Grand Rapids To Dearborn By Transit

A 10AM meeting in Dearborn, MI 160 miles away - I am in Grand Rapids, MI - in December [in Michigan]. If driving day-of I would have to leave home at 7AM - assuming there was no weather events between here and there. Probably would leave at 6:30AM to be safe. Then two meetings, concluding around 6PM, and another 160 mile drive back home. If weather was not an issue I would get home ~9PM; also assuming I ate at a drive-thru. That is a ~14.5 hour Saturday. Ugh.

An estimation of driving cost is $151.20 based on a rate of ~$0.45 a mile and a 5% slop factor [trips are never perfectly direct]. Even with no slop factor and an extremely conservative mileage cost of $0.35 the cost is $112.00.

Driving this trip looks to be both (a) no fun [6 hours!] and (b) expensive. I prefer to have either (a) enjoyable|productive or (b) cheap. Ideally both. So let's check out the alternative.

It is probably safer to plan on arriving on Friday evening and over-nighting in a hotel. Then I can wake up, take a shower, and go the meetings. That definitely improves both the enjoy-ability and productivity regardless of how i get there. Splitting the cost off a room with another participant also reduces that as a cost.

Dearborn is the home of the John D. Dingell Transit Center, possibly the most modern and spacious train station in the state of Michigan. The service to the station is the Amtrak Wolverine three times a day in each direction. The Wolverine also passes through Kalamazoo which has inter-city bus service with Grand Rapids. That looks like a viable option. Some of those inter-city bus trips are also Amtrak thru-way service; this means their schedules are tied to the train schedule. Both Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo have very nice multi-modal transit centers with seating, power outlets, bathrooms, vending machines, etc... Promising!

Fortunately there is a great option for this trip. The trip will be a quick 4.2 hours. And getting back is even more convenient.

Date Depart From Service Arrive Destination Dwell
Dec 1 7:30pm Grand Rapids Thru-way bus#8555 8:40pm Kalamazoo 30 minutes
Dec 1 9:10pm Kalamazoo Wolverine #354 11:48pm Dearborn -
Dec 2 6:43pm Dearborn Amtrak Wolverine #355 9:18pm Kalamazoo 42 minutes
Dec 2 10:00pm Kalamazoo Indian Trails Thru-way Bus#8354 11:00pm Grand Rapids -

With this schedule I can get home from work on Friday, change, grab my bag, then my wife and I can take the RAPID#15 [every 15 minutes] downtown. December 1st is the lighting of the city's Christmas tree at the award-winning Rosa Parks Circle plaza. Attending that event is a tradition of ours. And I'll still have time to get some decent food. A walk to the Grand Rapids transit center is ~10 minutes.

Another upside: inter-city buses and trains are big heavy things. The weather can do almost anything without impacting my schedule.


Cost Driving Transit
Travel $112 - $151 / $45 $84 / $42
Lyft ~$20 ~$20
Total $142 - $171 / $65 $104 / $62

In this case transit is a definite win in true cost (the first number) and a wash in immediate cost (the second number). For this trip I had enough Amtrak Guest Rewards points to cover one leg of the trip, a value of $42. I anticipate I will take a Lyft from the hotel to the venue regardless of mode as I don't know the streets very well and parking may be limited. Using transit adds a trip from the station to the hotel, driving adds a trip from the venue back to the hotel - no difference. I may need to Lyft from the venue back to the station but the more likely option is that I can hitch a ride with someone who will be heading back towards Detroit. The meeting venue, the train station, and the hotel are all within a few miles of each other; other than December - February this would be reliably walk-able.

Immediate vs. Actual: True cost is what something actually costs, vs. immediate cost is what you pay at the time. Having Amtrak points is something I've accumulated by previous spending. The true cost of driving is something one accumulates and pays later in maintenance and vehicle depreciation. Driving has a deceptively low immediate cost - you just think about the fuel - while you are silently expending the utility of tires, brake pads, windshield wipers, tie rods, ball joints, etc...


Mode Trip Time Productive Time Dwell Time Bathroom Available
Driving 6 hours 0 minutes 0 minutes No
Transit 8.2 hours ~5-6 hours 72 minutes Yes

~5-6 hours working - or napping - is a big win. I anticipate a relatively even split between work and napping.

Concluding Thoughts

When I started plotting this trip I did not expect it to math out so well. Thru-way inter-city bus service is a critical component to our state's transportation system. And it is too often overlooked; buses are not sexy. Inter-city buses in America have a cultural stigma; possibly due to people remembering the cramped run-down buses we had during the twilight of the Greyhound era. If you have not ridden an Indian Trails luxury motor coach - the modern fleet of inter-city buses - I recommend you give it a try. You'll have large seats, large windows, a bathroom, 110v power outlets, and overhead luggage compartments. For shorter trips and to smaller rural destinations inter-city bus is the solution.

More still needs to be done regarding frequency of inter-city buses and not all trains provide thru-way bus connectivity - but it is getting better every year.

Next year [2018] the Wolverine will begin 110mp/h service east of Kalamazoo. Old track has been rebuilt, double track added to avoid trains being in each others way, modern Positive Train Control (PTC) has been installed, and new locomotives are on there way. All these components will reduce trip times - which as we see above is already quite competitive.

Check the schedules for your next trip, you might be surprised.