Thursday, May 17, 2012

My Own Transportation Odyssey

In an attempt to do something enjoyable together between finals and graduation, a group of friends and I decided to hit up a Tigers game in the up-and-coming city of Detroit. As all thirteen of us live in Grand Rapids, it made the most sense to carpool to Comerica Park in the afternoon in time for the 7:05pm game. However, with a full day free (and this being Transportation Week), I saw an opportunity to have something of an adventure in traveling the 150 miles from Grand Rapids to Detroit. If you have read this blog in the past, you know of the disdain I have for all things automobile, so between that sentiment, my love of transit, and recent developments in rail travel in Michigan, I decided to wildly inconvenience myself by eschewing the car in favor of alternative forms of transportation.

Living in Grand Rapids and working in Holland, I would occasionally take Amtrak’s Pere Marquette to commute, and because of Amtrak Guest Reward’s generous 100-point minimum earning per one-way trip and multiple promotions, I have been racking up rewards points all spring. I decided this trip was a worthy way to spend some of those points, so I explored my options. At first, I thought I would drive down to Kalamazoo and catch the Wolverine to Detroit, but this would leave my car in Kalamazoo, which was not an option. I could take Indian Trails from Grand Rapids to Kalamazoo, but the times did not work favorably, so I realized I would have to truly make an adventure of this by taking the Pere Marquette from Grand Rapids to Chicago, then the Wolverine from Chicago to Detroit. The price for both segments was practically the same, so I purchased (with a Student Advantage discount of fifteen percent) the Pere Marquette segment for $25.50 and redeemed 1,500 points for a free Wolverine segment. I would arrive in Detroit at 6:46pm, a mere nineteen minutes before the game started, which (if the train was on time) could not be more perfect.

Arising that morning at 6:15am, I prepared for the day and stepped outside to catch the Rapid’s Route 5 downtown. The sun was just rising as I stepped on the nearly-full bus and took a seat. Fifteen minutes later found me at Rapid Central Station, bustling with the rush of morning commuters. I walked the half mile down Wealthy Street to the Amtrak station, looking forward to the day Amtrak and the Rapid will be collocated once construction of the new Amtrak station is completed. About fifty people were waiting for the train inside the tiny station and out on the platform, and no conductor checked our tickets in advance, as was usual. I stepped outside to wait for the train, and it arrived shortly thereafter. I boarded, found a spacious seat in the second of three Superliner cars, and settled in for the (supposed) four-hour journey to Chicago.

This was the first time I had taken the Pere Marquette all the way to Chicago, and I had heard that this particular train was one of the most scenic short-distance trains in the country. I would not quite agree with that sentiment, although the views along the Lake Michigan shoreline are quite picturesque. However, I was greeted with much enjoyable scenery as I grabbed some coffee from the café and began reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. As we neared Chicago, we encountered significant delays that resulted in a late arrival into Union Station by 45 minutes. The car attendants, to their credit, did apologize time and again for our tardiness, but it was little issue for my itinerary, as my next train was not due to depart for an hour after our late arrival.

I had just enough time to find a nearby café and grab a bite to eat between trains, so I stepped out of Union Station into the bright sunshine along the river, found a nearby eatery, and ordered a sandwich. Having not eaten much breakfast, I was ready for some sustenance, and my lunch was consumed in short order. The city was bustling as I strolled along the river a ways before reentering the hulk of Union Station. I could not help but sigh at the design of the place as I descended into its depths. European rail stations, which I thoroughly enjoy, are large, open, and airy marvels of architecture; American stations, even the most prolific among them, are dark, claustrophobic, subterranean hovels. Navigating the dimly lit maze of passageways, I was reminded of a joke I overheard while departing New York’s Penn Station several months ago:

“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…and lead us not into Penn Station, but deliver us from evil…”

Finding my gate, I joined the sizable queue waiting to board. This train had an abundance of cars, so I was not concerned about having to share a seat. Not that I would have minded such company; however, the Amfleet I cars of which the train consisted are not the most spacious or accommodating, and I appreciated having a free seat beside me. I was glad to remember as well that Amtrak recently released their updated fleet renewal plan, which includes the near-term replacement of such old and well-used equipment.

We were under way in short order, and to my surprise, we moved at a good clip out of the city. However, no fewer than four unexplained stops were experienced between Chicago and Porter, Indiana, putting us behind schedule by a full hour. Gaining the recently-improved stretch from Porter to Kalamazoo, we enjoyed 110mph speeds, which is a bit frightening in a country so unaccustomed to such swift trains. I imagined an arrogant driver trying to beat the train across a railroad crossing, not knowing just how fast that train is moving. I wonder how long it will be before the first bet is lost. Not that I am against high-speed rail; quite the opposite! I simply hope people (especially drivers) become increasingly sensible when it comes to railroad safety.

The scenery passed by more slowly beyond Kalamazoo, and I nursed my woes with a very out-of-character can of Pepsi from the café car. Treasure Island proved to be a quick read, and I finished it just as we arrived in Battle Creek. The landscape became decidedly more wilderness-like the farther east we journeyed, and I took in a significant amount of wildlife: turkeys, cranes, turkeys, herons, turkeys, deer, and turkeys. Not a few strutting toms were to be seen, evidently nonplussed by the roaring train passing by.

Eventually, we pulled into Ann Arbor, where a number of commuters boarded for points beyond Detroit. I had read that a significant number of people used the Wolverine to commute, and now I was witness to that fact. Our progress slowed considerably between Ann Arbor and Detroit, and we stopped several times for lengthy periods, once even having to back up out of a side track after allowing the westbound Wolverine to pass. The sun was low in the sky as we pulled out of Dearborn, and with the end so close at hand and already running quite late, we pulled yet again to a stop, much to my chagrin. I could only stare out the window and wait; even once we got moving again, I felt I could bike faster than the train was moving. At this leisurely pace we trundled into Detroit, where I got off a full hour and twenty minutes late. I helped a woman get her enormous bag down the steps, walked out on to the street, and found the DDOT bus stop on Woodward. And waited.

A view of Wolverine from my bus stop
The bus came, ten minutes behind schedule, and the reason for its tardiness was apparent upon boarding. I stood most of the way down Woodward as a free seat was scarce to be found. When planning this trip, this segment made me most nervous, not because I was unfamiliar with city buses, but because I had heard less-than-flattering stories about the DDOT buses in particular. However, despite being very crowded (which can be seen as a very good thing, depending on how one measures the merit of a given passenger load), I was very comfortable with my admittedly short experience aboard. Comerica Park came into view, and I got off with Tigers baseball on the mind, finally having arrived at my destination.

I arrived at the bottom of the fifth. Better late than never.
In thinking about this adventure (odyssey might be a better word to describe it), I have come to realize a few things. First, I did not go through all this time and expense because it made sense. Between the cost (which would have been $62 if not for the redemption of rewards points and a student discount on the balance), time (a full 14 hours total, 11.5 hours on the train – I could have biked to Detroit faster), and nonsensical routing (462 miles instead of 150 miles), this trip did not make sense, especially given that the alternative was being the seventh passenger in a vanpool. Instead, I embarked on this adventure because I could. I had the time, resources, desire, and purpose to go, and I got to taste several new experiences along the way (full length of the Pere Marquette, 110mph speeds, essentially the full length of the Wolverine, connecting through Union Station, and a Tigers game to boot).

Second, I was able to demonstrate that travel without a car, even for shorter distances, is possible. True, no one in their right mind would take the journey I did, but it still works in a pinch, and it could pave the way toward a more comprehensive rail network that would make such trips more feasible. I do not understand why Amtrak does not connect Michigan’s two largest cities directly, but hopefully sometime in the future, this will become a reality. The Chicago-centric model Amtrak has decided to take in the Midwest leaves many desirable city pairs unserved or practically unserved; perhaps this is an opportunity for an alternative rail model to take shape under the direction of a different, complementary transportation authority (are you listening, Detroit?).

Apart from the rail issue, what I was very pleased with (and what actually does work very well) is the connection between rail and public transit. On both ends (and in Chicago, for that matter), getting to and from the train station is simple and nearly effortless. Even in Detroit, with its chronic transit woes, the DDOT Route 53 straight down Woodward was just what I needed to get from the station to Comerica Park. A transit system that works and allows for intermodal transportation is a valuable asset, one any city should be reticent to neglect. Even Detroit is making strides toward a more comprehensive transit network in the development of a regional transit authority, encouraged by the work of such organizations as Trans4M. Transit matters, pure and simple.

Third, despite the delays, Amtrak truly is a low-stress form of transportation. Get a ticket and get right on board, no security necessary. Find a large, spacious seat, and feel free to stroll around. Grab some coffee from the café car, take in the scenery, always have the right-of-way (at least with respect to cars), and do whatever task suits your fancy. Depart and arrive right downtown, and forget dealing with traffic, gas prices, and road conditions. I will always consider the train for my travel needs, and even though I will not always be able to choose it, I will make an effort to use it whenever possible. Just because it does not work all the time does not mean it never works; we should be using what we have to show the need for increased and improved service. Amtrak, federal and state governments, and the railroad industry are all moving in the right direction, and the more we are able to cheer them on through our use and advocacy of our existing rail network, the better the service we can expect in the years to come.

For those of you interested in the stats on this trip, here they are:

Total travel time:            14:00
Total train time:              11:30
  Pere Marquette:            04:45
  Wolverine:                    06:45
Total bus time:                00:30
Total wait time:               02:00

Total cost:            $27.50
Total train cost:     $25.50
Total bus cost:       $2.00

Total distance travelled:  462.7 miles            
Total train distance:            457 miles              
Total bus distance:             5.3 miles             
Total walking distance:      0.4 miles
Total carbon footprint:  200 pounds CO2

Amtrak Guest Rewards points redeemed:  1,500
Amtrak Guest Rewards points earned:       100

Number of passersby who waved at the train:            at least 15
Number of tom turkeys sighted in full plumage:         at least 5
Number of times I thought, “I’d rather be driving”:    0

Friday, March 23, 2012

Update: The Transportation Odyssey Comes to Grand Rapids

After completing my Rapid Resolution at the end of January, I realized that I had established a new habit. Rumor has it, it takes three weeks to develop a sustainable habit, so at the end of a month of public transit, it shouldn't surprise me that I now think Rapid/bike/walk/Amtrak first, car second. Unfortunately, the public transit option is not always feasible, and for those instances where I resign myself to driving, I still try to take advantage of what alternative means of transportation I can (e.g. leaving my car on the west side of Grand Rapids and taking the Rapid home when I return from work in Holland). What I sacrifice in convenience, I gain in savings, either monetary or emotional (it is incredibly stressful being such an excellent driver among so many idiots). However, the convenience factor is leaning increasingly in favor of public transit, as was highlighted in a fantastic panel discussion I attended yesterday at Rapid Central Station.

Two days ago, a group of transit-oriented individuals took off on a trans-mitten adventure to highlight (and lowlight) public transit options in Michigan. The Transportation Odyssey, as it is called, is a three-day journey from Detroit to Traverse City with stops in Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids, taking a look at what public transit is capable of and where we can improve on what we already have. Yesterday, Rapid Growth Media hosted the Odyssey at a panel discussion to talk about the current state of Grand Rapids' public transit options and what challenges and opportunities lie in next five to ten years. The event was keynoted by Thomas Carper, chairman of Amtrak, and included such distinguished individuals as Mayor Heartwell, Peter Varga of The Rapid, and various movers and shakers from Grand Rapids and beyond.

What was most exciting about the discussion was not necessarily the specific items addressed, but the energy in the room. People from all walks of life had gathered because they care about what the future of transportation looks like for West Michigan and for the nation. As humanity becomes increasingly interconnected, the need to get around increases proportionally, and we are realizing that the individualistic, self-centered, high-cost form of transportation we have grown up with is not cutting it anymore (case in point: the new parking garage on Medical Mile cost $45,000 per parking space). For a multiplicity of reasons, the car as we know it is on its way out, but something must replace it that is more accessible, more cost-effective, and more environmentally-conscious. This will involve rethinking not only our transit institutions, but city planning, housing, development, and lifestyle. From an expanded schedule on the Rapid to the new bus rapid transit line in the works along Division to the new Amtrak station to be constructed next to Rapid Central Station to the work of the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative, movement is being made in such a direction, but until the majority of people get on board (literally and figuratively), progress will be as slow as the recent speed reductions between Kalamazoo and Dearborn. However, events such as this one are signs of a hopeful future for progressive thinking in regards to transit. Walking away from the panel discussion, I was invigorated by the new ideas and new energy infused into this region's transportation needs, and I only hope that more people begin to catch the vision of life beyond the car.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012


For the past week, I have been in New York City, immersing myself in a culture of mass transit, so my Rapid Resolution officially ended on Tuesday, January 24. Therefore, I am now able to tally up the numbers and see just how the Rapid stacks up against my traditional form of transit, driving. So, here are the results:

Total Rapid rides: 52
Total cost of Rapid rides: $19.50
Total miles of driving saved: 183.6
Total cost of driving saved (per DOT's per-mile cost of $0.505/mile): $92.72
Total gas cost saved (30 mpg, $3.40 average gas price in Grand Rapids for January): $20.81
Total pounds of carbon dioxide saved: 120.0
Total miles walked: 28.8
Total calories burned: 2,300

These results do not factor in the Amtrak trip to Holland I took, nor the MAX trip I took in Holland. With those data factored in, the results are as follows:

Total transit rides: 56
Total cost of transit rides: $32.50
Total miles of driving saved: 241.5
Total cost of driving saved (per DOT's per-mile cost of $0.505/mile): $121.96
Total gas cost saved (30 mpg, $3.40 average gas price in Grand Rapids for January): $27.37
Total pounds of carbon dioxide saved: 157.8
Total miles walked: 32.5
Total calories burned: 2,600

Other pertinent details must be considered when reading these results. One, a small but significant number of miles of driving saved are a result of walking, not from taking the Rapid. Therefore, the cost of transit is less than it would be had I exclusively taken the Rapid and ignored the fact that my legs are also a viable mode of transportation. Second, my car gets 30 mpg on average, but much of the driving that was saved was city driving, which is much less efficient, so the cost of gas saved is a bit conservative. Third, the fare I paid to take the Rapid is Calvin-subsidized, so I paid significantly less than the average Rapid rider; however, with discounted passes available for anyone, this is only an issue for occasional Rapid riders. Fourth (and most importantly), these results must be considered in light of the fact that I own my car; thus, the true cost of driving is much closer to the DOT's estimate (which factors in depreciation, insurance cost, maintenance, and gas) than merely the cost of gas. Fifth and finally, to counter one of the arguments from the naysayers, the taxes I pay to support the Rapid are not a function of how much I use the Rapid; they get paid in any case, and are thus a moot point.

The conclusion? The Rapid works. Even with owning a car, the cost of taking the Rapid (combined with walking (and biking, in more temperate months)) came out almost even with the cost of gas for driving those trips. What's more, owning a car is not necessary. While it may be possible to never set foot in a car (especially in larger cities with more mature mass transit systems), the best way I see to tackle transportation in Grand Rapids is to share a car with one or more people for times of need and walk, bike, or take the Rapid for all other trips. I have decided that 1:1 car ownership is absurd; with a little effort, the number of cars we truly need can be drastically reduced. Think about it: what proportion of the day is your car actually in use? Most of the time, a car is parked, not driving. Compare this to the average city bus, which is running most of the day. Are we, as a society, truly using our resources to the maximum extent possible? Absolutely not. I challenge each and every reader to rethink the way they get around, to rethink the old car-centric paradigm and instead try a new way to get from A to B. We can do better, much better. Do we need to get rid of cars completely? Certainly not. Do we need to get a little creative in the way we travel, the way we design our cities, the way we consider the total impact of our actions? I believe such thinking is long overdue.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Day Twenty-Two

Routes: 5, 6
Rides: 3
Bus fare total: $1.00
Rapid-related miles walked: 0.8
Cumulative Rapid-related miles walked: 32.5
Miles of driving saved: 5.4
Cumulative miles of driving saved: 241.5

Given the success I had yesterday in making the transfer between Routes 5 and 6, I decided to try the same approach again today. I boarded the Route 5 bus and took it to Breton Village, where I got off and waited seven minutes for the Route 6 bus. Normally, the transfer is tight, but Route 5 was on time (and no crossing guards got in the way) and Route 6 was late, so I made the connection without issue. I arrived at Calvin forty minutes before class, which allowed me time to get coffee and read the news, making for a perfect start to the morning.

After completing my final class at Calvin and listening to an insightful lecture by N. T. Wright at the final January Series presentation of 2012, I hustled back to the bus stop just in time to catch Route 6 home. I walked the interurban trail in lieu of trying to catch Route 5, and spent that one slick mile in a bit of a shock that I had just finished college. No time to slow down, though; tonight, I'm heading to South Bend with a friend to catch the Lake Shore Limited to New York City!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Day Twenty-One

Routes: 5, 6
Rides: 4
Bus fare total: $1.00
Rapid-related miles walked: 0.0
Cumulative Rapid-related miles walked: 31.7
Miles of driving saved: 5.4
Cumulative miles of driving saved: 236.1

The temperature this morning was pushing 50 degrees, and the sidewalks were exceptionally sloppy. Instead of taking my usual walk up Hall Street to catch Route 6 on Breton, I decided to catch Route 5 right outside my door and transfer. This meant I had to leave earlier, but that would be okay since it would allow alternate transfer opportunities should I miss my ideal transfer at Breton Village. I boarded a full bus, and we rode up Plymouth to Boston to Breton, where the crossing guard for the elementary school would not allow us to turn. I watched as the Route 6 bus passed in front of us, which meant I would be needing to transfer at Woodland Mall. Good thing I left with time to spare.

Arriving at Woodland, we pulled into the Kentwood Rapid station, which was new since the last time I had taken the bus to Woodland this past summer. It is a significant improvement over the glorified curb that used to serve as the Woodland stop, which serves Routes 5, 6, 17, 24, 28, and 44. I waited ten minutes for my connection and rode Route 6 (the same bus I had seen pass by earlier on Breton - the Grand Valley livery is quite distinctive) to Calvin.

After a shortened class, I sloshed my way back to the bus stop, caught Route 6 (the same Grand Valley-themed bus I took this morning), and grabbed a transfer card. Consulting the Rapid mobile site, I discovered that the Route 5 bus was running late, so I got off at Breton Village, waited thirty seconds, and got on Route 5 for a short ride home. The bus driver recognized me (a first!), and then continued his conversation with another passenger about how he had an upcoming speaking engagement at Ferris State University to talk about massage therapy. To each his own, I suppose. I got off and puddle-jumped my way to my house, glad I hadn't walked this particular day.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Day Twenty

Rides: 0
Bus fare total: $0.00
Rapid-related miles walked: 0.0
Cumulative Rapid-related miles walked: 31.7
Miles of driving saved: 0.0
Cumulative miles of driving saved: 231.7

I had to go to work in Holland today, and I was not afforded the opportunity to take Amtrak's Pere Marquette. Thus, I drove. The one thing I was happy about was that I filled up my gas tank when I got back to Grand Rapids, and gas was only $3.36. It had been more than a week since I had last filled up, compared to filling up every few days back when I was driving everywhere. Also, on my way back, I discovered a trick for when you are relegated to your car: find a train running parallel to the road you're on and match your speed to it, so that when you approach a stoplight, it turns to a blinking yellow. I did this with the Pere Marquette along Chicago Drive, which made me feel quite ambivalent. I wanted to be riding the train instead of driving, but at least I was saving gas from not having to stop at every intersection. I'm looking forward to getting back on the Rapid tomorrow for the final stretch of my resolution.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Day Nineteen

Rides: 0
Bus fare total: $0.00
Rapid-related miles walked: 1.0
Cumulative Rapid-related miles walked: 31.7
Miles of driving saved: 1.0
Cumulative miles of driving saved: 231.7 

If you're looking for Rapid stories, today isn't your day. I spent most of today writing the last paper of my college career, and only had one place to go that was a mere half-mile walk away. I did, however, encounter an interesting, aah, group of people who seem to think that the Rapid is an extravagant waste of money, does not ease congestion, and is horribly polluting to boot. Although their financial analysis may be relatively accurate, I might remind them that no public transit system operates profitably, and all require government support to operate. Also, they conveniently ignore the fact that unfortunately, much of government support can only be spent on capital projects, meaning that inefficiency (i.e. having too many busses) is effectively government-mandated. Finally, the Rapid indeed emits a great quantity of pollution, but that's no excuse to get in a car and create even more pollution. The Rapid runs whether your butt is on it or not, so why not get on and join in the pollution that's already being created instead of amplifying the problem. And, surprise surprise, congestion will ease to boot, which means the bus will better be able to run on time. So many solutions from simply boarding a bus...

Friday, January 20, 2012

Day Eighteen

Routes: 6
Rides: 1
Bus fare total: $0.50
Rapid-related miles walked: 2.7
Cumulative Rapid-related miles walked: 30.7
Miles of driving saved: 6.2
Cumulative miles of driving saved: 230.7

I missed my bus again.

I left with what I thought was enough time to make it up to Breton to catch Route 6 to school. Alas, as I stepped up to the intersection, what should pass before my eyes but the Rapid, an older, yellow and blue bus going merrily on its way without me.

It was all of 7 degrees this morning. I was looking forward to a warm bus.

But I walked the rest of the way. My stubble was frosted and my coffee mug frozen shut by the time I arrived.

Heading out after class, I had an appointment at the East Grand Rapids library, so I caught Route 6 and got off literally right in front of the library. Perfect.

The person I was meeting offered to drive me home afterward, and I accepted. He lives right around the corner from my house anyways, so it wasn't out of his way.

You win some, you lose some.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Day Seventeen

Routes: 24
Rides: 2
Bus fare total: $1.00
Rapid-related miles walked: 0.0
Cumulative Rapid-related miles walked: 28.0
Miles of driving saved: 15.3
Cumulative miles of driving saved: 224.5

I came into town from Holland this morning, and since I-196 was a parking lot, I got off at Chicago Drive and elected to park at the Grandville Library and take Route 24 to school. The weather was less than ideal (hence the standstill on the freeway), so the bus was a good eight minutes late, meaning that I would be rolling into class more than ten minutes late. No matter; the professor doesn't take attendance. The trek across town on Burton was quite slow, but we made it without issue, although I was a full 15 minutes late as I scurried to my seat in class. Still, the score in my mind was Rapid: 1; freeway: 0.

What made my plan to park in Grandville all the more ideal was the fact that I had a basketball game to attend at Grandville High School this evening. I struck out for the bus stop after an afternoon of paper-writing, only to find that the temperature had dropped about fifteen degrees. Consultation of the weather report put a number to the numbness I was feeling on my cheeks: eleven degrees Fahrenheit. Thankfully, the bus was on time, and I boarded into the warmth and found a seat near the back.

As we progressed down Burton, I was surprised to find the driver suddenly taking a detour to the north through some neighborhoods. He seemed to be trying to find a way around some obstacle, which he later announced was an unmoving train stretched across Burton. He reported that a similar train had blocked passage across the tracks for more than three hours yesterday, so he was trying to be creative in finding a way around. After some confusion and touring of unfamiliar neighborhoods, he found his way onto Eastern Avenue and headed south, clearing the tracks without the slightest hint of a hold-up. My fellow passengers were none too shy in suggesting alternative routes, and some were a bit perturbed at being displaced from their normal routine, but everyone got off at an acceptable stop, and eventually we were back on track heading westward.

At Grandville Library, I got off the bus and shiver-shuffled my way to my car. Eleven degrees is a lot colder when the vehicle you get into is not already warm. I'll take the bus any day.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Day Sixteen

Routes: 6
Rides: 2
Bus fare total: $1.00
Rapid-related miles walked: 1.6
Cumulative Rapid-related miles walked: 28.0
Miles of driving saved: 5.4
Cumulative miles of driving saved: 209.2

Nothing remarkable to report on today's Rapid adventures. I rode Route 6 to and from class without issue, and felt that my new routine was now, well, routine. As the days have grown increasingly frigid, I've noticed that even on the coldest days, the walk and wait at the bus stop are not too terrible to endure, especially when you know that soon you'll be stepping into instant warmth as you board. No ice scraping, no cold steering wheel, no snow brushing, no shoveling yourself out from snowplow detritus. Just warmth, and (mostly) friendly bus drivers, and a chance to take a breather from life and simply rest. I'll take that over the stress of traffic any day.