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A Modern Odyssey: Part IIPrint

Thriving Communities | May 8, 2012 | By James Bruckbauer

Odyssey travelers used Amtrak to get from Metro Detroit to Kalamazoo. (Photo by Gary Howe)

For Odysseus, the ten-year journey from Ithaca to Troy was tough, but at a certain point in the story, his luck turned around.

As we left Birmingham and headed for the west side of the state aboard Amtrak’s Wolverine 351 at 6:18 AM, we passed though Michigan’s largest city one last time.

The smooth ride from Birmingham back through Detroit left us excited about the possibility of a well-coordinated regional transit system that could soon emerge and make regional travel convenient once again. The system will serve as the backbone of a new economy in metropolitan Detroit, if the state Legislature creates a regional transit agency necessary to make it happen.

We traveled onward, toward Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids, where transportation challenges surely exist, but there’s good reason to be optimistic. A decade or so ago civic leaders and business groups in both communities recognized and responded to the market trends that told them that strong urban transit is crucial to regional success and business growth.

What we saw in those cities reminded us that Michigan’s transportation system could grow into a good one some day.

Two things caught our attention: Bus and train ridership is rising dramatically even though funding for buses and trains is not; and there’s a strong connection between buses, beer, and this state’s ability to thrive economically.

310 passengers a day boarded or departed an Amtrak train in Kalamazoo

More Riders Than Ever

In a recent MLive editorial, Rick Haglund said: “Profound demographic and societal changes are fueling the move to mass transit.”

He’s right: Last year about 775,000 passengers boarded Michigan trains. About 500,000 of those passengers were traveling between Detroit, Kalamazoo, and Chicago. Each year that number increases at about five percent, according to the Michigan Department of Transportation.

On our train to Kalamazoo we were surrounded by a diverse group: a young professional traveling from Detroit to Ann Arbor, a young couple taking a quick trip to Chicago for an overnight stay, a mom with three young children heading to Battle Creek, and two senior citizens who could have been going anywhere.

To us the trip was relaxing, enjoyable, and relatively productive. We talked, typed, tweeted, and took photos.

We agreed: The train is the best way to travel.

Despite reports of poor service, no Internet, and warnings that the train would be 45 minutes late that day, the train was almost full.

Improvements are on the horizon, however. Transportation officials report that soon trains will be able to travel at speeds of 110 MPH and be fully equipped with Wi-Fi, making Amtrak the quickest and most productive way for folks to get from Detroit to Kalamazoo and Chicago.

With better service and faster, tech-friendly trains, we predict a remarkable increase in ridership in the years to come. Kalamazoo, where in 2010 about 310 passengers a day got on or off an Amtrak train, will reap the benefits for years to come.

Coming into Kalamazoo

Kalamazoo's Transportation Center links train and bus travelers to downtown Kalamazoo. (Photo by Gary Howe)

We arrived at the Kalamazoo transportation center at 11:12 AM, and it was easy to see that the town is making some smart moves with public transportation.

Kalamazoo’s 140-year-old, renovated transportation center is conveniently located in downtown Kalamazoo and serves as the region’s hub for Greyhound, Indian Trails, and the city’s Metro Transit system. The old building was restored in 2004, thanks toa federal grant from the Bush Administration.

It’s there where you can jump off a train from Detroit or Chicago and walk, bike, or bus to almost anywhere in the re-energized city. It’s a popular entry point for Kalamazoo’s diverse population of commuters, tourists, residents, and students.

Bill Schomisch, executive director of Metro Transit, greeted us at the station and gave us a tour. Then we rode a bus to the campus of Western Michigan University. The bus was also almost full.

As we rode the bus, Bill told us that, like trains, more people are using buses than ever before.

“We gave 20% more rides this past February than we did in the same month the previous year,” he explained.

That trend is clearly a national phenomenon. According to the American Public Transportation Association, “Americans took 10.4 billion trips on pubic transportation in 2011, the second highest ridership since 1957.”

Looking Forward

College students in Kalamazoo use buses to get from do downtown to campus. (Photo by Gary Howe)

Later that day we meet with a group of citizens at the headquarters of the Interfaith Strategy for Advocacy and Action in the Community (ISAAC).  There we discussed transportation needs for the Kalamazoo region.

We talked about how, as with trains, ridership on buses is at record levels even though bus agencies, saddled with dwindling state funding, are not able to offer high-quality service, adequate signage, or even shelters.

We also reflected back on the spring of 2011, when Michigan legislators threatened to cut the bus and rail budget by $20 million. Fortunately, after pressure from citizens, advocates, and a pro-transit Republican governor, lawmakers redacted their threat, maintained the funding, and tacitly acknowledge just how popular and important public transit has become throughout the state.

Now, with gas prices soaring, demographics changing, and interest in public transportation plainly soaring, it is even more important to make sure we keep the buses rolling.

Perhaps it’s time to start looking at new ways to fund transportation. Right now, aside from local property taxes, most transit agencies are left with limited options for raising money.

That afternoon, we boarded the regularly scheduled Indian Trails bus to Grand Rapids to have a discussion about transit and economic development — but not before walking from the bus station to Michigan’s most famous microbrewery, Bell’s, for lunch and a beer.

After all, even Odysseus made sure his crew was well nourished.

Check out the photos from Day Two here.

This is part two of a three part series detailing the Michigan Transportation Odyssey, a three-day journey around Michigan using only public transportation. Part III will explore Michigan’s two growing trends: demand for transit and demand for beer.

James Bruckbauer is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s transportation policy specialist. Follow him on Twitter at @jimbruckb. Reach him at james@mlui.org.