As transportation advocates and urban planners push new mobility strategies, they’re also working to see how new tools may affect the future of traditional mass transit.
The emergence of ride-hailing services and electric scooter rentals as first-mile and last-mile transit options both complement and compete with mass transit. Nonetheless, transit advocates feel a sense of urgency to push forward with large infrastructure projects, even if skeptics believe it brings a low return on investment.
“If we continue to grow and we have continued congestion, then we need to provide options for people to get around in many different ways, so not just vehicles, not just transit,” said Laurel Joseph, a transportation planner for the Grand Valley Metro Council, a planning organization for the Grand Rapids area. “Creative solutions are going to have to be a part of this region and, frankly, everywhere.”
While getting more people to ride public transit remains a priority, to what extent advocates’ efforts might boost ridership is unclear. Transit ridership in the Grand Rapids area outpaces ridership statewide, but still trails the rest of the country, according to U.S. Census data.
Only about 1.3 percent of commuters in Michigan use public transportation, according to Census estimates. That compares to an estimated 3.9 percent in Grand Rapids, where another 3.5 percent of people walk to work. About three-quarters of commuters drive alone to work in Grand Rapids, while 82.5 percent do the same around the state, according to the Census data.
As a range of local stakeholders — including the business community — weigh how best to prepare for the future of mobility, transit skeptics point out the inefficiency of investing in large, expensive transportation infrastructure projects, given their low overall usage rates.
“There are clear roles that transit has to play for getting people where they need to go,” said James Hohman, director of fiscal policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Libertarian-leaning think tank in Midland. “That needs to be the major driver for what our transportation policy is. The model that we have for regional bus systems is that they generally don’t get people where they want to go.”
Despite the view from fiscal conservatives about the inefficiency of large-scale investments in mass transit systems, various regions around the state continue expanding their transportation options.
Economic developers view expanding mobility in an efficient manner as a requirement to attract new businesses and retain jobs.
“It’s a big issue down by us,” Al Pscholka, vice president of public relations and government affairs at Kinexus, a Southwest Michigan economic development group, said during a roundtable discussion MiBiz convened earlier this summer.
“In one county, we have four transit authorities that don’t talk to each other,” Pscholka said. “It makes absolutely no sense at all that to get from Benton Harbor to Niles takes you more than three hours, and you’ve got to get on three different transit systems — and they drop you off on the side of the road and you have to make a call and hope the next one comes and gets you.
“For us, it’s eliminating some of these barriers for people so that companies can move their workforce.”
To that end, transit executives in the Grand Rapids area continue pushing forward with enhanced bus rapid transit (BRT) routes.
The Grand Rapids-based Interurban Transit Partnership, known as The Rapid, expects to begin construction next spring on the long-planned Laker Line, an enhanced bus route that will connect Grand Valley State University’s campuses downtown and in Allendale.
BRT operates similarly to light rail, but without the added cost of installing fixed rail infrastructure.
The Federal Transit Authority (FTA) is funding 80 percent of the $70 million Laker Line, with the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) covering the rest of the cost.
While The Rapid President and CEO Andrew Johnson joined the organization this summer, after most of the planning for the Laker Line had been completed, he is taking on an active role in ramping up the new service.
“We have great partnerships with GVSU and others, and my big job is making sure those partnerships continue,” Johnson said. “I am coming in late in the game on this one; all the real heavy lifting has been done. But making sure that it rolls out the right way, making sure that it comes in on budget, on time, that’s on me.”
The Rapid stands out from its peers statewide in that it has successfully launched enhanced bus lines. Once built, the Laker Line will become the second BRT line The Rapid has developed in less than a decade.
It comes after the 2014 launch of the Silver Line route along South Division Avenue and throughout downtown Grand Rapids.
However, efforts from other Michigan-based regional transportation systems to deploy BRT routes have largely fizzled.
In 2017, the Lansing-based Capital Area Transit Authority (CATA) shelved plans to build a proposed $133 million BRT line that would have connected downtown Lansing, Michigan State University in East Lansing and points farther east. CATA officials cited federal cuts to transit funding as the reason for shelving the plans, according to a report in the Lansing State Journal.
Likewise, multiple attempts to create more robust regional transit in Southeast Michigan have failed to gain traction with voters.
Nick Monoyios, a long range planner with The Rapid who’s overseen the development of the Laker Line, cites multiple reasons why West Michigan has been successful with its projects.
“The jurisdictional and stakeholder collaboration has always been very strong here,” Monoyios said. “Conversely to Southeast Michigan, our geography is much smaller. There’s not a lot of competing interests. … We’ve presented strong projects and aligned vision with strong Congressional support.”
Whether further investments into enhanced modes of transit can encourage people to eschew cars in favor of buses and trains remains unclear.
The Los Angeles metro area, for example, invested hundreds of millions of dollars into its mass transit system only to see ridership dip 15 percent over the last five years, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.
Skeptics like the Mackinac Center’s Hohman believe that continuing to invest in large transit infrastructure projects wastes taxpayer money, particularly given low ridership numbers in car-dependent states like Michigan.
The Mackinac Center and other groups have advocated instead for giving low-income people subsidies to use ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft.
“Getting where you want to go when you want to go there is valuable,” Hohman said. “People are skeptical about transit’s ability to perform that.”
Johnson at The Rapid believes a focus on the “holistic” customer experience — whether the person rides the bus or not — can help in boosting ridership in West Michigan.
“Unlike a private company, everyone here is our customer because if you’re not riding, you’re paying taxes to support it,” Johnson said. “You’re enjoying the fact that it gets you around, gets people around quicker and reduces the congestion so you can get where you need to go. We want to focus on all aspects of that, and that’s what is going to drive our capital projects and any other initiatives that we undertake.”