Economic Development and Travel & Tourism

Grand Rapids ahead of the game for transit

City already offers scalable model of BRT that just debuted in Chicago.

January 8, 2016
| By Pat Evans |
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Rapid Bus
The Rapid’s bus rapid transit system is one of the programs that puts Grand Rapids on the leading edge of transportation thinking in larger cities. Courtesy Experience Grand Rapids

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) As 2016 gets underway, there are several projects to watch in Grand Rapids that could influence national transportation infrastructure ideals.

In December, CityLab, an urban-planning offshoot of The Atlantic magazine, published an article highlighting several major transportation projects to watch this year, including some that are reminiscent of those coming to Grand Rapids.

While Grand Rapids wasn’t named in the article, its transportation projects are on the radar of other cities, said Andy Guy, chief outcomes officer, Downtown Grand Rapids Inc.

“We’re advancing a pragmatic approach that recognizes (how) public facilities for cars, bicycles, buses and people who walk all have a role to play in an integrated transportation system that empowers Grand Rapidians with freedom to choose the mode of transportation that works best for their lifestyle and budget,” Guy said.

Among the examples mentioned in the CityLab article was the introduction of bus rapid transit in Chicago that opened for service in December: Loop Link. Although Loop Link “lacks several top-notch features of BRT service,” it will test prepaid boarding this year — something Grand Rapids’ Silver Line BRT already employs.

“The Loop Link represents a significant foray into better buses by a major U.S. metro,” CityLab New York Bureau Chief Eric Jaffe wrote. “If Chicago falls in love with the Loop Link in 2016, not only does the city itself have a better chance to revive its grander BRT scheme, but all big U.S. cities will have a bus blueprint to build on.”

Major metro areas might jump on the BRT trend should Chicagoans come to enjoy its benefits, but Grand Rapids is ahead of the game: Silver Line went live in 2014, and a plan for the Laker Line from Grand Valley State University’s Allendale campus to downtown is underway.

One documented benefit of BRT systems is better connectivity between outlying and suburban neighborhoods to central city areas. Grand Rapids is able to showcase that benefit better than a large city such as Chicago, Guy said.

“We’re one of three dozen or so communities in the U.S. deploying BRT because it’s a practical, efficient and cost-effective way to provide greater mobility and choice in transportation,” he said.

“We have vital urban and suburban communities and a strong car culture that, among other characteristics, represent the legacy dynamics many growing American cities must manage if they intend to thrive.

“But we also have a pragmatic and collaborative civic spirit and a metropolitan scale that makes deploying and testing new ideas easier compared to built-out cities likes Chicago.”

Grand Rapids is car-centric, but then so are most metro areas in America. As environmental consciousness continues to infiltrate society, more people consider making changes to how they get around the city. Part of that shift comes through the assistance of governmental agencies building infrastructure that makes it easier for residents to choose transportation modes.

“If we build a multi-modal city that provides real choices for people who walk, ride a bicycle or take public transportation, it will work better for everybody, including and particularly car drivers, as we slow the growth in traffic congestion and competition for parking spaces,” Guy said.

“The smart and, I believe, ultimately successful cities are working hard to become truly multi-modal cities where citizens have many convenient and attractive transportation options and don’t need to totally rely on a car to get where they need or want to go.

“Grand Rapids aspires to lead this movement toward 21stcentury mobility choice that empowers citizens with freedom and options.”

Mobility is a major topic in GR Forward — Downtown Grand Rapids Inc.’s comprehensive plan for the future of downtown Grand Rapids development. CityLab’s article describes Cleveland’s Public Square transformation — “turning the traffic hub into a walkable plaza surrounded by greenery and largely cut off to through-traffic” — in time for the Republican National Convention this summer.

DGRI’s plans include the beautification of major thoroughfares such as Fulton Street.

“One fundamental way we invite more trips via transit, bicycle and foot is to continue investing in street transformations that ensure safe, comfortable and appealing passage for people who choose to walk, bicycle or take transit,” Guy said.

“Another important strategy is to continue supporting mixed-use development concentrated particularly around transit stations and in walkable urban neighborhoods and town centers.

“When everything is close and connected, walking is easier, bicycling is a more attractive option and transit works better.”

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