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The Automobile and Us - Part IV: Current efforts in GR to strengthen alternative transportation

Underwriting support from:
The Rapid Transit Center

The Rapid Transit Center /Michael Tuffelmire

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Green Grand Rapids Logo /Jack Hoffman

This is part four of a five part series in which we will explore the effects of the automobile on us as a population and on Grand Rapids. This part features an interview with Jack Hoffman, who represents Grand Rapids on the Rapid board. He also served as Steering Committee Chair of Green Grand Rapids.

In his role on The Rapid's board and as the committee chair for Green Grand Rapids, Jack Hoffman has observed that citizens in Grand Rapids are beginning to place major emphasis on what the city should be and how they want it to be.

“The old ways are not working,” Hoffman said. "A habit that is difficult for citizens to break is the use of single passenger transportation. It does not make sense from a scientific and reality based perspective."

Hoffman says that although the automobile should increase freedom in mobility, it actually ties you down with a very expensive machine to maintain. This means that a decent percentage of one’s annual income goes toward maintaining an automobile.

The Rapid is a public utility company that moves people and goods. It receives one-third of its funding from local government, one-third from the state and one-third from fares.

Hoffman discussed how the Grand Rapids Area Transit Authority (GRATA), the bus system that existed before The Rapid, was not a system that anybody could be proud of. He does believe that The Rapid is a system we can be proud of. The Rapid provides a high quality, basic service to Grand Rapidians.

The Rapid operates in six member communities: Walker, Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grandville. A good portion of these communities are low income. Hoffman says affordable service to low income riders is a necessary component of any effective public transportation system, but he also believes that public transportation is most effective when people who can afford an automobile choose to take public transportation.

Surrounding communities interested in utilizing The Rapid's public transportation system can easily partake in the service. Communities that request the service and pay via a levied tax then support the system as a single entity from then on.

If our public transporation system becomes a system that all citizens can embrace, it can develop and expand into a phenomenal system that rivals the automobile. 

“I believe the future of our community is more towards sustainable green type measures, which includes public transportation,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman believes that the community should continue the discussion for the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) or better known as the Silver line.

“I acknowledge that last year’s proposal for a special millage was defeated. However, I continue to believe it is critical to the future of our community to develop a system that will attract riders of choice," Hoffman said. "The South Division corridor is not only our busiest route but redevlopment of the corridor is at the same time a challenge and an opportunity. Maybe the mix before the voters last time was not the right mix. But I believe that with continued community discussion, we can find the right solution.”

Green Grand Rapids is the other group Hoffman is involved in. It started when Suzanne Shultz, Grand Rapids' planning director, looked at updating the city plan to include a five-year strategic plan. She noticed the issues that required most study were green issues. The plan focused on five major areas: connection--which includes complete streets--the urban forest, storm water, the Grand River, farmers’ markets and urban farms, and parks.

Hoffman said that traditional streets were used for more than just a speed tube for cars. The public street was a public space used for socializing and retail. After a while, drivers sped up and people got out of the way.

State and federal governments fund the road and dominate street use. We have to change this in order to allow local government constitutional control over the streets.

The funding should go to the city so it can have control over street design. Hoffman emphasized that the Michigan constitution states that the local coummunity has control over its streets, in reality it does not.

If the right decisions are made by citizens, Hoffman sees a future community that has vibrancy. A city that has interesting and productive things going on and people feel good about being part of their community.

“We will get to a point where families will chose to live in the city because of transportation and education and can get along without a car,” Hoffman said.

He fears that if we don’t make the right decisions we will become more like Detroit. We are also going to get point where people will not be able to afford an automobile and not have an alternative.

“I cannot overemphasize how strongly I believe that our community is at a critical decision point with regard to transportation issues. In my judgment, continued blind adherence to the policies of the last half of the twentieth century will condemn West Michigan to an existence as an economic and cultural backwater. I am reminded of Lincoln’s words in his famous second annual address to Congress: ‘As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew,  We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.’"

In part five, I will be putting Grand Rapids' progress in a national context.

Part I: The clash between the streetcar industry and automobile industry
Part II: The automobile's detrimental toll on community life
Part III: Ways to modify cities to accommodate alternative transportation
Part IV: Current efforts in Grand Rapids for strengthening alternative transportation
Part V: Did the car ever make sense?

Disclosure: Jack Hoffman is my Uncle.

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