The Rapidian

The Rapid: A Bright Future?

Just as you approach the stop, you see the bus pulling away. Could your day get any worse? Now you will have to wait for 30 minutes until the next bus comes along, making you late for work.
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About the authors

Created by Allie Meyaard, Lorenzo Llerena, Chris Eakin, Jordan Newby, and Phil Videtich for Prof. den Dulk's Urban Politics class at Calvin College.

Six o’clock in the morning. The alarm clock goes off and you hit the snooze button. The alarm goes off a second time and you sluggishly roll out of bed, not exactly ready to start the day. You make breakfast, get the kids ready for school, and walk them to the bus stop. Returning home, you finish getting ready for work and head to the bus stop. Just as you approach the stop, you see the bus pulling away. Could your day get any worse? Now you will have to wait for 30 minutes until the next bus comes along, making you late for work.

Eleven o’clock at night. You are on a business trip from California and you catch the last possible flight into Grand Rapids. Not related to anyone in the area, you need to find your own transportation to your hotel downtown. Is there any cheaper way than sinking $30 into a taxi cab? Not that late at night. Frustrated that you have to drop $30, you wish that this metropolitan area offered better public transportation.

Maybe readers can identify with these frustrations.  Perhaps you even have your own experience in dealing with Grand Rapids’ public transportation system. For an area of this size, public transportation is a necessity. It may not be a money-making venture, but it is one of those under-appreciated services that government provides that help make people’s lives a little bit easier. But what if this system does not keep up with the needs of its riders or its own costs?

From the authors’ perspective as college students living in Grand Rapids, the metro area's public transportation system -- The Rapid -- lacks in three key areas: practicality, availability, and efficiency. (See the opinions of other residents here.) This is not to say that The Rapid is completely inadequate in providing for the needs of the area’s citizens.  It is to say, however, that The Rapid needs to take steps to remain a viable option for future riders.

First, The Rapid faces problems with practicality.  Its routing system, in particular, demonstrates this problem. A map of The Rapid’s bus system is intimidating. Currently, The Rapid has 26 routes, excluding the 15 “peak period” service routes. The abundant number of routes makes the map look confusing and hard to navigate. Another problem is that The Rapid lacks well-defined transfer stations and services to “important” Grand Rapids streets, such as 36th Street. The only clear transfer stations on the map are Union Station (to and from which a majority of the buses travel) and Woodland Mall (which serves as a transfer station for five routes). If the route system were laid out in a manner which was easy to navigate and there were more and better-defined transfer stations, Rapid usage may increase.

Lack of availability adds another barrier to widespread community usage. The Rapid’s hours of operation vary. During weekdays, the first routes start as early as 4:45 a.m. These routes pick up travelers until 11:55 p.m. On weekends, these hours are reduced to 5:13 a.m. – 10:10 p.m. on Saturdays and 7:00 a.m. to 7:20 p.m. on Sundays. The combination of few operational hours and the wait between buses creates availability problems. Depending on the time, a commuter could wait anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour between buses. This is one of the top five issues that a majority of people who participated in survey done by the The Rapid’s Transit Master Plan (TMP) task force would like to see corrected (Transit Master Plan 8).

Funding also poses a problem for The Rapid. The Rapid costs less to operate per passenger (in comparison to comparable cities nationwide) and the millage rates are lower than most Michigan cities (Transit Master Plan 12, ES-4). When it comes to funding, 67% of funding for The Rapid comes through taxes and grants, while fares and contracts only cover 33% of total operating expenses. This is in keeping with the national average, according to John M. Levy, author of Contemporary Urban Planning. While funding through fares and contracts is likely to increase as more people ride the Rapid, it is clear that operating expenses, such as diesel fuel, will continue to rise as well. Due to increasing operating costs, we must consider the funding that comes from sources other than fares and contracts.

One obstacle to addressing funding is uncertainty about alternative sources. The FY 2011 anticipates that the State Operating Assistance will be 29.74% of the operating budget. However, this budget was approved before Governor Rick Snyder took office in November 2010. It is unclear as to what exactly Governor Snyder will cut out of subsequent state budgets. In addition, the approved budget takes into consideration the decrease in taxable values in the six-city area that The Rapid serves. The Fiscal Year 2011 Budget Summary says, “Property tax collections are expected to decrease 1.75% ($200,530) from current year projects. Taxable values…have decreased 6.11% since July 2008.” Combining these two potentially decreasing revenue sources with increasing operating costs it is clear that The Rapid will face future financial challenges.

While The Rapid has its imperfections, it is working toward solutions. The 2030 Transit Master Plan that the Interurban Transit Partnership (ITP) Board adopted in 2010 is a step in the right direction. Planners at The Rapid hope to extend the hours of operation, improve service frequencies, improve the Go!Bus program, and provide new forms of transportation and new routes (Transit Master Plan, ES-6).  These proposals may only be a conception at present, but they are first step towards improving the public transportation system of the Grand Rapids’ metro area.

All of this should give the citizens of the Grand Rapids metropolitan area hope when it comes to public transportation. The Master Plan may come to fruition in the distant future, but there is something that citizens can do right now to make Grand Rapids a more convenient place to live: the May 3rd vote on increasing the millage rate from 1.12 to at maximum 1.47 mills ($1.47 per $1,000 of taxable property). This is a first step that will start to make it easier for the metro’s public transportation system to compete with those urban areas of comparative size. There is hope for The Rapid—but the citizens of Grand Rapids, Kentwood, Wyoming, Grandville, and Walker hold its future in their hands.

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Your 11 p.m. scenario is my problem, right down to flying in from California! No family in GR, no car and I'm hesitant to ask friends to pick me up or drop me off at the airport for very early departures and late night arrivals.

That's the worst-it just makes sense to have a bus line going to airport. Even if it isn't all the time, it could at least coordinate better with flight arrivals. Hopefully that'll get fixed...


It is pretty sad how one resident in the video knows that she simply can not expect a lot from public transportation.  However, this is a reality that a lot of individuals face- your video caught that. This is more than just a analytical assessment of The Rapid. Thanks for capturing the realism behind the problem!


I'm glad you appreciated that, Awilda! There were a lot of frustrated people.