the bus to make it easier to board and de-board for wheelchairs and mobility aid access. 

“We’re even looking at the possibly of our Laker Line to be utilizing 60-foot articulated buses and the possibility of allowing folding bikes inside our vehicles,” says Johnson.
“We have very heavy routes on our GVSU connector and we definitely have a need to provide better capacity on that route but at the same time, there’s a whole lot of development on that route,” adds Johnson.

Then there’s a three-year pilot program named Route 19, a partnership with the city of Grand Rapids’ Mobile GR and Parking Services Department, The Rapid, and Spectrum Health. It serves riders from Plymouth Street along the Medical Mile on Michigan Street through a section of the near West Side along Bridge Street up to Stocking Avenue.

Route 19’s features include fares along the route that allows free travel throughout downtown Grand Rapids without the hassle of parking, thus reducing traffic jams and easing parking congestion. Another feature is the convenience of buses coming every 10 minutes on Michigan Street during peak travel demand.

The route includes stops where people work: near Spectrum Health, Grand Valley State University, Grand Rapids Community College, Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine, and the Bridge Street Market.

“I think the numbers speak for themselves,” says Johnson. “Route 19 used to carry 54 people a day and now it carries over 1,100 every day. Route 19 has a great partnership between Grand Rapids and Spectrum Health and The Rapid to figure out a better way to get people to work and back home again by not having them to come in all at once, in a single place all at the same time. That route has helped with congestion but I think that anyone who goes on Michigan Street knows we have a ways to go in dealing with congestion.”

Services like Route 19 are smart because of the large number of people jockeying for position to get to work and then have to deal with the frustrating shortage of parking space.

“By definition, the city involves a shortage of space and so it just makes sense to use transit so you’re not hauling your car everywhere because cars are space hogs,” says Bjeiland. “So, I’d like to see Grand Rapids have a more urban future and a stronger transit future.”

Johnson says young professionals are more inclined to eschew vehicle ownership for a variety of reasons, including saving money and lowering the carbon footprint.

“Any time there’s increased density you look for the most convenient ways to get around,” says Johnson. “You’ve got young professionals coming up now who don’t necessarily want to own a car, don’t want to deal with the hassle or the investment, who are looking for alternate ways to get around. As we continue to grow (population), the demand for different transportation options will continue to grow right with it.”

Another key improvement is ensuring average wait times are kept to 15 minutes during the peak hours of 6 to 9 a.m. and 3 to 6 p.m. 

Because, says Johnson, the future and the past share a similar trait: It’s all about shaving off arrival time.

“Getting people to look at alternatives to their car is going to be about making the best use of [passengers’] time,” says Johnson.

“Those innovations we’re putting in place definitely complete that customer experience where our customers feel The Rapid is one of the easiest ways to get around.”

Photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.
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