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There’s No Reason to Wait

Better service today will speed the arrival of tomorrow’s truly rapid transit

January 27, 2006 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Carol Blundy

As The Rapid increases its service, ridership is rising steadily.

Ten years ago you couldn’t catch a bus in Grand Rapids after dark—or anytime Sunday, for that matter. Today, though, many bus routes operate as late as midnight; there’s even some limited weekend service around the metropolitan area. A bus system that once was hard to use now enables many people to work, play, and worship seven days a week.

That decade-long journey toward better public transit service has exposed one unassailable, extremely important fact: The more convenient, far-reaching, safe, and affordable the metro area’s bus system becomes, the more people from all walks of life use it.

Kevin Wisselink, a longtime transit activist who now works for The Rapid, has the numbers to prove it.  

Graph: MLUI/Jane Kowieski. Reference: The Rapid.

Spurred by downtown redevelopment and voter-funded service increases, The Rapid doubled its ridership in just ten years. The system raised fares in 2004.
Click here to enlarge map

“We’re seeing dramatic growth in ridership,” Mr. Wisselink said recently. “In 1995, we were doing about 3.3 million rides [a year]. Fast forward to 2005, we’re doing about 6.4 million rides. That’s basically a doubling in ten years. Not too many systems around the country can claim that kind of improvement. But significant gaps in the service still remain.”

On Sundays, for example, service is restricted to a small
number of routes, and those run just every 45 minutes. Also, riders in The Rapid’s service area find it difficult to travel to northern Kent County, into Ottawa County, and beyond. And the frequency of buses remains well short of what commuters find in world-class cities like Chicago.

“We’ve got a long ways to go,” Mr. Wisselink said.

Step by Step
That’s why Transit Summit participants focused on an extensive list of service enhancements that the Grand Valley metro area needs. They discussed additional cross-town bus routes, expanding and improving service in rural communities, and extending commuter rail lines from the central city to Holland, Muskegon, and Lansing. They talked about placing rapid buses, streetcars, and even light-rail trains onto dedicated routes throughout the urban area.

Such major public works projects are part of the natural evolution of any successful public transit system. Cities as different and as great as Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas, and St. Louis have done—or are doing—the same thing. The projects require careful planning and thoughtful investment, processes that leaders in the Grand Valley metro area have already begun to think about and, in some cases, initiate.

But there is no reason why the region should delay other, less dramatic improvements while leaders figure out exactly how to make more far-reaching, longer-term investments. Local officials and area residents can work together to steadily increase and improve local transit service by embracing five key priorities.  

Provide Complete Metro Mobility
Metropolitan transit service has expanded considerably in the past decade. For example, new routes serving 44th Street, 28th Street, and the Allendale campus of Grand Valley State University are highly successful—so much so, in fact, that further expansions of those routes are on the way.

Yet several of the region’s newest cultural assets, including Frederik Meijer Gardens, Millennium Park, the West Michigan Whitecaps’ stadium, and countless local businesses and homes remain drastically underserved by transit. The fact is that demand is growing for additional routes and longer hours of service across the region—from Cedar Springs to Sparta and from Jenison to Lowell. A system providing convenient, affordable, and safe transportation throughout the entire metropolitan area—connecting all merchants, neighborhoods, and institutions—is not only wanted by many residents, it is essential to economic, environmental, and social well-being.

Get Coordinated
The Rapid is not the only transit provider in the metro area. The Red Cross, Hope Network, Senior Neighbors, and several other civic groups offer transportation to citizens who require service beyond what The Rapid system can provide.   

But these various special transportation providers are completely uncoordinated—with each other and with The Rapid. This often frustrates and even hassles customers. For example, riders often must place one phone call to one provider for round trip travel to the doctor, and a separate phone call to another provider for a trip to the grocery store. This happens even though different transportation providers sometimes have vehicles going to the same place at the same time.

We can do better. Enhancing coordination between these important organizations and developing a single gateway for citizens using any part of the transit system lead to more efficient service, greater fiscal responsibility, and improved regional mobility.    

Work the Weekends Harder
The need to move quickly and conveniently around the region for work, entertainment, shopping, family gatherings, and other activities doesn’t stop when the weekend starts. In some ways, the pace of life actually picks up. A dependable transit system must adjust to such changes.
 Due to budget constraints, however, The Rapid must sharply cut its regular service on Saturdays and Sundays and operates just half of its regular weekday routes. Increasing the number of routes and hours of service builds more confidence in transit, as well as more ridership. That strengthens the entire public transportation system.

Establish a Regional Authority
Regional transportation authorities can promote cooperation among local governments because they are able to coordinate services for people, places, and commerce far more effectively and efficiently than individual agencies can when working alone. Moreover, regional transportation authorities are essential to maximizing federal funding of transportation systems.

The Rapid already provides this service for Grand Rapids, Kentwood, Wyoming, East Grand Rapids, Grandville, and Walker. But the service must be extended throughout the broader Grand Valley metropolitan area. World-class transit in the Grand Valley region requires a single agency charged with transportation planning, investment, service management and coordination, and public information.

Bike, Blade, and Walk the Talk
To achieve the best transportation system possible, the Grand Valley region must develop and integrate all sorts of ways to move around the metro area. Ridership is strong on the 28th Street bus route, for example, but 28th Street lacks sidewalks. Civic leaders must promote walking and bicycling much more aggressively than they have in the past because these are highly effective methods of decreasing dependency on the automobile and making it much easier for transit riders to use the regional system.

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