Home > Announcement, Complete Streets, Cultural Movement, Economics, Public Transit > Improving the connection to transportation choices

Improving the connection to transportation choices




According to census data, the average driver in the Grand Traverse Region drives 23,000 miles per year. According to AAA, that’s at a cost of around $16,000 per year; money right out of the ol’ paycheck. For some perspective, that’s $5,000 more a year than the U.S. average and is a large part of the equation that puts the cost of housing + transportation at one of the highest percentages of income in the nation. In some places, well over 50%.


The Michigan Land Use Institute, a MyWHaT underwriter, has long been aware of this, reporting back in 2011 on families living on the edge (PDF) due to the need to drive to affordable housing and to find jobs.

MLUI is now developing a new program dubbed Local Motion to help connect people to tools and programs that connect people to more transportation choices, particularly for their commutes. Area choices for car-pooling, transit, and active transportation continue to be desired survey after survey (MLUI).

Local Motion will be rolled out further this summer and MyWHaT readers are specifically invited to a soft-launch summit on June 4th, during TART Trail’s Smart Commute week.

The summit will discuss the Local Motion initiative and the area businesses and partners already on the ground developing the program. It will also feature two guest speakers who’ve been part of successful transportation management programs outside of Traverse City.

  • First, Mary Sell, of GetDowntown Ann Arbor (GDAA), will describe how A2 has moved people to get to work downtown via an improved transit and Complete Streets program.
  • Second, Jeffrey Tumlin, principal at Nelson/Nygaard Consulting. Tumlin is a national figure who led transit-oriented development plans for more than 60 towns across North America and the author of the book “Sustainable Transportation Planning.”

The summit is from 3-6pm on June 4th at the Traverse City Opera House.

For planning purposes, RSVP’s are requested





Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are that of the author and do not represent the opinions of writers previously published here or any of the organizations, committees, commissions or other affiliation the authors may belong to, unless so stated.

  1. May 22, 2013 at 9:38 am

    As I’ve written many times prior, providing better access to, e.g., bus service in the TC area isn’t going to get many people out of their cars. There is only a tiny part of the TC area where it’s viable and desirable to live without a car and almost nobody does it for that reason, particularly folks with children. And once you have the sunk cost of a car or cars, it’s way easier, cheaper, and more convenient to drive to work/school/entertainment. I write this having worked downtown for a decade where there was and is bus service and almost everybody drove to work because, as I just wrote, it was way easier/cheaper/more convenient than taking the bus. Most folks that live within the City itself and work downtown would drive downtown. And probably 99% of people who live outside of the City would drive downtown. And there’s no political will or pot of money to provide a level/frequency of bus service that would change this equation. And there’s no political will to constrict parking downtown (or at Munson, or at NMC, etc etc) to make it easier/cheaper to take the bus than to drive.

    Getting a handle on the cost of housing + transportation equation in the TC area (at least until gas goes to $5/gallon) is much more about providing land use alternatives than transportation alternatives. In other words, expanding that tiny area of TC where it’s currently viable and desirable to live without a car into a larger area. To some extent, that expansion is already happening naturally as the core part of TC gets denser/more desirable as more and more services are available downtown. See today’s Ticker for evidence of more super high end housing going in downtown, housing whose occupants won’t need to primarily rely on a car to get around:


    These new developments are a step in the right direction (hopefully they replace somebody’s otherwise 2nd/3rd home out on Old Mission), and they’re the inevitable result of TC being such a great area to live, but they’re not going to make a difference to the housing/transportation affordability equation for 99% of people in the area.

    In terms of providing land use alternatives in TC, there is some political will in TC to increase density in residential areas such as the granny flats pilot. Hopefully that goes well and will be expanded City-wide. Also, there is already zoning along the commercial corridors in TC (e.g. 8th, 14th, Front, Garfield) that would allow the construction of multi-story buildings with retail on the first floor and residential above along those corridors. To the extent that this kind of construction is taking place, however, it’s largely only happening downtown, and only to provide high end condo housing on those upper floors. I’m guessing that this is probably because the price of new construction for such a multi-story building (e.g. putting in an elevator) makes it prohibitive for a developer to do something very affordable unless they are going to go 5-7 (?) stories high and can distribute the cost of that elevator over many units. And there’s almost nowhere (and nowhere outside of downtown) where a building that tall is legal in TC.

    One step that City could take and that might be politically palatable would be to create a TIF district or districts for one or more of those commercial corridors where the zoning is in place to build mixed-use (8th, 14th, Garfield) and then use that TIF to incentivize affordability, as well as possibly change the zoning there to try and get more and smaller apartment units along those corridors. There would be likely to pushback from folks living in the neighborhoods close to those corridors against more density and providing apartments, but perhaps that pushback would be more muted if this was a way that those corridors could get something of a facelift, in terms of more shops and services.

  2. May 22, 2013 at 11:21 am

    I’m not sure why we wouldn’t want to improve our bus system if we’re adding density to 8th, 14th and Garfield. The developers I know say they can build more housing if they don’t need to provide 2-3 parking spaces per unit.

    A few of our larger businesses are working together to provide more travel options for area employees, in part, because employees are asking for more options. We are working closely with these businesses, and the June 4 event will help advance that work.

    Hope to see you there, Mike!


  3. May 22, 2013 at 1:54 pm

    Mike – I must respectfully disagree with your assessment about bus service not being a viable option in our region. While many of your assumptions about downtown workers habits are correct – that once you’ve sunk the money in a car, it’s cheaper and easier to just drive – I think your frame is a bit narrow. I too have worked downtown for more than a decade and continue to work downtown, and for the past four years my family of four living in rural Leelanau County has survived with only one car specifically because of the bus service. When our second car (my car) broke down and I was looking into a buying a replacement, I began to ride the fixed route bus that came within 1 1/2 miles of my house as an affordable short-term option. I stretched that option out for four years because I realized that, while it was a bit inconvenient on some days, driving two cars into town and paying for parking and walking several blocks to my parked car was more expensive and inconvenient than riding the bus, which dropped me within 3 blocks of my office. And we found that our family could pretty easily consolidate rides, share rides with neighbors, and use our bikes. With a third teenage driver we have recently succumbed to a second car again – but as we look at our family downsizing again as our kids move out, my wife and I both look forward to getting back to just one car and using the bus.
    I tell that story not because I think that our family situation is ‘normal’ (my kids remind me regularly how odd we are), but because the new bus service that BATA has introduced is MUCH more convenient than it was when I started to use it four years ago and is now a very viable alternative for people that live in the villages that BATA serves, or within a 1/3 mile of the route. It now runs hourly at a set time, into the evenings and on the weekends. Using that system instead of a second car is very economical and smart for any family that lives nearby. It will require more marketing and awareness to get people to find it, but I can say with personal conviction that it is more convenient, cheaper and relaxing to ride my bike to the bus and then to work, than it is to drive alone and pay for parking. And as gas prices go up, it only makes more sense.
    No, it won’t work for everyone. It doesn’t need to. But it already works for a lot of people, and I know that now that the service has improved it will work for many, many more.

    And I completely agree with your assessment that higher density land use patterns are critical to address the affordability issue. But I would encourage you to hop on BATA’s new Loop buses out the to villages, and begin to extrapolate how it is not only downtown Traverse City that can begin to accomodate more residential density, but also the villages served by these fixed-route scheduled buses. If you live near the bus stop in Suttons Bay, Peshawbestown, Cedar, Maple City, Glen Arbor, Grawn, Interlochen, Kingsley, Acme or any small hamlet along the way, the bus is already a better alternative to a second car. We just need to get the word out to families looking for those alternatives. And remember, those buses go both ways – so the people living in new downtown TC housing that want to get to the beach or explore rural villages now have cheap, easy access in that direction too.

    I look forward to seeing you at the Commuter Summit on June 4th!

  4. mikecgrant
    May 22, 2013 at 3:03 pm

    I write these comments as a soon to be again City of TC taxpayer who is interested in advocating for policy changes at the City to encourage more and denser mixed-use development in the City, because I believe that such development would socially, culturally, economically, and, especially, environmentally, be superior over the status quo. I write these comments in the vein of a City resident who might possibly have the ability by himself or, hopefully, with others to influence City policy. This is as opposed to my trying to influence the policy of one of the townships (where I don’t live or own property), or the county (which by and large is an irrelevant entity in terms of land use and transportation policy). I’m interested in influencing policy in the City, both because I live there, as well as I believe that it is likely the only arena in northern Michigan where anybody is going to get any traction in the near future in terms of encouraging more and denser mixed-use development.

    If MLUI or whomever can get a grant to bring somebody to town to talk about improving bus service or car pooling or whatever more power to you. It’s a vital lifeline for a whole bunch of folks in northern Michigan and I’ve voted for ever BATA millage they’ve ever had, but BATA is basically primarily a social service provider and will continue to be so until the day that it’s way more expensive and difficult to drive along in TC than it is to bus/bike/walk.

    As a matter of influencing policy, on the City or any other level, i have no idea what point you’re trying to make. What are you calling for to happen, or to not happen, in terms of BATA? I have no doubt that the ridership of daily commuters using the bus in/out of TC is fairly miniscule as opposed to those who drive alone. In fact, I think MLUI put out some statistic on that. And that, again, I believe has very little to do with the lack of bus service it has almost everything to do with the fact that most people own cars and they are far cheaper, easier, and more convenient to operate in northern Michigan than riding the bus. My impression, and I believe your stats bear this out, is that the vast majority of daily commuters drive in, and drive alone. And my supposition is that you’re going to have to make driving a whole lot more expensive and unpleasant before very many of these folks are going to take the bus. Simply increasing routes and frequencies isn’t going to make much of a difference, and there isn’t likely political support or money for that anyways. Is that what you’re calling for?

    Or, if we’re talking about Jim Lively’s ad campaign to get folks buying those new $500,000 condo’s in downtown TC to ride the bus out to Empire beach, instead of driving, well then I think you’ll have to count me out on contributing to that campaign. And that’s pretty much exactly my point, as far as people with an economic alternative to taking the bus are not going to take the bus because it’s so much easier, cheaper, and more convenient to drive. And until you make it more expensive and more difficult to drive into TC people are going to continue to drive, because they already own and have to own those cars.

    Which brings me back to the point I raised above, as far as what exactly is the policy prescription that MLUI is putting forth here and what is the arena in which that policy will be advanced? Again, my interest is in making things happen at the City level, primarily because that’s the only place that something good is very likely to happen. What exactly are you calling for and how are you going to bring it to fruition? What laws are you calling on to change and how? What taxes do you want raised or lowered and by how much?

    As far as policy changes, from the level of the City, I don’t see any political will for spending any appreciable amount of money to increase the frequency of the buses or add routes within the City. And if your project is about raising taxes to add bus service outside of the City, that’s fine too if you want to make that pitch. Maybe I’d vote for it if I thought it had merit. But let’s just not pretend that there’s any more than a handful of people who are going to be willing to ride hours on a bus, each way, every day, into TC if they can do the same trip in a fraction of the time in the convenience of the car they already own. And until more than a handful of people take the bus (or walk, or ride their bikes) in TC as opposed to driving, the bus will continue to be basically irrelevant in terms of determining land use and transportation policy in TC or otherwise.

  5. Jim Lively
    May 22, 2013 at 5:18 pm

    Great energy Mike! Bring it to the Summit where we will continue to discuss regional transportation policy ideas – and ideas for city residents too.

  6. May 22, 2013 at 5:39 pm

    Well, someday it will be more expensive and more difficult to drive in TC than it is to bus/bike/walk, and when that day comes, we’ll have a transit system in place that works so commuters can still get to work. 😉

    Why wouldn’t we work on density AND the transportation system that supports that density at the same time? Wouldn’t you say we need both?

    Again, I talk to the developers that are willing and able to construct the type of development that you and I would love to see on 8th, 14th, Garfield, etc. They’ll continue to make parking and driving easy and convenient until they know there are other viable travel options available, or at least on the way. Same goes for downtown – we’ll will continue to make parking easy and attractive until we make other options more attractive than they are right now.

    Our goal is to create a program that is dedicated to helping employees best use our transportation system, whether they’re driving alone, carpooling, riding the bus, or biking and walking. We want to encourage people who typically drive alone to try other modes and make those other modes more attractive. And we’re helping the transit agencies work the employers to that the routes are convenient for the greatest amount of travelers.

    It’s part of implementing the Smart Roads plan from a while back, which called for expanding our transit system so that it’s much more convenient and attractive for commuters.

    Our larger employers are asking for it. Some of them would rather invest (yes, invest) in making other options more convenient and also charging a market rate price for parking than spend millions of dollars on new decks. It’s not going to happen tomorrow, but they’re realizing that they will face these decisions over the next few decades, so they want to build it now, rather than react later.

    I live on 12th Street in TC and my family only has one car even though we can afford two. We wouldn’t be able to have one car without BATA, so to me it’s more than a social service.

    You’ll obviously be a great advocate for density in our city and hopefully we can work together on it. I helped create corridor improvement authorities (smaller TIF districts) in two Grand Rapids business districts and I meet with Russ Soyring regularly about creating them for 8th, 14th, etc. Wayne Schmidt has another mini-TIF bill in Lansing that could be useful to support the density your talking about.

    Still, many of us think we need to keep working on the transportation system that supports that density, too, and not just keep building for cars.

  7. mikecgrant
    May 22, 2013 at 10:05 pm

    So maybe there was sort of an answer to my question of what exactly is MLUI advocating for in terms of policy to increase bus ridership in the TC area. Or, I guess, now there’s a question, as in you ask me ‘Why wouldn’t we work on density AND the transportation system that supports that density at the same time? Wouldn’t you say we need both?”

    Well, I suppose I would work on both and I would say that we need both, but there are political realities in terms of what jurisdictions control what decisions and how likely they are to change their policies. As well as there are financial realities in terms of adding bus service would obviously cost money and who would pay for this. So, I guess to answer your question, I, like most other concerned citizens who don’t do this stuff for a living, have a finite amount of time and interest to devote to this sort of advocacy. And in northern Michigan where it’s not clear there is any widespread support for dramatically increased bus service either politically or financially, at least from the public sector, and those would both be good reasons for folks like me to devote my energies elsewhere.

    I guess the other sort of answer to my question you’ve given as far as what exactly is MLUI advocating for in terms of policy to increase bus ridership in the TC area is that you intimate that you have a goal to help employees find transit options. That’s great, I hope you get a grant to do that. But that’s nothing that I or most anybody outside of your organization or whomever you are supposedly dealing with in terms of BATA or Munson or the public schools or whomever have necessarily any reason to get involved with. You either get your grant and pay yourself to do your advocacy or you don’t get your grant and your advocacy doesn’t happen. Me or anybody else showing up at a meeting on July 4th doesn’t really change that outcome one way or another. There’s evidently no real public policy goal behind what you’re pushing here so why would I or the public want or need to get involved? Especially when, as I’ve outlined above ad nauseam, I believe your apparent goal to be so hopeless and wrong-headed.

    You make it sound like you’re starting some movement that has an actual plan that would result in some real change in terms of the land use and transportation future for the TC area if only the public would get involved. And unfortunately we’ve heard and lived through this all before in terms of the lost years and wasted millions involved in the Grand Vision process. And, yes, I did get the Smart Roads reference.

  8. May 23, 2013 at 7:28 am

    Nope – not ‘starting a movement to change the land use and transportation future of TC.’ Far from it. There’s no public involvement campaign, and there’s no big policy prescription. It’s an event.

    There might be about 60 of us there, and not many concerned citizens because it’s during the day.

    And, yes – the event and follow up work will happen with or without your involvement.

    I see a connection between density and transit so I thought you might be interested. That’s all.

  9. Greg
    May 23, 2013 at 9:33 am

    I enjoy the open comments, it can be educational to see the many points of view and the back and forth between comments.

  10. May 23, 2013 at 3:59 pm

    This looks like an interesting event; I’m glad you guys are doing this. One of the reasons I see transit being so important to a community is that the presence of transit increases resilience, both of the community and of its individual citizens. On an individual level, if one family member loses and job and the family can no longer afford a car, the whole family can begin a dangerous downward slide if there are no other options in place. Needing a car to get to a job but not being able to afford the car until you have the job is difficult to recover from and it’s a very real challenge for many people in our communities – more than you might think.

    On a community basis, one of the commenters above noted that the only thing that would push people out of their cars would be gas over $5 a gallon. I noticed that gas was two cents shy of $4 for regular unleaded this morning, and it’s not even Memorial Day yet. It doesn’t take too much imagination to think that we could see $5 a gallon this summer. And if there’s a hurricane in the Gulf or some crazy thing happens in the Middle East – again, not stretching the imagination here – well, I just wonder how long it will be before we see crazy numbers like $7 a gallon. There are already people who have limited or eliminated driving because of gas prices, and the higher it goes the more people will be pushed out of driving. The real risk to a community is not preparing for this eventuality and only searching for options when gas hits crazy numbers that begin affecting the middle class.

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