Editor’s Note: This article marks the start of a six-part series on the subject of urbanism using examples from across the region and highlighting concepts on the minds of local professionals. Practitioners say city-building — or placemaking, as it’s now called — is all about people. The way we work, live and play continues to change and the infrastructure around us is always playing catch-up. This series aims to open up the discussion about how professionals in West Michigan think the region must adapt to thrive in the new economy.
The city of Grand Rapids has lots of “places.”
Van Andel Arena, Grand Valley State University, the Medical Mile and Eastown are all destinations that provide the city with economic benefits.
The struggle is making the act of getting people to those places convenient, cheap and reliable, sources said. Essentially, a well-designed transportation system should elevate public transit to be both preferable and desirable for people to use.
In the context of urbanism, experts say mobility and transportation design is less about moving people and more about creating accessibility — to work, to shops, to recreation, all of which make cities engaging and livable. To that end, transportation supports taking people to some “place.”
It may come as a surprise that one major hurdle to accessibility is the public’s long-standing love affair with the car, said Mark Miller, an urbanism advocate and architect at Grand Rapids-based Nederveld Inc. Thanks to the ubiquity of the automobile, people see driving a car as the gold standard for getting them from point A to point B, he said.
Infrastructure developed around the automobile as the preferred mode of transportation, with other forms of transportation getting only secondary attention, sources said.
But many cities’ problems stem in part from accommodating the automobile, said Jeffrey Tumlin, principal with San Francisco-based transportation consultancy Nelson/Nygaard. A nationally recognized transportation expert, Tumlin recently came to Grand Rapids as the first featured speaker in the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority’s series on urban issues.
“Downtowns are social phenomenons. People willing to spend more on rents and the cost of living do so because there is social opportunity,” he told MiBiz in an exclusive interview prior to his visit. “The thing is, you need density. But if you’re taking up so much space with parking and automobiles, you can’t have that.”
Nederveld’s Miller agreed. Compare the ease of driving a car to work or school with the process involved in biking, walking or taking public transit to those places, and it’s clear transportation planning is skewed toward the automobile, he said.
“We have to make this effort less about the car and more about people,” he said. “So much space and infrastructure is devoted to the vehicle, and that’s what’s holding (Grand Rapids) back from seeing greater urban density.”
Historically, cities were much more dense before the automobile, said Nick Monoyios, a long-range planner for the Interurban Transit Partnership, better known as The Rapid, the mass transit system for greater Grand Rapids. In fact, land use and mobility are inherently linked, he said.
“Because infrastructure was scaled around how big automobiles are and how fast they can go, cities are experiencing some negative consequences around that priority,” Monoyios said.
Declining property values due to noise, traffic and congestion, as well as pollution, suburban sprawl and less pedestrian friendly downtowns are just some examples of how automobile-focused transportation planning affects cities. Commerce moved out of the city’s core business district as thoroughfares including 28th Street and the East Beltline were built, Monoyios said.
“The focus of future planning isn’t about doing away with the car or deterring people from driving, but how can we be most prudent with how we design mobility,” he said. “We have to build places to human scale that have identity and make people want to be there.”
City officials understand personal commuters’ needs but say adapting to the needs of drivers isn’t necessarily in the best interest for building a better city.
“We recognize that driving is important to some people, but these efforts aren’t meant to take the keys out of anyone’s hands,” said Kris Larson, executive director of the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority. “The real cost to own and maintain a car is about $14,000 a year. That’s a tremendous amount of money to spend on anything. We are trying to create real opportunities for people to free themselves from that obligation and repurpose that burden in creating a better lifestyle choice.”
From an economic standpoint, Larson said the top 100 metros in the U.S. comprise less than 1 percent of the land mass in the country, but are responsible for producing roughly 75 percent of the nation’s GDP. These cities have planned and built around multimodal transportation infrastructure, he said.
Raising the profile of public transit
Ongoing efforts to improve accessibility in Grand Rapids include a Transportation Demand Management study, the broader focus of which examines how to provide a more balanced mobility system. At a very basic level, it’s about finding the right mix of cars, public transit, bikes and pedestrian spaces in the city, officials said.
The current focus for the study is the Michigan Street corridor. Project partners include Smart Growth for America, the Michigan Department of Transportation, the Michigan Economic Development Corp., the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, the City of Grand Rapids and local stakeholders.
The project started in January and is expected to wrap this June. Objectives include:
- Determining what commuter travel needs are along the corridor, how current systems are operating, the multimodal travel options and available management strategies, as well as opportunities to address unmet needs.
- Identifying best practice models and programmatic changes to better mesh federal and state government policies as well as local and regional efforts.
- Recommending reforms to guide policymakers to create an environment that is conducive to these efforts.
- Developing measurable performance outcomes for a transportation demand management strategy for the corridor.
“Other larger cities are starting to employ transportation demand management strategies out of necessity. It’s hard to say, but for a city our size and where we are at, I think we’re definitely on the leading edge and have been far less reactionary,” Monoyios said of local transportation planning. “Our scale and our needs are obviously different from other cities, and that’s why we need to weed out and filter through the vast alternatives of what we can employ.”
The Rapid’s new Silver Line Bus Rapid Transit system is one solution that is already underway, he said. A total of 33 new stations are scheduled for construction between Grand Rapids, Wyoming and Grandville. Completion of the system is expected in the summer of 2014 with service starting that August.
Both the city and The Rapid’s master plans also include potential streetcar and light rail options that could better connect the central business district and its nearby neighborhoods. New transportation options could improve accessibility to routes currently served by infrequent buses or routes with one or multiple transfers.
For urban advocates, these new systems can’t come fast enough. But they say they’re realistic in understanding that funding discussions and further feasibility studies will take time. Growth in the city’s employment base and more downtown residential living space is still needed to justify major multimodal investments, sources said.
By the numbers
Based on the mounting body of data, industry professionals and planners might have an easier time convincing their communities that those investments are worth it. Lately, public transit data is helping push the issue, thereby giving multimodal advocates more confidence in the feasibility of projects.
For example, 2012 was a record year for The Rapid. With more than 11.9 million individual rides, the authority is seeing increased demand for service around the greater metro area.
With rising gas prices and a proposed gas tax increase floated by Gov. Rick Snyder to fund a plan just to maintain the state’s crumbling infrastructure, Monoyios said he expects heightened interest in public transit discussions.
Urban mobility advocates have also been buoyed by national data that show more citizens are demanding public transportation. Last year, Americans took 10.5 billion trips via public transit, the second-highest ridership since 1957, according to a report released in March from the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). Compared to the previous year, ridership was up 154 million trips in 2012, which was the seventh consecutive year total trips were above 10 billion, the APTA report stated.
In an Eco Building article citing the report, APTA President and CEO Michael Melaniphy said the evidence shows Americans are changing their tune when it comes to travel options. They also seem to be more supportive of investment in public transportation systems given the number of transit-oriented ballot initiatives that passed in 2012, he said in the article.
While transportation expert Tumlin said it’s important for businesses and governments to align behind better transportation strategies, the most successful efforts grow from the grassroots level.
That’s exactly how Revision Division launched. The project, which started in 2011, is gathering information and has started studying the feasibility of reducing traffic speed on Division Avenue between Michigan Street and Wealthy Street. The group also wants to bring down the number of traffic lanes from five to three in that stretch of Division. Advocates say the changes would improve the business climate, reduce accidents and make the corridor more friendly for pedestrians and bicycle users.
Roads to follow
The best functioning cities are those that have a choice for transportation and that prioritize making public transit fast, frequent and clean, Tumlin said. For public transit to be successful, people have to break from the stereotype that public mass transit is only for the working class or impoverished people in their communities, he said.
More cities should aspire to be like Boulder, Colo., which has possibly the best multimodal transportation system in the U.S., he added.
“The city has an amazing bus system that has higher per capita ridership than some of the biggest cities in the U.S. Many people bike to work, and the lanes are largely separated from the streets,” he said. “As a result, people are willing to pay an exceedingly high premium to live there because of the quality of life.”
From what he’s gathered, Tumlin said quality of life plays a huge role for business attraction and retention in Grand Rapids. The region must do all it can to protect that key aspect, he said, noting adding parking doesn’t support that goal.
Tumlin outlined three simple rules for improving mobility:
- No mode of transportation works well if walking doesn’t work well.
- Make public transit fast, frequent, reliable and clean in well traveled corridors that benefit the most from mass transit.
- Recognizing that parking is phenomenally expensive, oftentimes the best way to achieve a city’s goals is not by adding supply, but rather by improving management.
“If cities can get those three down, that’s a good start,” he said.
West Michigan is not alone in pushing for transportation reform. National movements such as “highways to boulevards” are taking hold in cities across the country including St. Louis, Milwaukee, San Francisco and Denver. Thought leaders on the subjects of design and placemaking including the Congress for the New Urbanism and Projects for Public Spaces are proponents of the idea and argue that such concepts — in combination with parking reform — are helping cities reclaim their vitality.
Sources in Grand Rapids suggest demographic shifts are at the center of such larger trends. Nederveld’s Miller and The Rapid’s Monoyios say younger generations are driving less and they want to be engaged in highly connected environments that promote culture and identity.
The DDA’s Larson agreed.
“Planning our city around transportation that allows people to move around it with ease is at the core of building our city,” Larson said.