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L.E.N.S. – A research project looking at the City of Grand Rapids challenge in a systematic, inclusive, and ROI-focused framework

A 6 - 12 month research program that focuses on a holistic and interconnected roadmap for the current and future of Grand Rapids.

Photo of Dustin Heiler
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Learn – what are the root causes of the current situation?

Evaluate – benchmark the existing solutions in our city, or solutions implemented in cities of similar sizes that can be assessed as to their overall effectiveness and resiliency.

Narrate – envision what the ultimate transportation evolution plan for GR looks like, to scale and support the most users while improving the flow of traffic and user experience.

Systematize – back-cast (taking the ultimate vision, and applying today’s budget and tangible limitations) from the narration phase what feasibly can be rolled out in phases to get closer to this ultimate vision.

 - And, connecting each phase builds onto the next 


It is no secret that the continued growth of Grand Rapids is putting pressure on the existing infrastructure and traffic flow within and through the city.

Already, there have been some great idea submissions to improve Grand Rapids, Miami, and Pittsburgh commuting and city connectivity – however, a single solution may not be enough to solve the unique needs of each of these cities, and it can lack inclusivity of the needs of diverse users. And, while it is important to learn from, and consider options implemented from other cities, it is just as important to evaluate the fit and tailor the solution to Grand Rapids – considering the unique geographic, cultural, and infrastructure challenges.

The last point queuing up this plan is considering the investment vs. impact potential of how the $100k would be used. While this fund is a generous kick-starter to the three participating cities, it is not nearly enough to fully fund some solutions like a metro-system that would be a multi-million dollar investment, even in the first stages of planning and development.

This leads to the hypothesis that the funding should be allocated to a research project outlining systemic diagnosis, and creating the blueprint necessary for a long-term holistic solution.

The project: 

Through a 6 – 12 month research project, essential stakeholders will understand the scope and depth of the Grand Rapids transportation challenge. While Grand Rapids will have similarities to other mid-size growing cities, there are unique things under the surface that will inhibit a ‘one-size fits all’ solution. Geography, public and private property ownership, layout of roadways, and seasons are all examples of these differences (i.e. bicycle rental program – which would be used and appreciated by residents in warmer seasons, but not used in winter months).

The research group would be lead, in partnership, by the city of Grand Rapids, a team of grad students from a local college / university, and be supported (through periodic commentary / feedback sessions) from a board of professionals like the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), police / EMT first-responders, construction architects, etc. Qualifying students would be on the second half of a relevant master’s degree program, like Community Sustainability, Anthropology, and/or City Planning and Engagement studies.

The project would capture all of the necessary data to better define the problems, and research the best potential solutions through the L.E.N.S framework:

Learn - better define the problems:

Gather Data from:

  • Sensors / monitored freeway traffic systems -
    • what direction does the majority of traffic inflow and peaks/lulls from on the day-to-day, where is it usually slowed, and how much traffic flows through, vs. into the city.
  • Census information (what percentages of the commuter population fit the commuter typologies – described below?)
  • Resident and non-resident commuter surveys
  • Work hot-spots – where are the major zones of working citizens?
  • Research “parking and traffic capacity” of the city, during special occasions and events like Artprize and big artists performing at the Van Andel or Devos.

Evaluate -  research the best potential solutions

Start with what "wheels have worked" – benchmark best-in-class cities of a similar size to GR – what have they tried, and what has worked well or failed?

What is the best combination of long-term solutions, for example:

How do these systems financially sustain themselves, to stay relevant in fluctuating economic conditions?

How do these solutions contribute to GR’s sustainability and resiliency plan?

How to roll out these solutions to get enough reach & awareness, and permeate through cultural barriers to participate?

Narrate – storyboard the “best-case scenarios” for the various GR commuters, to envision what the ultimate goal looks like

Put stories together based off of the various “commuter typologies” below, that uses data from the commuter surveys to outline not just “how commuters can get from A to B more efficiently?” but also “what does an enjoyable commuting experience look like?” for the users.

  • Commuter typologies
  1. Resident natives: travelers that generally live in, and stay within the city limits, either for work or common errands (i.e. grocery store run)
  2.  Resident Nomads: those living in GR, but traveling outside the city limits for work or consistent appointments
  3.  Non-resident Nomads: Those living outside of the city of GR and commuting in or through, for daily needs (work) or event-based.


Systematize – using the insights from the first 3 stages, narrow down the solutions based on

  • Today’s budget and infrastructure limitations (i.e. “in year 2-3 we cannot fund a rail system, but we can better coordinate and reroute bus lines to connect the whole city”)

The most scaleable options

  • Solutions that are affordable for residents and visitors, but also provide income to the city or company running them and thus are self-sustaining
  • Solutions that are able to grow, evolve, and be additive to other solutions (i.e. the bike + bus stop example above; a mobile app that connects users to parking solutions for events as well as park and ride lots).

Describe who will use your solution (1,000 characters)

This solution is a deep-dive into discovering the needs of ALL Grand Rapids commuters - residents, non-residents, and those effected by daily commuting challenges.

Describe your solution's stage of development

  • Initial Design - you are still exploring the idea and have not tested it with users

Tell us about your team or organization (500 characters)

The vision for the team is described in the full project description -- a multi-disciplinary group of academia (students), professionals, relevant city of GR employees, etc. There would be a small 'core-team' of 3-5 students and one main "point of contact" from the City of GR to help with data and information. Other 'occasional team members' would be brought in periodically for review and feedback during key milestones.

Size of your team or organization

  • I am submitting as an individual

Funding Request

  • $50,000

Describe how you would pilot your idea (1000 characters)

Implementation of the plan is simply preparing the expectations and framework, and choosing the best local college / university to partner with the City of GR with, and getting commitments from the aforementioned stakeholders for occasional review/feedback sessions. The goal of this project is: - First -- researching a holistic plan that avoids wasted investment dollars in city programs that are not scale-able or not relevant for enough users -- the savings potential is very significant because it considers the effectiveness of any solution proposed through researching the impact. - Second -- preparing these solutions to be uniquely relevant to the Grand Rapids population, at a price point that is accessible to the lowest-income users in this 'typology', and sustaining of itself enough to bring in revenue for future improvements.

Describe how you would measure the success of your pilot (1000 characters)

Using one of the research tactics above -- like meters/sensors in busy streets and freeways, some numerical data can drawn to show the effectiveness of traffic flow improvements. Secondly, number of participants in each solution rolled out during each phase of implementation is a relevant measure of success through desirability of the solution. As a last, but not final conclusive measure, qualitative data can be captured through online or mobile user surveys to capture effectiveness and areas for improvement of each phase of solutions rolled out.

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Join the conversation:

Photo of Tom Bulten

Hi Dustin: I'm one of the facilitators here on the forum. Thank you for a detailed proposal for a comprehensive analysis of the transportation landscape. You point out the vast scope and complexity of the mobility challenge. I especially like the LENS acronym: Learn, Evaluate, Narrate, Systematize. In some ways the City of Tomorrow Challenge is a streamlined version of what you propose. So, judges might be looking for a project with immediate impact. But, let's see what conversation your proposal generates. Thanks again.

Photo of Dustin Heiler

Thanks for the feedback, Tom!

I agree that there isn't exactly a direct impact immediately tied to my research proposal. My observation in seeing several other ideas is that many are a good start, but have a very narrow field of target users, are temporary solutions, or are well beyond what a $100k funding proposal could implement.

So overall, I'm hoping that the selected idea(s) is/are supported by the right data and stakeholders to be successful.

Looking forward to following the updates to the Challenge and what solutions it brings to GR!