The number of people who use public transportation in Grand Rapids is rising fast. Last year, The Rapid logged a record 10.8 million riders and expects even more this year. The increase in ridership is part of a nationwide trend that shows more and more people are hanging up their car keys for bike helmets and bus passes.
At the Ehler’s Transit Symposium, held on April 12 at GVSU’s downtown Grand Rapids’ campus, public transportation experts from the city and across the nation gathered to discuss the future of mass transit and its impact on urban development.
The symposium is named in honor of former congressman Vern Ehlers who served on the Congressional Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
During the conference, Deputy Executive Director of Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) Jesse Oliver spoke about the role that public transportation played in helping revitalize the city’s minority districts. He also cited DART’s healthy relationship with the area’s business community as a major source of the agency’s success.
“Business leadership is key to getting things done,” said Oliver. “Government pays a lot more attention to the business community than to a lone agency looking for a hand-out.”
Local business leaders agreed with Oliver adding that public transportation in Grand Rapids needs to be treated as an investment. Kevin Stotts, President at Talent 2025, explained that efficient public transit is essential for Grand Rapids to compete economically with other cities.
“We know that young talent concentrates in urban centers. Public transit is part of a bundle of amenities that appeal to well-educated professionals,” he said.
Last May, voters narrowly approved a transit millage to increase funding for The Rapid. The tax levy will pay for a number of improvements including adding a route on division, extending existing routes and allowing for more frequent stops on existing lines.
Compared to using a personal vehicle, public transit is a more environmentally-friendly way to travel within the city.
“Public transportation is cool, critical and connective,” rapped West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology Executive Director and Symposium Coordinator Luisa Schumaker between speakers.
Rachel Hood, Executive Director West Michigan Environmental Action Council took a more contemplative approach on the subject.
“We have a lot of work to do to help educate the public on the benefits [of public transportation] to the economy and community as whole,” she said.
“The environmental message isn’t going to drive this dialogue, but there is a clear environmental benefit to mass transit.”