Craft beer, travel destinations, philanthropy — Grand Rapids is no stranger when it comes to topping lists. But transportation is one area that Grand Rapids and its surrounding cities are making waves in that may not be on your radar.
While public transportation and other non-car options may not be the first thing that comes to mind for most Grand Rapidians, people and organizations across the country are looking toward us for great transit lessons. In fact, Next City recently published an article touting why our great city of Grand Rapids earned a place on the “great transit map.” This past year has been a big year for transit in the area. To get you up to speed, here are six things to know about transportation in Grand Rapids:
1. Grand Rapids is home to Michigan’s first bus rapid transit line. We launched the Silver Line on August 25, 2014. Nearly a decade in the making, the Silver Line offers riders rail-like convenience and comfort on a more cost-effective vehicle. The BRT route connects Grand Rapids, Kentwood, and Wyoming, while offering access to several exciting destinations throughout the community.
2. The Vernon J. Ehlers Amtrak Station allows for a multimodal transit hub. Just last week West Michigan took a step toward improving the connection between Grand Rapids and Chicago with the opening of the new Amtrak Station. Named after the former West Michigan congressman, the new station location provided an upgrade for passenger rail riders. Also, the opening of the Vernon J. Ehlers Station ensured that Rapid Central Station would be truly a multimodal transportation center.
3. The Rapid’s unique partnership structure is beneficial. Our board is made up of 15 members from six municipalities in and around Grand Rapids. “We have six municipal governments working side by side, and I think the suburban neighborhoods really get a voice,” said Grand Rapids mayor and Rapid board member George Heartwell. Planning a unified system for everyone has been easier under this structure, he adds, whereas too often urban and suburban agencies collide on parochial interests and fears.
4. Grand Rapids has given a nod to transit-oriented development. In 2002, officials updated the city’s master plan on smart growth principles to encourage development that would public transportation use. Grand Rapids planning director Suzanne Schulz shared two important things to note about this update. One is that the planning commission can now waive all parking requirements for new developments. Second, officials decided that if a developer was in line with the new plan’s overall goals — “if they are building what the city wants,” Schulz says — the approval process can be wildly accelerated. Instead of going through city and planning commission meetings for approval, that developer only needs administrative permission.
5. It’s more than just public transportation, Grand Rapids understands multimodal travel. Aside from big strides in public transportation, Grand Rapids is focused on improving multimodal travel for all citizens. Both citizens and the city as a whole are focused on improving travel options for those not interested in the sole use of a vehicle. You may have noticed bike lanes springing up throughout the city. In a step toward communicating bike safety and the important of multimodal options, the city recently began ticket cars parked in bike lanes.
6. Other cities are looking to Grand Rapid for public transportation wisdom. With all of these great things taking place in Grand Rapids, it’s no surprise that the national Center for Transportation Excellence announced it would hold its 2015 transit initiatives conference there. They even called the city a “learning laboratory for leaders around the country.” Much larger cities across the nation are working to prioritize multimodal transportation options.
“People want transit; they’re demanding transit along with great bike facilities and walkways,” Heartwell says. “It’s good for a city’s growth. It’s good for air quality. And I think it’s going to be good for the city that makes those investments today.”