Will Grand Rapids put more emphasis on people rather than cars when it comes to mobility?
Gabe Klein, former commissioner for both the Chicago and Washington D.C. Departments of Transportation, spoke of his personal experience in shaping the two cities’ transit systems at a recent mobility summit in Grand Rapids. He urged city leaders to adopt a more people-oriented, rather than car-oriented, approach to mobility.
Klein pointed to Detroit as an example of how innovations in the automobile superseded public transit as a priority.
When the federal highway act was passed in 1956, the expansion of I-75 through downtown Detroit tore out a large number of businesses in predominately black neighborhoods; 350 by Klein’s count.
At the same time, the Detroit streetcar system, which was the primary public transit for most people in the area, also disappeared.
“So, imagine you’re living in this era, and they drive highways through your neighborhood, make them ghettos and pull out the primary mode of transportation,” Klein said. “So what do you think happens? We were shocked that people left!”
Shanghai, by comparison, grew significantly in 26 years because, Klein said, the city invested heavily in its public transit.
“They didn’t just build a bunch of density, they built all of this transit,” he said. “They didn’t have transit before the early ’90s, and they have built a massive system with 325 nodes in their system, and they’re going to 650 over the next decade.”
Quality of life also matters in terms of transportation. While transit is generally regarded as just a way to move people, Klein argued that was secondary in importance. What’s more important is the quality of life built around transit nodes.
Klein said when he talks to young people and empty nesters moving into the city, they preferred to live by a transit station, because it’s both cheaper to live there and it’s in proximity to grocery stores, bars, restaurants and other amenities.
In eastern Washington D.C., Klein said many people spend up to 53 percent of their income on transportation, because they live in a “transit desert” and feel like they have to own a car to be mobile.
“So, we’re bankrupting them,” he said. “So, it can actually be cheaper to live in a place like northwest Washington D.C. where you don’t need to own a car.”
Klein also said municipalities should be partnering with the private sector to optimize public transit. He worked for the car share company Zipcar 16 years ago when it reintroduced the concept of transportation as a service in the private sector.
What really made the service work was Zipcar’s willingness to partner with the cities in which it was available and to be an extension of the existing transit system.
“The government doesn’t need to build everything,” Klein said. “They can work with the private sector to make the system work … it’s not that transit agencies shouldn’t be optimizing their bus and rail systems … but we’ve got to think way bigger.”
Transit also can be profitable. In the case of Hong Kong and Singapore, Klein said both cities opted to merge their land-use planning with their transport authority.
“Suddenly, you get a percentage of people riding and a quality of service — with the private sector running it often — where it makes money. And they make, like, 192 percent profit,” Klein said.
Klein cited examples even in the U.S. where people are opting to shed their cars once public transit becomes more economically viable. He even suggested once autonomous cars take to the streets, 95 percent of drivers would give up their cars, possibly within the next 15 years.
“That’s not that far to go in a place like D.C.,” he said.
Klein argued what’s happening is not a “big shift” in transportation culture but rather the end of a shift that happened post-World War II, when suburbs were “manufactured” in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, resulting in a higher rate of car ownership.
“It’s not that they were, like, bad. They were thinking, ‘Hey, this is progress,’” Klein said. “We got all this space. Everybody can buy their own little house, get their car. They didn’t know they were going to be hurting the environment so much or causing a big carbon footprint.
“I think we’re actually getting back to our roots, sharing space and sharing things. Once you give up space to something like the automobile, it’s very hard to take it back.”
Prioritizing the automobile in infrastructure also has come with negative personal health costs, he said. Not only is the average adult 24 pounds heavier than when Klein was born, but the average 15-year-old is 24 pounds heavier, too.
In Amsterdam, by comparison, Klein said schools actively discourage parents from picking their kids up from school in a car. Parents instead often pick their kids up via bicycle.
When Klein ran the Washington, D.C., DOT, the organization turned Pennsylvania Avenue from a previously underutilized avenue, populated almost exclusively by parked cars, into a heavily pedestrian-utilized hub with bike lanes and did so at very little cost.
“Pedestrians are the indicator species of a healthy city,” he said. “We now have data that shows when you build streets for people … guess what happens? People want to be there.”
Klein also brought up the concept of “induced demand,” arguing the solution to traffic congestion is not to build more lanes.
“I would equate that to, ‘I’m feeling a little fat … I need to go buy a bigger jacket,’” he said, “instead of, ‘I need to go on a diet.”
Klein argued the same perspective is being utilized in America’s mobile infrastructure. Rather than reduce congestion, building more lanes actually induces demand over time by encouraging people to drive more.
“When you build that extra lane, it helps for two months on average, and then … it gets worse than it was before because we are people … psychologically we are being told to drive more, and so we do,” he said.
Induced demand also applies to parking. Klein said Grand Rapids’ urban core, like most big cities, has gotten too used to parking garages taking up large amounts of real estate. He also urged the city to stop building more parking structures.
“We’ve got to start looking at district-level parking, instead of building-by-building,” he said. “And people can walk more than one block. Culturally, we’re used to, ‘I park in front of my business.’ That’s got to change.”
But the infrastructure has to be in place to support such a change, said Josh Naramore, director of Mobile GR and Parking Services.
“What happens when you don’t have all the mobility options in place to support a wholesale shift?” he asked.
Naramore said the average cost of parking in Grand Rapids’ downtown core is $140 per space monthly and $1.25 for an hour on meters. If the city were to stop building parking without offering other solutions, Klein predicted the cost could rise to as much as $2 on the meters and over $200 for dedicated monthly parking.
“But if you just do that without any new mobility options, then people are just going to get upset,” Klein added.
Klein pointed to Indianapolis as a city that has provided an adequate transit system, and by extent, has not had to add parking inventory.
“They’ve done some great stuff with electric car share … they’ve got a nice bike share system,” he said. ‘Now when they start to say, ‘We’re not going to build parking anymore,’ people can’t argue, ‘Well, there’s nothing else for me to do.’ There are other options.”