Summit brings up new ideas for getting around town

When it comes to finding new ways for Grand Traverse area workers to commute to their jobs, there is a group of dedicated folks who are doing a lot more than talking the talk.

They're walking the walk. Well, to take it a step further, they're biking the bike and busing the bus, as well. You see, there's a growing new transportation paradigm in town, and regional experts and agency directors--along with national consultants--have come together to show the six-county region that the old method of single-motorist traffic jams leading to stuffed parking lots and structures isn't the only way to get to work.

To that end, James Bruckbauer, policy specialist for the Michigan Land Use Institute in Traverse City, has been holding regular meetings with various transportation agencies. He also was a driving force behind a summit in June that brought together the local members of the private sector and public transportation experts to listen to speakers brought in from San Francisco and Ann Arbor to speak about ways to get people to bike and bus to work.

"We're finding more and more businesses are looking for other ways other than spending millions on parking structures, and we also are discovering that workers are getting less tolerant of the traffic situation," says Bruckbauer. "(Because of the distance we drive to work,) the average driver in the Grand Traverse region drives nearly 23,000 miles every year, compared to just 14,000 miles in the rest of the country. That has a huge impact on our pocketbooks and our health, and it just doesn't have to be that way."

The idea of finding a way other than parking structures is particularly timely for Munson Medical Center and Northwestern Michigan College, two Traverse City facilities currently looking for ways to fund parking for employees.

"It will take them $6 million to $9 million to build a parking structure, and just a fraction of that to offer incentives for workers to find a way to commute or bike to work," Bruckbauer says.

Bruckbauer is already bringing people together to help improvements be made. He holds a monthly meeting that convenes the five transportation agencies that serve six counties in Northwest Michigan. Antrim, Benzie, Leelanau, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska and Wexford counties are served by separate agencies, and one of the first steps in helping people transfer from one to the other is to get the agencies to better coordinate services.

Ultimately, this would make it simpler for people to use the public transit system to get to work.

Lisa Ballard, owner of Current Transportation, based in Missoula, Montana, says making those meetings more formal and creating a permanent position to head those monthly gatherings, is part of the plan she was brought in to help implement.

"We first came to the Grand Traverse area in March to survey existing conditions, then again in June to formulate strategies, and we will head back at the end of July to give a plan to help implement those strategies," Ballard says.

MLUI made a major push in bringing the transportation issue to light with a June 3 summit that brought in experts to talk about how to change the way people get to work in the Grand Traverse Region. Jeffrey Tumlin, principal at Nelson/Nygaard Consulting of San Francisco, which has developed downtown master plans for cities such as San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver, Denver and Abu Dhabi, and who is the author of the book "Sustainable Transportation Planning," came to speak to those in attendance at the Getting Transportation to Work Commuter Summit.

Tumlin spoke on many topics and pointed to many challenges, but one of the main points he made was that the resources are already in place to help make the Grand Traverse area more transit friendly.

"You have people in the transit system who really get it," Tumlin says. "(The Bay Area Transportation Authority) recognizes that transit is not just a simple service that provides for people who have no other choice. Transit is what people choose to ride so they can make effective use of their time."

Also on hand was Mary Sell, commuter services specialist for GetDowntown Ann Arbor, which promotes transportation options for downtown workers by providing resources to businesses and commuters.

She pointed to the importance of private companies offering incentives for workers to ride bikes or takes buses to work--thus reducing parking costs for the companies, improving workers' health and cutting down on pollution.

Sell spoke of Google, a major employer in Ann Arbor, which pays its workers up to $50 a month if they choose not to use the company's parking structure.

There are examples of Traverse City businesses offering some incentives, and that is what the powers behind the summit would like to see used more. Hagerty Insurance encourages workers to commute to work by offering incentives. And then there's the Grand Traverse Resort & Casino, which provides bus passes to their employees at a discounted rate. The casino is working with BATA, which in recent years has improved its routes to better serve commuters.

Experts say there is a good network of bike trails in and around Grand Traverse, but that some of the sidewalks and trails end randomly. This is one improvement they are looking to tackle. Others include getting buses to be better equipped to handle more bikes for riders who want to combine biking and busing to work.

"There are a lot of great ideas, and we're looking to take them from the idea stage to the implementation stage," says Bruckbauer. "This is a beautiful area that does not have to be congested with traffic and stuffed with parking lots and parking structures. It's all about getting people thinking that there is another way."

Jeff Barr is a freelance writer who has lived in Michigan for 46 years. He has covered every part of the state. You can reach Jeff at barrj88@gmail.com
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