What Michigan Could Learn from Europe, Part 1 (City Centers and Transporation)

Michiganders Evan and Stephanie Wildey from Grand Rapids recently traveled to Europe over the holidays to visit Amsterdam, Bruges, Brussels, Ghent, and Paris. The following is taken from a conversation they had about some things they would like to see implemented here in Michigan.

City Centers
Evan Wildey: So, as documented, we just got back from our trip to Europe. It was a great time, but we’re glad to be back in the Mitten. What was one thing you liked about Europe that we need here?

Stephanie Wildey: One thing we really need is a plaza or a square in the city center.

EW: I agree. I liked having a central gathering place where there were always lots of activities.

SW: It was really nice because the squares are used really well. In Bruges (pictured below), they had a market and an ice rink in the city square for Christmas.

W1

EW: It was great to have an area bordered with restaurants and shops and to have a place that was bustling. In too many of our cities there’s just not enough activity happening.

SW: In order to do things in our cities, you have to spend money to be out, going out to eat or something. The nice thing about the square is you can just hang out and be with friends.

Transportation
EW: I think the big thing for me was the transportation. There were more cars than I expected, but even in a medium-sized city like Brussels, you can take the bus, subway, or tram.

SW: I could see myself going downtown Grand Rapids more if I had easier access. On the weekends, when I would like to go downtown, the bus only comes once an hour, even though we live three miles away. But because we aren’t dependent on public transit, the city can’t justify spending the money to operate the bus more.

EW: But it has to start somewhere. Maybe a tram or something other than a bus. It was also really easy to travel to nearby cities by high-speed train. That was awesome.

SW: I have taken the Amtrak from GR to Chicago and from Lansing to Chicago. The downside is the train only runs maybe once or twice a day. It’s not convenient, and it takes a long time. The trains are not high speed.

EW: Exactly. In Europe, we could show up at the train station and wait 20 minutes for a train to Amsterdam, which was about the same distance as GR to Chicago. And the trains were comfortable and affordable.

SW: Amtrak is expensive unless you get the weekly deal.  You could spend $75 one-way compared to $70 round-trip from Brussels to Amsterdam.

EW: It would be interesting to see if ridership would go up if there were more options on Amtrak and if it was cheaper. I would use it more. I was also impressed with the bike lanes. Granted Amsterdam is known for having way more bikes than cars, but in Paris too, they had great bike lanes, separate from the road and clearly marked.

W4SW: Given my experience getting hit by a car while being in a bike lane and following the rules of the road, I think it’s a great idea to keep the bike lanes separate. We are fortunate to live in GR where they are making a valiant effort to encourage and support the cycling community, but obviously there’s a lot of room for improvement. Unfortunately, I don’t know if residents of American cities are willing to take on the costs.

EW: There’s no doubt that it would be expensive, but I don’t see the negatives. It’s better for our health, not only with exercise, but also with less carbon emissions. It’s a draw for people to want to live in a city where they’re able to get around without a car.

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