As the new President and CEO of Grand Rapids-area Interurban Transit Partnership, known as The Rapid, Andrew Johnson hopes to leverage existing business support to grow the operation. Having previously served as the COO of the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District in central Illinois, Johnson views West Michigan’s “diversified” economy as a perfect place to start in working toward better transit service. He spoke with MiBiz about the future of The Rapid and how bus service fits into mobility in West Michigan.
How has your past experience prepared you to run a system like The Rapid?
Champaign-Urbana has great ridership because it’s got that built-in student base (from the University of Illinois), but locally, it’s not nearly as large — not even close to as large — as the Grand Rapids region. The Grand Rapids area is just really attractive in that it’s very supportive of public transportation, but at the same time, it’s really got more of a booming economy that’s more diversified as well. Whereas, I am coming from a university town where the university was what was going on.
What does that diversified economy mean for transit?
We’ve got more of a diverse base of industry and service. That allows somebody like me, who really loves public transportation from the standpoint of the impact that we can make in the community, as opposed to the private sector where I was for a while where it was all about that bottom line and everything. You can see every day how you’re impacting the community, and that’s really worth it to me.
Michigan is the car state. What’s your perception of how West Michigan uses transit? What do you see as the opportunities to expand upon that?
I look at it as there is a commitment to the concept of mobility. There is a recognition that there is great value in public transportation and that businesses throughout the region actively seek out ways to utilize public transportation. I think though, like the rest of the industry, we haven’t quite figured out how to harness that total mobility model yet.
What do you mean by that?
We can’t silo ourselves as, ‘We just do the buses. We’re not worried about anything else.’ We want to be able to give everyone here that same level of accessibility to transportation that isn’t their private car, through a variety of choices. I think with our partnerships with Grand Rapids, with some of the local businesses, we’re really working toward that. We haven’t quite found the formula yet, but the resources are being put into it so I am confident we will.
What other regions might you borrow best practices from?
Right off the top of my head, in Florida, the Tampa Bay area, they’ve partnered with Uber and Lyft to try to figure out some of the first mile/last mile (challenges). Also, (with) the choice riders (i.e., people with access to other modes of transit who still use public transit), you don’t necessarily want the density that you find on a public transit business, but (they) still don’t necessarily want to be driving themselves.
In your role as the CEO of one of the state’s largest transit systems, are there are certain policies you want to advocate for?
First and foremost, my job and the job of everyone here is to promote the value of public transportation and mobility. You can’t change the funding models until everyone truly believes that, ‘Hey, we have to have this. This is going to benefit everybody, not just a certain segment of the community. Let’s sit down and talk about how we can do this.’
How do you envision going about having those discussions?
That comes a lot from the business community and the local municipalities where the constituents are like, ‘Hey, we want you to talk about this.’ In turn, in the state house and in the federal government, (that) gets them saying, ‘OK, we have some air cover to discuss this and people want to discuss this, so I’m not going to get in trouble if I bring up … how we can fund public transportation.’ Whereas, nowadays, it’s: ‘Don’t talk about the gas tax, don’t talk about this and that.’ They can’t figure out what they want to do to fund it. But if you’ve got that kind of grassroots business and individual-type movement, then you’re going to get that discussion.
Who are the partners you envision engaging to build that support?
Western Michigan especially has a very active and strong business community. Many big names in the business community want to be involved, will provide assistance and advice, and they’ll definitely take up the challenge of how do we get the discussion going. They’ve got considerable weight behind them. It’s not just any one big corporation in town. It’s just everyone seems to be very, very clued in to keep Western Michigan going into the future, to cut down on congestion that we’re starting to see. To get people to work in various spread out places, we’re going to have to have mobility options, and that’s where we’re getting that kind of movement.
The Rapid, in partnership with the city of Grand Rapids and Spectrum Health, recently launched a fare-free route along the booming Michigan Street Medical Mile corridor. Do you view this as a model that will be replicated?
I think so, from the standpoint that it needs to serve all the partners equally. It needs to reduce the need for parking. It needs to get away from congestion on the streets. We’re still working it out. This partnership is something that’s brand new in this community. There are a couple of hiccups and we’re working through that as partners, and it’s going well. People are riding it every day and getting to and from work.