Old Town's glory days for public transportation in the past

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The Comfort Station served as a hub for transportation in the early 20th century. Photo Credit: Jack Crowley

The Comfort Station served as a hub for transportation in the early 20th century.
Photo Credit: Jack Crawley

By Anya Rath Staff Writer

Old Town, the oldest part of Lansing, was a hub of public transportation in the beginning of its conception. Now, public transportation is a rare commodity for the community.

John Melcher, the associate director of the Center of Community and Economic Development in Lansing, Mich., said that Old Town offered various options for Old Town’s travelers back in the beginning of Old Town’s history. These options included a railway, a plank road and a water way.

“Communities in historical senses have always developed around transportation systems,” Melcher said. “Right away, in Old Town’s very origin, transportation was key.”

Melcher said there was a rail line that went directly through Old Town. It used to stop at a building called the Comfort Station where travelers would rest and clean up. During this time, Old Town was called North Lansing. The Comfort Station is still a historical attraction in the area.

These various transportation options were all a result of the bustling nature of Old Town in that time. However, Old Town saw a major decline. On the Old Town Commercial Association (OTCA) website, iloveoldtown.org, it said that by the latter part of the twentieth century, buildings were abandoned or burned out. This decline led to the end of many of the transportation options.

However, Melcher said, there was a revitalization of the economy and the area in the 1980s and 1990s.

“Transportation at that point in time relied heavily on automobiles,” Melcher said. “So it really wasn’t the center for public transportation anymore.”

Compared to previous years, public transportation in Old Town has been greatly reduced. Today, the Capital Area Transportation Authority (CATA) provides the only consistent public transportation option to Old Town.

CATA offers two routes that one could take to get to Old Town: Route 14, which goes directly through Old Town and Route 12, which touches the south end of Old Town.

Dwight Smith, the director of operations for CATA, said that routes are developed with four key points in mind: timing, demand, politics and finance.

Smith said that the determination of timings begins by calculating average speed and miles traveled by the buses. Then, CATA needs to look at what are the safest times for a bus to stop at a node, locations where buses stop. There are a few factors that influence the safety of a node; for example, heavy traffic needs to be taken into consideration.

“Nodes need to reflect a number of things,” Smith said. “You have to have a bit of a [time] window with timing points that don’t create unpleasant situations.”

Smith said that the bus timings are also a direct reflection of demand.

“There are more buses assigned during peak demand times,” Smith said. “Distance between buses become greater and greater and it’s a demand reflection.”

Smith said that Route 14 is an unusual route because it serves the airport and Peckham Industries, in addition to servicing the Old Town bus stop. Smith said that Peckham Industries’ employees’ schedules had the biggest impact on the stop timings for Route 14.

Peckham Industries is a fairly large employer that primarily hires people with some sort of disability, Smith said. The best option for these employees is public transportation. Smith said that this demand results in the varied timings throughout the day.

“You’ll notice that sometimes it’ll take 40-45 minutes [between buses] and sometimes it’s 20 minutes,” Smith said. “There would be too many people on it [during the rush times] if they didn’t change the times.”

Smith added that Route 14 has a more frequent schedule between 6:30-8 a.m. and right after 5 p.m., in order to match with business travel rush times. Smith said that CATA takes a bus off the service between rush times, leading to the increased wait times between each bus.

There is not much demand for the bus service in Old Town currently. Smith said that the Route 14 bus boards around 600-700 people in a day. Around 10 percent of those riding the route 14 bus boarded in Old Town.

Smith said that because of the low demand, there are less buses assigned to Old Town. He added that is because it doesn’t look good to have empty buses running and also because Old Town doesn’t have the financial means to add more service.

“We’re not going out and doing a lot of risky services,” Smith said. “We’re looking to be conservative enough to keep our heads above water for the next decade.”

Smith said if there was a demand and better use of services, there would be an increase in options for Old Town from CATA. Much of CATA’s route development is based on trial and error to see what works best for CATA’s riders as well as what is most efficient for CATA to operate smoothly.

“It only takes one really popular business to alter the riding patterns on a bus,” Smith said.

Smith added that CATA has seen an increase in demand for Old Town since the gentrification of the area. He said that there are also increases in demand during festival times.

Louise Gradwohl, the executive director of OTCA, said the people who use the bus system the most are residents of Old Town. She added that the primary mode of transportation to Old Town is automobiles.

Gradwohl said, “I think it’s a goal of mine to be able to increase transportation opportunities, especially in the summer time.”

Gradwohl said for Old Town’s two major festivals, Festival of the Moon and Sun and Octoberfest, OTCA provides direct transportation from MSU’s campus to Old Town. They attain this bus through Dean Transportation due to sponsorship deals. Gradwohl said that people definitely take advantage of the service.

Melcher said that as Old Town becomes an arts community, they’re creating a renaissance in the area by attracting attention to events. Melcher said that as it becomes a destination location, transportation and different modes of transportation become more important.

Old Town is starting to see an economic revitalization in the form of a wide variety of businesses.  Photo Credit: Anya Rath

Old Town is starting to see an economic revitalization in the form of a wide variety of businesses.
Photo Credit: Anya Rath

Akshaya Raghu, an MSU student, has been to Old Town for a couple events and used CATA to get to Old Town. Raghu said getting there was a hassle because of the different connections she had to make to get there from campus.

“I feel like Old Town is such a cute place to hang out and there’s great stores and shops,” Raghu said. “But I feel like nobody knows about it because there is no direct line from MSU. So I think a direct line would be helpful.”

Melcher said it is key to look to the future when considering Old Town’s transportation options.

“What we really don’t know is what transportation is going to look like,” Melcher said. “That really needs to be considered when looking at Old Town.”

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