Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Bus Proposal is Good First Step Toward Regional Mass Transit

(From the April 10 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

The seeds of this column were planted a few years ago in the basement of a museum in Angers, France. Those seeds were fertilized by realities experienced here in the Tri-Cities. They were watered recently by an article in this and other local papers about a unique proposal.

The proposal is to launch a regional, inter-city bus system. Civic leaders from the Tri-Cities as well as Grand Rapids, Muskegon, and Holland are talking about working together to provide a regional bus system. It would be possible to take these buses for express trips between these metropolitan ‘hubs’ of the West Michigan region.

Buses don’t usually generate excitement. They are seen at the bottom of the transportation pecking order, as the unfortunate necessity for people who can not afford to have their “own” transportation—a car.

Oh the things we do for love. Here in Michigan in particular, we all have a devotion to our cars. The auto was born here. Cars are not just transportation; they are status symbols, personal expressions, private spaces. Actually riding a bus voluntarily would seem to violate a sacred truth of American and Michiganian liberty.

But let me go back to that museum basement in France. Angers is a city of about the same size as Grand Rapids. Its downtown is attractive and walkable. The city has a major river running through it. There are also neighborhoods and suburbs outside the central city that require a car or taxi to reach. So, in the museum basement, there was a futuristic exhibit. It showed video footage of people at various parts of Angers—downtown, a shopping area, the university campus. And then it superimposed a modern, efficient, electric train onto the scene. It showed people moving about the community freely, happily, without pollution, and with minimal expense. Buses were also part of the picture, taking people to specific locales the train could not reach.

I have long had a similar futuristic vision for West Michigan. That’s why the bus system gets me excited. It’s not just a government welfare program for people who can’t afford transportation. It’s a long-term strategy that affects us all. I know the objections people have to taking a bus: they are crowded with other people; you can’t have the solitude your own car affords you; you can’t listen to your own radio stations or CD music.

But, a bus system has advantages for all of us, both in terms of your personal self-interest and the common good. For one, the current gas prices are fluctuating, but do seem to be at a higher relative rate for good. Taking a bus for city-to-city trips will simply make more economic sense in the years ahead. Anyone who travels highways 31 or 96 knows there is lots of movement between cities in West Michigan. It’s a safe bet that half the labor force in Spring Lake commutes to one of the other cities in the area. Many of us shop or otherwise recreate in other cities, and many of our Tri-Cities visitors come from other addresses in the region. Buses would generate considerable cost savings.

Parking is the other major hassle alleviated by busses. If you get off the bus, you are simply there. You have no need to search for, or pay for, parking. Parking is at a premium in almost every area of the region. I know I’ve had to hunt for a spot in Grand Rapids, Holland, Muskegon and even here in Grand Haven at certain times of the year.

There are also common benefits to busing. Among them are cleaner air, less congestion on the roads, and the knowledge that the less fortunate can get to jobs, shopping and recreational activities.

You wouldn’t have to give up your car for good. You may have to go to areas of a city not served by a bus line, or you might need the car to carry sales material or other items that would be impractical to haul by hand on a bus. But on occasion, the bus would make sense for lots of us.

I can give some anecdotal evidence of the plausibility of buses for the masses. At Grand Valley State University, there are more than 1 million riders per year on the Rapid, the Grand Rapids public bus system. They have several routes that take students, faculty, staff and any community member between campuses in Allendale and downtown Grand Rapids, and they also serve student apartment centers and popular shopping areas. I took this bus myself when I taught a night class in Grand Rapids. The trade off from giving up the personal space in my car was in my favor. I left the driving to someone else, saved on gas, didn’t have to frantically search for parking before class, and even caught up on reading during the trip.

So, these busses between the Tri-Cities and other regional cities could serve our needs for commuting, shopping, recreating and save us money and a portion of the breathable air. But this is only a first step.

We should also seriously consider light rail electric trains along the highway corridors. Imagine being able to leave your car at a park and ride lot in Nunica or Grand Haven, hop a climate controlled, high-speed train, read or do other pleasant activities during the trip, and take local, hydrogen-powered buses to your specific location in your destination city.

We should move forward with the inter-city bus plan, but also think long-term of a regional mass transit train system to complement the buses. We should have the same vision that was on display in that museum in France, before our own museums are the only place we can see what it was like to have open, uncluttered areas in West Michigan.

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