The Rapid Goes Green

January 22, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — The Rapid will soon join a handful of big city transit systems using buses powered by hybrid technology.

The Rapid will introduce five hybrid-electric buses into its fleet this year, two in the spring and three more in the fall. The new 40-foot, low-floor hybrid electric buses are considered the next generation of cleaner, more efficient buses. They'll have two sources of power under their hoods — an internal combustion engine and electric motor. The engine charges the electric motor's batteries, which, in turn, reduce the load on the engine.

Jennifer Kalczuk, spokesperson for The Rapid, said staff will examine how the hybrids operate under different circumstances, in different seasons and in different types of service scenarios, and will collect and track data on fuel savings along the way. If the vehicles perform as expected, additional hybrids will be purchased.

"We're going to try the first two buses in two separate service environments, one of them most likely being the GrandValley campus connector, which is a limited stop express with a bus traveling at higher speeds," Kalczuk explained. "The other will be used on an in-town route where the bus operates in more stop-and-go traffic. So we'll be able to see if there's any advantage to having them on certain routes as compared to other routes."

The Rapid also offers a couple of share-a-ride options that help reduce overall emissions in the region. Its RapidVan program is available to commuters headed into Kent, Allegan and Muskegon counties for work. Many of the vehicles, which include minivans and nine-passenger and 15-passenger vans, commute in excess of 50 miles one-way into or around West Michigan. RapidVan had six vanpools in operation at the start of 2006 and ended the year with all 21 vans in operation. Although the RapidVan program has been around for a few years, the growth spurt only happened last year, said Kalczuk. A number of the vanpools serve GM employees.

"Some of the manufacturing sites that have closed or consolidated some of their locations gave their employees the choice of moving to a different plant location. Obviously, many of them wanted to stay, but that meant they had a much longer commute than they did previously."

RapidVan was actually developed in response to employers' needs at a time when Michigan's economy was still healthy, said Mary Ann Ferris-Young, business transportation service coordinator for The Rapid. She said it took six to nine months to develop the program and it launched right around the same time the economy turned downward, so the target group that RapidVan was created to serve didn't really need it anymore. The Rapid continued to operate the program, serving some of the nonprofits in town.

"We re-evaluated price and some other items and came back last year with a slightly altered version of the original program, and that's when it really started to take off," Ferris-Young recalled. "We have 11 vanpools that serve GM employees, and most of them have been relocated from either Kalamazoo or Lansing plants that have been closed."

GreenRide, introduced a little more than a year ago, is a software application that helps residents of Kent, Ottawa, Muskegon and Allegan counties locate potential carpool partners in their area. Ferris-Young said the software protects personal information because it doesn't reveal a person's e-mail address, home phone number or home address, just the approximate area where the person lives. The Rapid owns the software for the four-county area, and residents can access the software free via the transit system's Web site. By the end of 2006, there were nearly 1,000 registrants in the online database, all of whom were either using or searching for carpools, Ferris-Young noted. Metro Health, Spectrum Health and Foremost Insurance are three of the largest area employers on board the GreenRide program.

Ride matching was previously a long and involved process that was carried out by mail. GreenRide software significantly streamlined it, giving people immediate feedback in their quest for carpool partners. GreenRide and the RapidVan program were recently linked together on The Rapid Web site, so people can check out both carpool opportunities and vanpool accessibility in their area at the same time, Ferris-Young added.    

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