Lansing’s Transportation Trend

Make your way to Albert Street in downtown East Lansing around 2 a.m. when the bars close and you’ll see lines of cabs in varying sizes and colors awaiting passengers. Drivers with names like Ezekial, James and Abdul will be the bar hoppers’ designated drivers this night.

The scene is bedlam. There might be 200 people waving for a cab.  Patrick Quinney, owner of Mountain Man Taxi, will open his cab door and a bunch of people will pile in.

Like many drivers, Quinney does not work full time. He selects the high volume weekend periods from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. and holidays.  The 64-year-old is semi-retired, in the business six years working for seven different companies studying their business plans, he says. Now he’s in business for himself, driving a white Hyundai Elantra.

Nabeel Al-Saedi, 50, drives the Tigris River’s lone cab, a Dodge, on weekends only. He is taking nine hours of classes at Lansing Community College.

Taxicabs began to proliferate in East Lansing in 2008, causing people to ask, “What gives?” Up until then there were three primary companies, Spartan Cab, Big Daddy and Shaggin’ Wagon. Then their drivers started opening their own businesses, says Nicole Evans, East Lansing city clerk.

With the increase in demand, East Lansing tightened its rules. Now, all drivers are given a background check and drug tested every year. Cab companies must carry a $5,000 bond, costing $100 per year, to cover a type of insurance that would pay a claim if someone left their camera in a cab, for example.

Evans says the MSU student body has been a big draw for taxi companies. But the drivers will have access to a new clientele when City Center II is completed. That development is expected to transform the block northwest of Grand River Avenue and Albert Street with a hotel, grocery store, theater and restaurant. And further east, on Grand River, will be the Edith and Eli Broad Art Museum that is expected to draw new visitors to the area.

Greener Cabs

The first environmentally friendly company was Green Cab, founded in 2008 by Woody Campbell, who graduated from East Lansing High about 24 years ago. He boomeranged to other parts of the country, always returning to the Capital region.
Hybrid cabs seemed a way of the future so he set out to start such a company here.

“I started with one car and one driver—me,” Campbell chuckles. Today he has three Toyota Priuses, one Honda Civic hybrid and two vans using 25 percent hydrogen and 75 percent gasoline. His staff consists of 16 drivers and four dispatchers.
“We allow taxi riders to save green—on the planet and in their pockets,” Green Cab’s website claims.

“Students are a big part of our business (45 percent) but we don’t rely on them,” Campbell says. His cabs are outfitted with meters, a bragging point for him. He claims his patrons are not left to the whim of a driver charging more because he happens to be having a bad day. “Any real cab, in Quebec or Paris or anywhere else in the world, works with a meter,” he harrumphs.

Quinney, of Mountain Man, says there are financial reasons to use a meter, too. Without one, a public people-moving-vehicle is classed as a limousine, requiring an annual inspection by a Michigan Department of Transportation-approved certified mechanic and a $300 application fee. 

Campbell’s Green Cab drivers make runs to different hotels and Lansing’s airport and collaborate with Michigan Flyer that transports travelers to Ann Arbor and Detroit Metro Airport. The cars are equipped with bike racks.

Another option on the taxi horizon is Spar-Thai Green Cab expecting to launch soon, offering one way rides and campus tours on 12 electric pedicabs, vehicles appearing much like rickshaws.

Bigger Picture

Tim Dempsey sees the growing cab number as just one piece of the positive changes to the metro area’s transportation picture. The director of the city’s Planning and Development Department wants university students to get home safely, and he believes Green Cab is moving in the right direction. But moving people from auto dependence is his goal and that will require smarter land planning, he says. Services and shopping should be closer to their customers.

Walkability is imperative, but public transit should be added where necessary. Ultimately he envisions fewer cars. He likes MSU’s new car sharing program because, in addition to the cabs, people don’t have to rely on owning a car. ZipCar, as it is called, has six cars on the campus, four near Farm Lane and Shaw, and two near Wilson Hall.

Tim Schmitt, East Lansing community development analyst, wants to see a transportation offering for anyone. Bus and train travel is increasing. The Blue Water train on the Port Huron/East Lansing-Chicago route saw a one-year 29.5 percent increase in travel with the Amtrak service which has a station on the MSU campus. 

That increase in riders is encouraging to Lori Mullins, one of East Lansing’s community and economic development administrators. The tiny Amtrak station is located on Harrison Road. With the development of the university’s new recycling facility, and the decentralization of the central printing services, land around the train station has been vacated. It could now expand and become a multi-modal station, something the station is already to some degree.

In one day, trains pass through twice, 18 to 22 buses leave, and taxis come and go.  Train travel has grown by 170 percent there since 2003. East Lansing, MDOT and MSU are working on a study to determine what such a transportation hub might need. They are seeking funds for designing and building it, Mullins says.

Meanwhile, the Capital Area Rail Council, working with the Capital Area Transportation Authority, is working on a study to build a modified bus/rapid transit system that would loop around the capitol and downtown Lansing and then stretch seven miles down Michigan and Grand Avenues to Marsh Road in Meridian Township, says Patty Alexander of CATA.

There’s still a lot of work needed to develop options for walkers and bikers, the transport group referred to as the “non-motorized sector.” There are huge gaps in the areas with sidewalks, and parts of trail systems end without connection to other trails, Schmitt says. He would connect the River Trail to the Meridian Township trail.
People should be able to travel throughout the region any way they want, he says.

So while taxi cabs would be in that picture, so, too would be a community designed where people live closer to groceries and schools and if they so choose, can even walk where they need to go.

Gretchen Cochran is a frequent contributor to Capital Gains.

Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.


David Thorin of Spar-Thai Green Cab

Green Cab

A Spar-Thai pedicab (Courtesy photo)

A Zip Car on MSU campus

Patrick Quinney

All Photographs © Dave Trumpie

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