GRAND RAPIDS, Mich.—An estimated 400,000 visitors are expected in Grand Rapids for ArtPrize which kicked off Sept. 18, filling up every nook and cranny of downtown to see the extraordinary art. Taking a city bus between now and Oct. 6 is still daunting.
This is a situation of great idea and lousy execution. Throughout the website and in brochures passed out all over the town and surrounding lands encourages people to park on the outskirts and take transit downtown the bus schedule falls woefully behind. People were crammed tighter than a ciabotta sandwich. Buses come once an hour. If that often.
“We are sensitive to complaints,” said Jennifer Kalczuk, spokesperson for the Rapid, the transportation system of Grand Rapids without saying how many angry customers flooded their hotline. “We are adding more buses on Route 15 on weekends to bring us up to rides every 30 minutes. On weekdays we are stuck. We only have so many buses in service.”
Many of the regular riders, the wheelchair bound, the blind and the transit dependent, were left in the cold because out of town visitors filled every seat and isle space. The bus would stop, the driver would question whether people wanted to shove themselves in or wait another 60 minutes. What options did they have?
We were lucky we put our bikes on the bus carrier so we could ride to see outlying exhibits. We wound up biking back to Meijer, a six mile sprint through undulating hills, nifty neighborhoods and wide streets.
“Give the transit people a break, they are reaching out, you can say that for them,” said a guy at the bike repair station outside Kendall College. At least six bicyclists had toolkits full of supplies ready to help anyone who had a flat or a hassle while bicycling around town.. One spot off Fulton Street even had a cycle-up wine bar.
Ample bike racks existed on all the main streets downtown, beckoning people to walk around and look up at magnificent sculptures created by artists hailing from all parts of the world. We spent awhile admiring GonKiRin, the sculpture designed by Ryan C. Doyle of Detroit and Teddy Lo of Hong Kong which spews flames for 20-feet out of its 40=foot steel body.
I was nice. I didn’t ask the dragon to roast and toast the bus driver. But the thought crossed my mind. “Forget about it,” cautioned the bicycle tour guide. “Ride your bike instead.”
Grand Rapids is taking a forefront in placemaking, offering copies of its bus schedule and bike maps at just about every intersection during ArtPrize. Helpful guides in bright red aprons distribute bike maps that include bike lanes, covered bike parking and a warning of difficult intersections. Bicyclists in blue cycling jerseys were stationed at Kendall College to suggest the best roads by bike and the ones to avoid, a courtesy of the Greater Grand Rapids Bicycle Coalition.
The question I asked myself as I plopped myself back behind the wheel of my car and turning up the heated seat dial to warm my tush after the journey, is how to get people from car dependent to transit-bike-walk enthusiast.
If my experience on the bus was one of being cramped, jostled and close to suffocating, how soon will I be inclined to take public transit again? Would I tell my friends to drive straight downtown avoiding the transit line to save them the agony I endured?
A friend in Boston takes the subway to work each day and around town on weekends. She knows whenever the Red Sox or Celtics play the cars will be filled to capacity. People will bark their opinions on plays while the train jolts and grinds to frequent stops. They don’t call it “agony,” it is “a way of life.”
I’m a spoiled Michigander. I put the bike on the trunk carrier and drive to bike rides in the city. I live in Southfield where I’m pretty much forced to drive everywhere because bike routes are minimal or nonexistent. I’m trying to change my priorities, but I need help.
What I’d love to see is community leaders dialog before big events and think how to get people out of their autos a few miles from town. Certainly the wise folks of Grand Rapids should have known that with 60,000 to 100,000 people downtown on a weekend they would need buses traveling more than once an hour. Yet once they did know, kudos to them for planning some accommodation for the two remaining ArtPrize weekends. It is one step, will it be enough?
With foresight and direction, the downtowns throughout Michigan could be cleared of traffic. People attending performance art programs, viewing art and sipping craft beers on sidewalk bistros wouldn’t face the stench of car exhaust, the roaring of motors and the unsightliness of clustered cars. There would be more space for art on every downtown parking lot.
Grand Rapids took some bold moves. They invited the world to come downtown and see art of all sizes and shapes set in outdoor and indoor galleries. They printed bike and transit maps and made them available. They created a special app for smart phones to give maps and locations of art. In so doing, they encouraged people to come walk and enjoy the fine new buildings, the mosaics and murals, in a reborn city on the Grand River.
Next step is my move – to get comfortable and stop complaining about crowded buses or, alternately ride my comfort bike to more destinations. Maybe I can get a heated seat installed on my little Jamis?