As West Michigan’s economy expands, planners and business owners find they’re facing a new growing pain.
Namely, they’re struggling with how to get workers in and out of urban areas and move them around during the day while they’re here. That’s led business stakeholders across the region to pay close attention to parking, transit and general mobility in recent months.
The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce has become involved in the heated debate over a perceived lack of parking in downtown Grand Rapids as a wave of development has taken over many surface parking lots, according to Josh Lunger, the group’s director of government affairs. As a result, the supply of spots in city- and privately-owned parking structures has dwindled during normal business hours.
“Grand Rapids is this critical hub for commerce and getting in and out of Grand Rapids remains important,” Lunger said.
For the Grand Rapids Chamber, the issue comes down to the need for more parking, particularly in the downtown area, as well as encouraging businesses to embrace other modes of transportation.
“It’s making sure we’re prioritizing corridors and that different options are available,” he said. “This includes not just moving commuters but also freight, business travelers and it’s also a quality of life issue for residents here.”
Over the coming months, the Grand Rapids Chamber will work with city officials on a “census” of area employers and employees to determine where commuters are starting and ending as well as what the mobility needs are for different jobs during the course of a day.
“I think the work we’re doing should be data-driven,” Lunger said. “It’d be very helpful to understand where you’re starting and where you’re ending and using that to help guide efforts around not just parking, but transit and other services to better understand how people are actually getting to work.”
CRUNCHING THE NUMBERS
In part, Lunger and other stakeholders hope to draw conclusions from statistics available via the U.S. Census Bureau, which has been tracking commute times around the country since 1980.
As it turns out, West Michigan fares pretty well when it comes to commute times compared to the rest of the country, according to census data compiled into an interactive map by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Midland-based free-market think tank.
The map shows median commute times around Kent County and lakeshore communities hover around 20 minutes. They get slightly longer farther north or south, away from major employment centers.
The average commute time in the U.S. grew to 26 minutes in 2016, 20-percent longer than in 1980 when the Census Bureau began tracking commute times, according to a 2016 report in The Washington Post.
For their part, executives at the Mackinac Center told MiBiz that while the census data could in theory be used to help inform policy decisions, it had no such goals in mind when it published the interactive map.
“We’ve done research and policy work on a variety of transportation-related topics over the years, and we’re interested in what the implications might be for our state as innovations like ridesharing, driverless vehicles and other advancements gain popularity,” John Mozena, vice president of marketing and communications for the Mackinac Center, wrote in an email to MiBiz.
While local organizations study data and policies that can have an impact on transportation, quality of life and the region’s economic standing, others are experimenting in real time with new mobility strategies.
Among them is Spectrum Health, West Michigan’s largest employer with a total of 25,000 employees.
The Grand Rapids-based health system has administrative staff spread between 29 different buildings around the region, and its employees commute from every direction, according to Rick Redetzke, senior vice president of facilities and real estate for Spectrum Health.
Spectrum’s largest cluster of real estate is concentrated along Michigan Street on the edge of downtown Grand Rapids, where executives acknowledge it’s highly unfeasible to have dedicated on-site parking for all its staff.
As such, Spectrum Health debuted initiatives aimed at not only getting employees to and from work, but also helping them to move between locations throughout the day, as required by many of the job responsibilities at the organization.
The health system spends $1.5 million annually for off-site parking and shuttles for its downtown center and Blodgett Hospital.
“It’s one thing to get them to work and then get them home. But during the course of the day, people need to move around to effectively do their job,” Redetzke said.
The health care provider currently offers passes for regional mass transit provider The Rapid and provides carpooling incentives and shuttle bus service to remote parking lots east of its main campus. Spectrum in recent years has also experimented with a “parking cash out” program where some employees at specific locations are given cash instead of a parking pass in exchange for finding their own way to work.
“That begins to change the model where you don’t have to park at the medical center and then bounce somewhere else for two hours with your car,” Redetzke said.
While Spectrum Health remains satisfied with the results of its transportation and mobility initiatives, Redetzke acknowledges widespread adoption will be slow to take shape.
“That’s also a cultural thing,” he said. “It (catches on), it just takes awhile.”
The need for a culture shift rings true for Lunger with the Grand Rapids Chamber, who noted that the discussion around addressing the downtown parking crunch is in many ways good news for the region.
“From our perspective, we’re a growing city and I’m very thankful we’re talking about challenges with not enough parking downtown because it means there’s a high demand,” Lunger said. “It means people want to be here and we kind of have to change our focus and address the challenges that come with being a place people want to be and that employers want to be.”