I moved back to Michigan two years ago after fifteen years working and living in a variety of regions across the country. My time away has made me appreciate Grand Rapids and the greater region in a way that I did not do while growing up in a suburb outside of Grand Rapids. After moving away from the state for college, I found that it was not unique to find people unfamiliar with Grand Rapids, West Michigan or America’s “High Five,” the State of Michigan. The City of Grand Rapids is the state’s 2nd largest city, with just over 200,000 people and counting. It is home to world headquarters for such companies as Amway, BISSELL, Steelcase, Herman Miller, and Wolverine World Wide. The City is experiencing an unprecedented amount of economic growth and many businesses cannot fill vacant positions quickly enough.
Despite this success, its benefits are not experienced equally in our community. Our city’s poverty levels are higher than the national average, and unemployment among African-Americans and Latinos is more than double that of white residents, according to a 2014 study by PolicyLink and Program for Environmental and Regional Equity. Although it is easy to access destinations within the Grand Rapids region by car that accessibility is not shared by all; many Grand Rapidians experience difficulty meeting mobility needs in a transportation system that lacks options and choice. Limited options affect residents and employees, restricting the economy and quality of life in our community.
The majority of growing job centers are located in areas of the City and region that are not transit accessible. Transportation is the second-highest household expense after housing. To the extent that residents can lower this expense, it enables them to spend money on other needs.
Communities across the country are wrestling with the challenge of creating a transportation system that addresses equity challenges and connects residents and employees to transportation. Within the City organization, we are working hard to embed racial equity into our policies and practices. We cannot do this alone and recognize that our internal work is not enough to move the needle on economic equity and opportunity throughout all of Grand Rapids.
Because we cannot solve these problems alone, we are excited to participate in the Ford City of Tomorrow Challenge to move forward partnerships and ideas that creatively address the City’s mobility challenges. Due to the constant changes in technology and demographic demands, there will need to be flexibility in mobility options to meet the growing needs of Grand Rapids. This challenge provides a great opportunity to work collaboratively with the community to find creative solutions – all while ensuring that equity considerations are included to improve outcomes for all community members. Grand Rapids’ advantage as a small city is its flexibility to experiment. We have similar challenges to larger cities but lack the massive complexities that make implementation difficult and time-consuming.
I am continuously amazed by the engagement and commitment of the larger community and am proud to call home a community that has started having conversations about racial and social equity although difficult and uncomfortable. There is much work to be done, but I’m confident we can get there working together as a community. Transportation is continuing to evolve and the future is uncertain. I’m excited to see what the future holds as more transportation choices emerge and options become available to us all.