The 2013 Michigan Transportation Odyssey came to an end late Friday evening after an exciting and intense two days of multimodal travel across the state. Our group began our journey in Traverse City and traveled through Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Ann Arbor and ended in downtown Detroit. We biked, walked, rode buses and trains – met some amazing people along the way – and learned about the highlights and challenges of our transportation system. Our next few blog posts will highlight our experiences during the Odyssey and reflections about how the system met our needs and expectations. Below you will find a recap of our first day of the Odyssey.
Networking Event at the Filling Station (Traverse City, MI)
The first stop on the 2013 Michigan Transportation Odyssey was a dinner and networking event at The Filling Station, a popular microbrewery in Traverse City. Our group met for dinner, drinks and a discussion about the upcoming adventure. Many of us drove to the restaurant, but a few of our riders who are in wheelchairs utilized the Bay Area Transit Authority’s (BATA) system to transport between the hotel and the Filling Station. Although those taking the bus had to leave dinner a bit early – the buses stopped running around 8:00 PM – the buses were on time and the drivers were very accommodating for all of our riders. Everyone arrived fairly quickly to the hotel where we rested up for the next two days of the Odyssey.
TART Trails Bike Ride and Tour (Traverse City, MI)
Wednesday’s events began bright and early. We departed our hotel on bicycles (which we rented from Einstein Cycles) and followed our Traverse Area Recreational and Transportation (TART) Trails guide, Julie Clark, Executive Director of TART Trails, who led us on a ten mile tour of the beautiful Heritage Trail that runs throughout the Traverse City area. The trail we rode was one of the first “Trails with Rails” development in the Midwest – which is when a trail is developed using the public easement that runs along the railroad. We learned that over 200,000 residents and visitors utilize the trails every year. The extensive system also has the highest percentage of commuter cyclists in the state – making these trails one of the most important transportation corridors in the community. Julie explained that the success of the trails system is largely due to the incredible partnerships TART Trails has been able to form with municipalities, MDOT, non-profit organizations, community groups, local businesses, large corporations and individual residents who all take part in maintaining the trails – which includes clearing snow for winter use. The tour was a great way to kick off our travel adventure and a great example of a truly successful non-motorized transportation system. Me, cruising across a bridge along the Heritage Trail (photo courtesy of Dan Sommerville)
TART Trails is a recipient of one of this year’s Trans4mer Awards. Trans4M presented TART Trails with the award at the BATA Transit Station for its recent groundbreaking work on the Heritage trail for connecting walkability and economic opportunity.
Traverse City to Grand Rapids via Indian Trails Bus
Our Indian Trails bus trip began at that BATA Transit Station with some major accessibility issues. Immediately after our bus arrived at the station, we found out that the bus driver wasn’t notified by the dispatch station that two wheelchair users were riding – although we notified dispatch when we purchased our tickets and called again to remind them the day prior. Although the issue was clearly a communication problem between dispatch and the bus drivers, our delay was exacerbated because the bus driver did not know how to use the wheelchair lift properly. About fifty passengers waited outside while the bus driver and a BATA staff person struggled with the wheelchair lift, hoisting George (one of our Odyssey travelers from the Michigan Developmental Disabilities Council) up and down for over 40 minutes. After the unfortunate scene, the bus driver figured out the problem – a simple locked door that was preventing the wheelchair lift from successfully raising the riders into the bus. We were delayed by over an hour when the bus finally departed the station. Because of the significant delay many riders would miss their connecting buses and trains in Grand Rapids.
Trans4mers James and George on the wheelchair lift of an Indian Trails bus
An Indian Trails bust driver and BATA staff person dealing with technical issues while getting George onto the bus
In addition to the delay and accessibility issues, the bus’s air conditioning system had, according to the driver, broken a day prior, transforming our five hour ride down state into a stifling and sweaty sauna on wheels. Luckily, the bus was equipped with electric outlets and wireless internet allowing many from our group to charge our electronic devices and get work done during the trip. Our second transportation experience of the trip exposed challenges with using inter-city public transit in Michigan – especially for those with disabilities – however, we don’t believe our trip represented the overall performance or experience using the Indian Trails bus.
The Rapid Silverline BRT Tour (Grand Rapids, MI)
We arrived many hours late at The Rapid transit center in downtown Grand Rapids to meet with Peter Varga, President and CEO of The Rapid, and Jennifer Kalczuk, External Relations Manager of The Rapid who gave us an abbreviated tour of the future BRT line in Grand Rapids. The Silverline BRT will open on August 25, 2014. Below are a few quick facts about the BRT that we learned along the tour:
- The BRT will have 33 stations throughout Grand Rapids and the surrounding area
- The BRT will have stop light signal controls to minimize stopping time
- The BRT will have designated lanes during peak travel hours daily
- The frequency will be 10 minutes during peak times and 15 minutes during non-peak times
- The BRT will use an off-board-payment system to minimize stopping time
- Stations are located at a maximum of one mile apart with most located closer together as the BRT line approaches downtown
Trans4Mers Dan, Heather and Tim enjoying a tour of the Silverline BRT project from The Rapid’s President, Peter Varga
Although the tour was shorter than we had planned, it demonstrated the success of The Rapid system, which was named the 2013 Mid-Sized Transit System of the Year from American Public Transit Association (APTA) in 2013. I cannot wait to visit Grand Rapids in a year to ride on Michigan’s first BRT system! Networking & Awards Event at Grand Rapids Brewing Company (Grand Rapids, MI) After our tour we arrived at the Grand Rapids Brewing Company in downtown Grand Rapids. We enjoyed dinner and drinks with other area transportation advocates including Peter Varga and Jennifer Kalczuk of The Rapid, to whom we presented another Trans4mer Award for its exciting groundbreaking work on the Silverline BRT.
Jennifer and Peter recieve the Trans4Mer award
Grand Rapids to Kalamazoo via Indian Trails Bus
Our next, and last transportation adventure of the day was another Indian Trails bus ride, this time just an hour trip from Grand Rapids to Kalamazoo where we stayed for the night. After our messy experience with an Indian Trails bus earlier that day, we were hoping for a better experience with this trip. We also called Indian Trails to remind them of our special needs. Unfortunately, for the second time today, the Indian Trails dispatch did not relay the message to the driver that there would be two riders in wheelchairs and it took over 50 minutes for the bus driver to prep the bus, load our riders in wheelchairs and load the other passengers – accruing another significant delay. This time, the bus driver seemed to be much more knowledgeable with the wheelchair lift and was very apologetic for the communication problem. Our bus ride was short, sweet and included air conditioning making it much more pleasant than our ride earlier in the day.
Overall Reflection and Suggestions
While most of the day’s experiences were positive and reflected the great work that has been done throughout Michigan’s transportation system, it also revealed the existing challenges. Our major issues seemed to be a direct result of the lack of communication between the Indian Trails dispatch and the bus drivers. A few suggestions discussed during our reflection conversation to alleviate this problem were:
- While it is progress that Indian Trails now provides online ticket purchasing, having a special needs option online during ticket purchasing, to indicate if a rider will have special needs, would likely prevent the communication problem. Currently, there is no way to indicate this need when purchasing a ticket and each wheelchair reserved seat utilizes the space of six passenger seats. This means that more tickets than the number of seats that would be actually available could be sold when a wheelchair passenger will be on board.
- Provide more frequent trainings to drivers on use of the wheelchair lifts
- A more long-term solution – working with bus manufacturers to retrofit or design the busses to have easier accessibility on and within the bus for all passengers
Overall, our first day was a success. Day one revealed to us the successes and challenges of Michigan’s transportation system – exactly its intent. Stay tuned for our day two recap where we will discuss our experience traveling on Kalamazoo trails, taking an Amtrak train to Ann Arbor, and using multiple busses to travel to downtown Detroit.
Written by Liz Treutel, Trans4M Fellow