When Grand Rapids, MI was synonymous with public transit

In this video, amateur historian Fred Quillin, a sixth-generation resident of Grand Rapids, MI, discusses the way that transit has evolved in his town. Once, Grand Rapids was the synonymous with excellent electric public transit, but its streetcar network was dismantled by the auto industry, who bought and scrapped it. Now, Quillin wants to return his city to its former glory.

A Citizen's History of the Grand Rapids Streetcar (Thanks, Kovatcha!)


  1. RESIDENT!!!! Also, auto industry doesn’t need to be hyphenated.

    (you can delete this once the typo is fixed)

  2. As a non-driver, I’m as a big of a supporter of mass transit as possible, but in GR as elsewhere the story is more complex than the “evil” car companies destroying a well functioning streetcar system. The streetcars were privately owned and had trouble making a profit after autos became common. The problem was expecting that public transit should make a profit rather than being a subsidized public good.

  3. What do they make in Grand Rapids -today- that justifies providing rapid transit to the centers of industry? Because that’s why the streetcars were built, to get people to work.

    1. It may surprise you that Grand Rapids is quite a hub (at least in Michigan) for education and health care. Michigan State has just opened its Secchia Center to serve as a west Michigan campus for its College of Human Medicine. Amway is headquartered there (for better or worse :\ ), as well as a number of large hospitals. The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum is there, Meijers grocery stores have their headquarters there, etc, etc.

      In addition, Grand Rapids used to be quite the center for furniture production back at the beginning of the 20th century.

      It’s actually quite a nice city.

    2. What do they make in Grand Rapids -today- that justifies providing rapid transit to the centers of industry?

      Well, the viddie is essentially a political ad for today’s voting, so the best you can expect is some truthiness. But have you checked out all the parking ramps in the Medical Mile? Sure, most of the docs will still be auto-nomous, but I know lottsa worker bees who would love better service from Kentwood, Cascade, Walker, and Plainfield. Not to mention that a large part of today’s millage request is simply aimed at getting back routes and busses that were cut several years ago…lottsa carless folks took a big hurt from that, and it’d be nice to see their situation redressed.

      Plus, approving the millage is a chance to get back at The Man. Snyder seems to be of the Nixon school for fighting poverty — tax the poor out of existence and there’s no more poverty problem. Improving GRATA would give the “trickle up” crowd a chance to show their stuff…

    3. What do they make in Grand Rapids -today- that justifies providing rapid transit to the centers of industry? Because that’s why the streetcars were built, to get people to work.

      To get people to work from suburban subdivisions.

      Most interurban lines and many streetcar lines were built by real-estate developers to enhance the value of their subdivisions, which otherwise (in the horse-and-carriage age) were too far from city employment centers to make for a reasonable commute.

      That was one of the great weaknesses of many – perhaps most – rail transit lines in the US: they weren’t built to make a profit on their own – they were built to make land development profitable.

      Once the land was sold, the developers had no further interest in the lines, and often sold them to operating companies that subsequently struggled to survive on fare income limited by franchise terms.

      With the advent of affordable mass-manufactured automobiles, ridership and fare income plummeted to unsustainable levels.

      In some places (including Grand Rapids) some companies were sold to electric utility holding companies, who made up the operating losses of the transit companies with the profit from the sale of electricity.

      But that was eliminated by the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935, which severely restricted the ability of utility holding companies to own and operate non-utility businesses.

  4. Cool Video, and, as a resident of GR, I will be voting to increase funding to the Rapid.

    The Rapids current property tax millage is 1.12, compare that to Lansing’s 3.01, Saginaw’s 3.00, and Ann Arbor’s 2.5. And GR is bigger than all of those cities. Time to catch up to the rest of the state in providing public transport.
    Not to mention it would be cool to see street cars again someday in the future

  5. emmdeeaych – We don’t “make” as much as we used to, but we sure do create a lot. Grand Rapids is one of the furniture design capitols of the world, home to several colleges and universities, a leading tech center in the midwest and I would daresay a leading medical center as well. All of these people, even though they aren’t stamping license plates, still need to get to work somehow.

    I know that I personally do not enjoy commuting to work by car. I rather read the news on a bus and let someone else worry about it, and not get stressed by squealing brakes, balding tires, paying $45 to fill my meager tank, etc.

    Buses aren’t just for poor people and factory workers. Look at any mid/major city in the US and you’ll see a very diverse group sharing a bus together.

  6. They manufacture hipsters. But in all fairness there has been a lot of positive buzz from GR in our state, with all the movies being filmed downtown, Art prize, and the other festivals. Its one of the bright spots in our state for the creative industry. But like Emmadeeaych said, you have to have a reason to justify expanding mass transit.

  7. people have no idea how much rage we’re going to feel at our ancestors for building an america that depends on cheap gasoline. do far flung suburbs, huge parking lots, interstates, and parking structures (whose ceilings are too low to be used for anything else) have any application in a post-cheap-gasoline world, when we’ll still be paying down the debts incurred to build them?

    1. I don’t think our descendants are going to be all that worried about it, because they’ll be too busy defending the plot of land they use to grow food for their family.

      Okay, there might be a brief window of anger as the last wisp of gas ignites in the combustion chamber of their 4 ton SUV, but it will be quickly replaced by the crushing realization that society has collapsed and it’s every man for himself.

    2. I think Detroit has shown that sprawling suburbs can at least be rapidly converted to small hold farmland, but yeah, I don’t think we’ll find much use for the parking garages beyond breaking down the concrete to pull out the steel reinforcing. The interstates might make good roads for oxcarts…

  8. The same thing happened in Philadelphia, where GM argued that buses, being automobiles, are more modern and advanced than trolleys. So they bought out the trolley companies and tore up the tracks.
    Due to the coming end of cheap financing and cheap gasoline, I think it’s about time to reintroduce trolleys and more local trains.

  9. Vancouver Canada HAD street cars out to the outer towns 2 Hrs away (abbotsford)and in the 40 thought Busses were “modern” and took the street cars down to the river and burned them then pushed the remains into the river.
    in 2010 there is TALK of building transit out to Abbotsford which is one of the faster growing towns in Canada!!!!

  10. Fred Quillin is a friend of mine from college, and I live in New Orleans, which is, of course, well known for its streetcar system.

    I have nothing of value to add to this conversation!

    1. Three lines in a city of more than 300,000 is a system? Learn something new every day…

      1. I never said it was a -good- streetcar system. It exists mostly for the tourists, but I use it to get to and from work every day.

        (I hate tourist season so much.)

        New Orleans public buses are actually kinda nice.

  11. I am living in Grand Rapids and I use the bus to get to work and school. This is the first that I have heard of a movement to get electric streetcars back in the city. Obviously, depending on electricity instead of gasoline is a very good thing. Lately, the Rapid, which runs our city’s public transportation, has been buying a few hybrid buses. I’m hoping that they weren’t so expensive that it won’t lead to them buying more.

    If Grand Rapids can efficiently install new tracks and get businesses to run more streetcars, then that’s pretty awesome. If the math is done and that turns out to work from a business standpoint, then Grand Rapids should step up and do it. However, I think that the Rapid has been doing a great job with handling public transit in my city, and there is a lot that can be built off of that. Perhaps hybrid buses will lead to fully electric buses and we will have no need for rails at all. In fact, the rails themselves are the least appealing aspect.

    This vote today can definitely build upon what we’re already doing right.

  12. Isn’t this just more of the debunked Roger Rabbit myth?

    Buses are and always have been more efficient and flexible than rail except for very very large loads going to fixed points. The whole “ZOMG GM teh conspiracy!!!1” was comparatively small and way late – streetcars were already on the way out by the time GM got into the game in a very small way.

    1. Not sure what the situation in Grand Rapids was and is like, maybe they don’t have a lot of traffic and really low ridership.

      But rest assured that streetcars work very well (and efficiently) in some places. In my city, there are dozens of streetcar lines (among other modes of public transportation). They tend to be faster than buses since many of them run on designated lanes within a street; one streetcar moves more passengers than any bus ever could (this is a real issue in crowded cities); and they are safer. Your “fixed point” argument doesn’t work either since it turns out that people are actually capable of changing trains — to other streetcar lines, subway lines or buses.

      Not saying your arguments can’t be valid for some American cities but they aren’t some kind of universal truth either.

      1. Oh, and try going to a place like Tokyo and tell them that their (mostly privately funded) light rail system is inferior to buses in cost and efficiency. Or try driving or taking the bus to work there, good luck…

      1. Yes, because absence of evidence that “teh auto companies” were involved instead of simple economics is simply further evidence of the conspiracy. Right.

        Buses fit the current transportation infrastructure much better, and I blame the “utopian community” planners of the 50s that created the need for all this road travel in the first place.

        In this environment, rail is mostly uneconomical, to the point that it’s a way to express your hipsterism/classism by choosing a mode of transport that’s intentionally more expensive as a way to express status. (Of course, you might not see it as more expensive due to various subsidies/taxes) I think the reason it’s a class thing is that trains have all this dedicated infrastructure that you’re bending to your command to get you somewhere, versus having to share the street with all the other commoners – it’s like having a sedan chair instead of walking.

        1. Methinks you’re conflating local and long-distance/inter-city travel. The two are fundamentally different in almost every way.

          And roads are subsidized like nothing else in the US (maintaining all those roads is hella expensive!), not to mention external costs that result from pollution and the tens of thousands of traffic deaths every year…

          Again, looking abroad may put things in perspective.

          1. Gawds, I hate it when people complain about subsidizing trains as if all the asphalt and traffic lights were provided free of charge by the road fairy.

    2. “Isn’t this just more of the debunked Roger Rabbit myth?”

      The myth is that Roger Rabbit was ever credibly debunked. Those magical mythical buses have never existed. The tires degrade into the particulates that have increased childhood asthma. The exhaust, as from all infernal combustion engines; intensifies asthmatic attacks. Driving a bus is a labor intensive endeavor, there are wages, health care and pensions to add to the cost. Infernal combustion engines require more mechanics than electrical engines.

      Your magical bus turns out to be a large money pit on wheels. Give me the efficiency of rail any day. Now let us talk about updating this proven transportation mode: human powered. The lead car is full of energy creating exercise cycles; the kind that people pay gyms to use. The second car is full of convicts on supervised work release. Did I mention that the lead car is full of the spandex clad variety and the convicts have a wonderful view of those athletic backsides? I hope this gets the conversation rolling away from whole “buses are great” bull snot.

    3. rilly:-( the trolleys were scrapped because PEOPLE PREFERRED CARS! without massive subsidies public transit is not economically viable…of course, cars were also massively subsidized via cheap fuel, roads and unpaid environmental costs, but that’s what the greatest generation wanted after the war:-(

      Fifty-five years of pollution
      Everyone knows how the puzzle was laid
      But can anyone recall the solution

  13. The title of the post had me thinking that it was the grand rapids themselves that were once the grand mode of rapid public transit.

  14. This is my city! He raises a really good point, and I’m pumped that it got on boing boing. We do have a bus system but it is lacking. This increase would be really good for the city!

  15. And while I confess I’m far more familiar with my own local transit history here in Los Angeles, after some browsing through my reference shelf and Googling about for a bit, it would appear that GM et al and their National City Lines holding company had even less to do with the demise of rail transit in Grand Rapids than they did in LA.

    All three of the companies operating interurban lines in Grand Rapids – the Grand Rapids, Holland & Chicago Railway, the Michigan Railroad Co., and the Grand Rapids, Grand Haven & Muskegon Railway – abandoned their lines between 1926 and 1928, putting an end to interurban service.

    Most (all?) of the early local streetcar companies were consolidated in the Grand Rapids Railway Co. by 1900. It was acquired by the Commonwealth Power Railway & Light Co. in 1910. After some shuffling of holding companies, it ended up as a subsidiary of Union Railway Gas & Electric Co., a former subsidiary of Commonwealth Power, that was spun off as a subsidiary of the newly-formed Electric Railway Securities Co. in 1924.

    (Near as I can tell, anyway. Street railway company genealogies are sometimes complicated things.)

    Grand Rapids Railway Co. became a separate company in 1930. It began replacing streetcar lines with buses, many when tracks were torn up during a city of Grand Rapids street-widening project in 1932.

    All the streetcar lines were replaced with buses by 1935.

    The year before National City Lines was reorganized as GM et al’s holding company.

    As far as I can tell, National City Lines was never involved at all in Grand Rapids.

  16. Also, the “burning the streetcars” film included in that video was a publicity stunt staged by L. J. DeLamarter of the Grand Rapids Railway in 1926.

    After a a fire swept through a streetcar barn in 1925, DeLamarter seized the opportunity to upgrade and modernize the company’s rolling stock.

    The company asked passengers to vote on design features, colors, and style, and the result – the ‘Grand Rapids Electric Coach’ – was introduced at a large public festival in 1926 at the West Michigan Fairgrounds that featured a balloon ascent and fireworks, and culminated in the burning of 20 of the remaining old-model streetcars, which had been stuffed full of hay, kerosene and black powder. The resulting conflagration was visible for miles.

    The Grand Rapids Historical Commission has a very nice photo essay detailing this and other bits of Grand Rapids streetcar history.

    1. Wups — ya forgot your photo essay link in the burning streetcars comment, Glen. Perhaps you meant this page? (If not, here’s the search page for GR streetcars ;-)

      Never had a chance to enjoy the interurban as much as my folks did (“You could go from Saugatuck to Chicago for a coupla nickels”)…by the early ’50s the tracks had all been torn out and the only vestige was the rights-of-way. But man was it fun to play on those! We’d find spikes, coins, rail shards, and had a ready excuse for traipsing through strangers’ yards and land — “We’re following the old interurban!”

  17. Grand Rapids has an old-style, densely cored downtown, somewhat narrow roads in places (not like Philly was though) but very modernized and very, very active for old downtowns and draws big crowds. With outdoor ice skating, niche restaurants, galleries, city-wide walking art shows. It is walkable but is quite large and spread out, divided by a large river with large steel bridges. Active nightlife. Major upscale hotel, new midwest skyscrapers, theaters, museums including Gerald Ford Presidential, newer performance, conference, and display hall, and sports/event arena. A new state university campus, medical school, major medical center, as well as a biotech research org. And a large number of state, art, and religious colleges. I rode the buses around town as a student having difficult and expensive parking; they were really efficient, but I could see that parking at city edge without bringing a car into city center, simply hopping on and off a street car would be very, very useful and speedy to fully access and utilize the city across its spread. New parking ramps are quite accessible, but are still a hassle when city is full and busy with events, or cars fill every parking space when classes are in session. And you still end up driving if you have multiple stops across quadrants.

  18. I was a transit driver in Seattle. One of the best benefits of the trolley is the loading and unloading of passengers. Three points, at a minimum. If the city bus was in the ride free zone, then both doors could be utilized. Other than that, One. Total waste of time. (The airline industry could learn from that, utilize all the doors when emptying the plane).

    Seattle also has many hybrids. My favorite is the diesel/electric conversion bus. Its huge and the electric poles pop up in town and fold down when electricity is no longer available.

    One bad thing about anything on a rail: once its blocked, the whole line is blocked.

    You must have a set schedule. This allows a municipality to budget well. And the public will get used to “the number 5 leaving every 20 minutes” you can’t get any better than that. My state hands riders this thick disgusting bible, they litter the streets; they are the size of small phone books, Seattle has wonderful individual route schedules and very easy to read.

    Designate your lanes, build electrical lines, design buses with multiple entry/exit points. Build landing platforms on both sides of the stops. Design a street light system that favors all transit. Build/order diesel/electric/natural gas buses. And most important, a cost effective way to collect fares.

    I live in Phoenix AZ now, and even this unfriendly state just completed its own light rail.

  19. @jlbraun – Certainly buses are more flexible, and will always be part of the mix. But part of the effectiveness of rail is its relative permanence: people start making decisions about where they live and where they work (and where they start businesses and where they hire people) based on where rail lines and stations are. I don’t know anyone who thinks “cool, there’s a bus stop on this corner now; I’ll invest $5 mil in retrofitting this building and expand my company here now.” People do, in fact, make exactly that kind of decision based on where a rail stop is built – which leads to all kinds of economic growth that buses simply do not.

    There are other advantages to rail, even trolly-rail, that have been adequately noted by others (not as vulnerable to delay = more dependable schedule; not necessarily fossil fueled; etc.)

    But, again, I hear you on the flexibility. It’s just that the very flexibility of buses actually limits the role the can play in fueling economic and civic growth.

Comments are closed.