Getting Around & The Michigan St Plan

In January [2015] the Grand Rapids city council performed tentative adoption of the Michigan St Corridor Plan. Final adoption is scheduled for March 11th, 2015 following a 42 day comment period.

First some terms: "mode share" is the portion of all people taking trips using a given type of transportation [including walking]. "multi-modal" trips are trips taken using multiple modes. Everyone takes multi-modal trips. For example if you drive to the airport, fly to Dallas, and then take the DART (Dallas' light rail line) downtown to your hotel - then you've used four modes. You drove, flew, used transit, and you walked (the last few blocks to the hotel). "Mode shift" is when people change from regularly using one or a few types of transportation to using another type of transportation, or a different mix of types of transportation.

As would be expected of any plan having to do with a street there is an emphasis on transportation. And the transportation related aspects of the plan have caused the biggest stir. In response to the plan's transporation oriented objectives MLIVE published a post entitled "How you'll get to Grand Rapid's Medical Mile in the future". This story included a few data points from the plan:

  • ~90%-95% of the trips currently taken on/to "Medical Mile" are performed using single-passenger vehicles.
  • By 2035 the plan targets:
    • A single-passenger vehicle mode share of ~45%, with another ~20% for multiple-occupant vehicles.
    • ~20% of 2035 users using public transit, up from ~1% currently
    • Increase from ~3-5% mode share for pedestrians to ~12%.
    • Increase from -0.2% mode share for bicycles to ~5%.

The response to this story's coverage of the plan's objectives comes as no surprise. Internet commentators are incensed. I have been asked, in person, nearly a dozen times something equivalent to: "what are they thinking?". This question is generally accompanied by gestures indicating complete mystification, if not disgust. It was a serious flaw of the MLIVE story that it failed to convey any sense of rationale beyond the quote "the level of service for autos won't get much better" [Suzanne Schulz, city planner]. It appears there is a wide-spread sentiment that the objectives of the plan are radical, represent some type of progressive agenda, or are simply unachievable. This last notion, that these changes are practically unachievable belies an underlying belief that Grand Rapids is a nearly completely auto-dependent single-mode city, that Grand Rapids is a quintessentially car oriented American city.

But that is not who we are - today. Those targets do represent ambitious changes in mode shift. However these numbers, if you look at them in the context of other data, are certainly not radical. These goals can be achieved by pursuing the current incrementalist approach the city has been pursuing, successfully, since 2010 and before.

First lets look at transportation modes. Particularly mode share data for commutes - trips to and from work - from the 2010 census. An important note concerning this data is that it predates significant improvements to the RAPID public transit service since 2010: improvements involving service frequency, additional routes, and the implementation of BRT.

In addition to improvements in transit there have been improvements for cyclists as well; the creation of numerous bike lanes and bike parking facilities making bicycles a more convenient mode of transportation.

So now those mode numbers...

Commuter Mode Share Data By Census Tract (2010)

Census Tract Neighborhood Walk % Bike % Transit % Total Non-Auto %
20 Downtown 26.7 2.1 10.8 39.6
21 Heritage Hill 19.4 2.7 4.5 26.6
14 Monroe North / Belknap 12.6 1.5 8.1 22.1
22 Midtown 6.5 3.5 2.4 12.4
12 Highland Park 1.6 0.3 1.8 3.8
13 Belknap 2.0 3.8 5.8 11.6

Note: Census tracts do not correspond precisely to neighborhood boundaries. The correlation of tract to neighborhood is an approximate one.

As we can see, at least for work related commutes, there are neighborhoods which already had much more robust non-automotive mode share than is seen currently on the Michigan St corridor. Again - prior to already implemented improvements. The SilverLine BRT which services the west end of the Michigan St corridor has undoubtedly changed these numbers as it's monthly ridership approaches 50,000 passengers [49,248 for December, 2014]. In light of just this previous mode share data the proposed targets for the corridor do not seem radical. These 2010 numbers frequently shock people; they erode the notion that Grand Rapids is a classic car-oriented American city. The reality is that in neighborhoods where it is practical to do so utilization of other modes is significant.

But why do the numbers fall off so steeply as one moves east down the corridor?

Many factors impact mode share beyond just transportation infrastructure. Transportation infrastructure always exists in both a demographic context and a built environment. Someone visiting the Michigan St corridor from Newaygo is almost certainly going to drive there, and according to the data they will most likely drive there by themselves in their own vehicle.

Most of the time when I have been asked the "What are they thinking?" question it has been asked by someone who commutes more than fifteen miles each way. With that demographic the concept of shifting mode share encounters a problem of imagination; and that problem of imagination is the result of day to day experience. This is entirely understandable. Residents of suburban communities do not experience other modes of transportation so it naturally feels as if facilitating those modes is taking something away from them - and their one and only available mode. As a resident of a neighborhood (Highland Park) adjacent to the Michigan St corridor I use all those other modes: transit (the RAPID#15 & RAPID#11), bicycle, and walking. I use them because they are practical for me; my distances are much shorter, and the option of transit is available. A five to ten minute bus trip will take me downtown, in ten to fifteen minutes a bicycle can take me to my office, and in fifteen to twenty minutes I can walk to the neighborhood butcher shop or a variety of restaurants and bars.

Aside: I can conveniently make that trip to Midtown as a pedestrian but unfortunately I cannot make that trip legally. The most convenient path from the south west corner of Highland Park into Midtown is to trespass on the right-of-way of the Grand Rapids Eastern Railroad as their right-of-way provides a path under the 196 express way. The express way creates a significant physical barrier for pedestrians and cyclists. The Michigan St Corridor Plan addresses this barrier.

The relationship of my self-example to the Michigan St Corridor and mode share is one the MLIVE article completely ignores. Data included in the plan indicates that of the 19,553 employees and students which regularly use the Michigan Street Corridor only 2.6% reside in the study area. It can be assumed that this means most of those people have few options other than to drive themselves. If a greater share of those employees and students lived nearer to the corridor more mode options would be available and practical - resulting in mode shift. This result in mode shift would not be the result of taking anything away from someone, but the result of providing options. So why do not more of that 93.7% live in or near the corridor? Is it desirability, affordability, or availability? It is all three. Many would not choose to reside in an urban neighborhood due to personal preference or other competing demands; this includes some of those asking me the "What are they thinking?" question. But desirability is one of three variables. Affordability and availability are limits as well; and lack of availability impacts affordability.

Aside: If you desire less expensive / more affordable housing the answer is relatively straight forward - build more housing.

The study demonstrates a market demand for 5,870 housing units in the next five years - clearly someone finds the corridor a desirable place to live as well as to work. The bottleneck for additional urban housing has been two fold: (#1) obsolete regulations and zoning restrictions and (#2) the cost of clearing away blight remaining from abandoned industry and the era of [so called] "urban renewal". Fortunately this is a good time for Grand Rapids developers and investors. The city has been slashing away at (#1) and the work of clearing away blight (#2) is coming to a close. According to Kurt Hassberger of Rockford Construction there were 72 dead or empty buildings in and around downtown Grand Rapids twenty five years ago. He now believes that number is either one or zero.. The reality is that the built environment around the corridor is currently changing; including a collection of mixed-use developments providing a minimum of 929 new residential units. Approximately 50,000 employees and students work or attend classes within the corridor area and projected job growth for the corridor is an additional ~1,100 jobs per year. The thrust of all these numbers is clear: the area is experiencing rapid change. With these changes to the built environment and demographic context mode shift is a natural, and voluntary, consequence; not the result of a progressive agenda.

Housing Developments Expected To Complete Or Begin In 2015

Development Units
Arena Place 100 units
Morton 100 units
616 On Michigan 50 units
Olds Manor 80 units
New Holland 35 units
Clancy Lofts 66 units
616 Fulton St W 91 units
Klingman Lofts 83 units
20 E. Fulton 90 units
BOB Venue Tower 90 units
Waters Building 44 units
Lofts On Alabama 100 units
TOTAL 929 units

With changes in land use - the "built environment" - mode shift has always been a result. People adapt; they can choose to or they can wait until they have to. The corridor plan is about choosing to adapt. If these changes make you uncomfortable imagine the Michigan St corridor with all those additional residents and new jobs if nothing changes, if no more transportation options are available. In that scenario the experience of someone driving down Michigan St. will be a miserable one. Imagine if, just looking at December 2014, if we took the 146,094 passengers who rode RAPID routes which serve the corridor and added those people to the traffic flow as single occupant vehicles? As congested as Michigan St is now, imagine it then. The mode-shift oriented improvements included in the plan help out the driver just as much as they help out the non-driver. The BRT bus in its dedicated lane represents between twenty and sixty vehicles the driver does not need to contend with. Overall, if you take the time to look at the data I am convinced you will find the corridor plan represents everyone; from today's driver to the new corridor resident.

One last thing...

It is important to remember that our current configuration of transportation options is barely two generations old. Most people reading this article had grand parents who rode on electric street cars and great grand parents that traveled by steam ship and horse drawn carriages. In every generation what was in place when they arrived on Earth seems "normal", and what innovation occurred during their lives is "change". Perhaps they, or we, perceive this change as change for the worse or change for the better. However we feel the concept of this as change from A to B is a flawed one. There is no "normal". We have been ceaselessly changing how we travel. Sometimes those changes are gradual and other times they come quickly. If it is any comfort for those still troubled by these changes - the automobile will be with us for a long time to come. Streetcars still ply the streets of many cities around the world. Trains still move tens of thousands of passengers between cities [just in Michigan!]. All those people on the streetcar or the train are not competing with the driver, their choice of transit mode benefits the driver.

Aside: The continued vitality of "historic" modes is evident even in Grand Rapids. In January 2015 approximately 7,000 passengers came and went on Amtrak's Pere Marquette. which terminates at RAPID Central Station.

This is the beauty of multi-modal travel, everything finds its way to the niche where it is most practical. Encouraging multiple modes is not about taking anything away from anyone. Multiple modes provides people with choice about what works best for them. And what is more quintessentially American than the freedom of choices?

Current Usage Statistics Not Included In the MLIVE Story

  • 50,000 researchers, faculty, staff, and students
  • 1,250,000 annual visitors
  • 20,000 residents in surrounding neighborhoods
  • 28,000 monthly commuter shuttle riders
  • 1,300 transit boardings/day
  • All five major intersections on Michigan St are designated as "High Crash Locations"

Recent Ridership Of RAPID Routes Servicing The Corridor

Route November 2014 December 2014
RAPID#11 (Plainfield) 32,748 34,210
RAPID#15 (East Leonard) 35,802 36,681
RAPID#13 (Michigan/North Fuller) 22,169 23,390
RAPID#19 (Michigan/South Fuller) 2,507 2,565
SilverLine (Medical Mile/South Division) 46,227 49,248

NOTE: RAPID#19 operates on a limited service schedule.