Residents leverage alternatives to driving as generational perspectives on transit shift

It’s Sunday morning and the sun brightly warms Grand Rapids’ West Side neighborhood. Chrys Killebrew is waiting outside his home for an Uber on the front steps, but there aren’t any available. He refreshes the app a few times and eventually finds a driver. A white sedan pulls up and we slide into the back seat and head out. 

Killebrew, 29 of Grand Rapids, who at one time had a suspended license, hasn't had a vehicle since early 2020 — despite having a reinstated license. To get to and from work and run errands, he mostly utilizes Uber, catches rides with friends or rides one of the many electric scooters placed around town.

“Just dealing with the whole Uber pricing and availability, you know, is sometimes difficult. Even outside of Uber, just trying to get around on scooters or hitching rides with friends, it's just hard because you have to worry about people's schedules and doing all that stuff is just not as easy as driving,” Killebrew says.

We roll through downtown along Fulton Street, past the arena and up the hill. We eventually find ourselves at Madcap Coffee where Killebrew shares some of the positive aspects of not driving.

“Let's see. I don’t pay for gas; that's huge, especially on a holiday," he says. "Meeting new people is also cool. I've met some interesting Uber drivers. I try to always ask them questions about what else they do, and I've heard crazy stories about their other jobs, and having crazy things happen to them while they’re driving.”

Despite America’s love affair with cars, there are many people who utilize alternative methods of transportation for various reasons. Some don’t have a license, others don’t enjoy driving. For a number of reasons, there exists a large portion of the population who either prefer not to drive or are unable to. 

Killebrew is originally from Brooklyn, New York and is familiar with getting around without a vehicle. But the transition to West Michigan provided more challenges than that of a larger city, especially when it came to booking doctors appointments, being on time for work or going on first dates.  

In addition to recently normalized ride share programs like Uber and Lyft, public transit has long provided mass affordable transportation in cities around the country and around the globe. The appeal of cheap, consistent transportation caters to individuals of all walks of life. In West Michigan, it’s common for GVSU students to ride the Laker Line to campus or for individuals in the workforce to ride daily to their place of employment. It’s not uncommon for mothers to take trips to the grocery store with their children in tow. 
Ken Miguel-Cipriano is sitting at the northbound bus station on Monroe Avenue Northwest in a magenta sweatshirt. He’s familiar with the bus routes and their many stops. The corner is especially busy on this day and provides a moving picture of transportation in Grand Rapids. Multiple buses stop at the station, including the Silver Line, Laker Line, the 11 line, the 15 line and the DASH bus. Scooters and electric bikes wind along the shoulder. Self-driving shuttles traverse the urban terrain. 

Miguel-Cipriano, 33, a resident of Grand Rapids, does not own a vehicle and hasn’t since just after high school, preferring the cost-effectiveness and flexibility of not owning one. He gets around largely by bicycle and bus year-round. He also works for the city of Grand Rapids as a transportation analyst but has mostly observed the generational shifts in alternative transportation first-hand through his own commuting.

“I think something's been in the air for a while. People are really owning their own identities and people, I think, are more intentional about their transportation," Miguel-Cipriano says. "[In] earlier generations, like my dad's generation, there's a lot of pride in ownership of things. So, there's also the stigma that riding a bike or riding public transit is for people who are poor.”

“I grew up poor. And I still live on the south side. But I didn't see it as a bad thing to ride the bus. I think people are reclaiming that," Miguel-Cipriano says. In addition to utilizing public transit, he is also seeing people taking advantage of other alternatives to cars.

"There's a lot of people riding bikes. Now a lot of people in my neighborhood are skateboarding, biking, scootering, walking, because people are kind of opening up their eyes to the fact that they’re spending a lot of money on a car that just sits there and depreciates in value when they could be using that money for anything else,” he says.

When looking at national data, it has been reported that driving is not the primary mode of transportation for millennials. According to the National Association of Realtors’ 2015 Community and Transportation Preference Survey, millennials prefer walking as a form of transportation by 12 percentage points over driving. Historical data provided by The Rapid from the last 10 years shows their largest ridership group tends to be 35 to 49 years old.

“It's hard to sort of speculate [why]," says Bill Kirk, spokesperson and business affairs specialist for The Rapid. "I think one thing that COVID showed us is that there are folks who are dependent upon public transit for their transportation — whether it's employment, transportation or simple day-to-day activities like school, medical appointments, access to groceries, etc.”

There are some downsides to not owning a vehicle that both Killebrew and Miguel-Cipriano have experienced. There's the waiting around for a ride or having to trek through a Michigan winter in the snow. Often, it’s simply a matter of being flexible with scheduling. 

“It's mainly more difficult during the times where [I'm going] to an appointment or to work or like going on a first date or something. I gotta really be on time and then it's really dependent on somebody else's driving and whatnot,” says Killebrew. 

“Other difficulties would be times when the pandemic was really hot. There were times where I was coming home from a buddy's house and I didn't have my mask. So now I'm running around trying to find a mask,” he says.

However, the positive aspects far outweigh the negatives, Miguel-Cipriano says. With the money he’s been able to recoup from not owning a vehicle, he’s purchased his own house, invested in his passion of creating floral arrangements and taken up hobbies, like cooking.  

“I don't like putting money towards a car. And it allowed me to buy my own house," he says. "So now I can fill my house with all kinds of things that I like, artwork. I also really love making floral arrangements. So I have the disposable income to buy flowers and make floral arrangements. I took up cooking and can buy all new cookware. I'm able to have this disposable income because of the sacrifices my parents have made and that I continue to make.”

Photos by Kristina Bird, Bird+Bird Studio

Voices for Transit is a nine-part series highlighting public transportation in Greater Grand Rapids by exploring the issues that diverse communities face, lifting up the voices of residents, employers, and stakeholders.

This series is underwritten by The Rapid and is editorially independent in our exploration of these themes.
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