In the early 1800s transportation consisted of walking or riding one's horse or mule. Boating on the Grand River was the other form of transportation. It was not unusual to hear reports of bears and other big game animals just outside the city limits, which at that time, were considerably smaller area than they are now.
The first streets were former deer trails and paths that people used when hunting or trading with Native American tribes. Some of the roads on the western riverbank were wooden plank roads. This is very fitting as "The Valley" was originally a Cedar wetland. Other first roads were paved with gravel and others still were toll roads. The first few bridges that were built, were long, wooden, covered bridges like the one in Ada.
As the town's infrastructure began to become more substantial, more people moved to Grand Rapids, and more transport choices opened to them. People could always walk or ride a bicycle. A number of horse-drawn vehicles may be identified in the historic photos available online from the Main Library's Digital Collection and various private citizens' photo collections. These vehicles include but are not limited to: small animal-pulled carts for children, full-sized, horse-drawn two wheeled carts, four to six seat Surrey buggies, Hearses, Doctor's Buggies, Broughams, Victorias, Glass Coaches, and the later Landaus. The city laid down brick streets and public transportation was then comprised of Hansom cabs and horse-drawn street cars. To go from Grand Rapids to the corner of Four Mile and Fruitridge roads, or Grand Rapids to Grand Haven, you would have had to contract with a stagecoach company.
The 1890s were the years of the Steam Engine, and the railroads changed everything. People always wanted to live either in the city or in the countryside, but the Victorians, with their smooth and speedy rail travel, made the first suburbs possible; as the transportation improved, people always moved farther from the city's center. Railroads also benefitted the economies of the smaller surrounding towns as this new ability to travel without much hardship increased the frequency of day trips to these towns.
By 1910 Grand Rapids had electric cable cars: perfect for safely negotiating the snow and ice on Michigan Street Hill. These street cars were solidly built of steel, glass, and beautifully finished wood. They were as iconic as those in San Francisco and as elegant as those you would have seen at the time in Europe. The streetcars were a part of a comprehensive public transportation system which seamlessly connected with the national train system. Interurban stops, whether in the middle of downtown or at the corner of Leonard and Oakleigh, were reliable: not subject to change because the tracks were permanently embedded into the streets. Street car shelters like the one at Oakleigh and Leonard were typically wood walled, wood floored, with a wooden door, wooden cedar shakes on the roof, and glass window panes; with or without a wood-burning, pot-bellied stove. In town, the shelters were brick walled with broadly arched window tops, wood floors, etc usually with a pot-bellied stove.
In 1920 cars were being built in Grand Rapids and more people could afford to own them. You could take a drive out to Spring Lake and Grand Haven simply by driving West on Leonard; through Lamont, Berlin, (now Marne) and Eastmanville, right on out to Spring Lake. By 1930 you could get out of work, hop on a streetcar, connect to a high-speed (50 mph) train headed out to Grand Haven, swim for an hour at the Big Lake, come back to Grand Rapids, and be home in time for dinner; in fact, my grandfather, Mr. George J. VanderMeer used to do it all of the time.
I missed the destruction of the Interurban. A local historian let me know that a bus company bought the Taylor Car Line and the other Tram lines and started to rip out the tracks. Amtrak still struggles on through the decades because many people have never known the on-time, quick, smooth, peaceful, beautiful, and worry-free way of traveling. The car was king by the time I made my debut here, and now the expressways, laid during the 1960s, are really showing their age.
Aviation in Grand Rapids was limited to one of the founders of the Amway Corporation's experiments with the industry, experiments that took place just outside of neighboring Comstock Park. At one point the airport was at the edge of the Grand Rapids city limits but it was moved to its present site for security reasons.
Within the 21st century we have gone from a type of transportation based on need, to a type of transportation based on choice. There are now many options available and people want to take them. More people are using the new bike lanes, moving themselves into historic business districts/neighborhoods that are "walkable communities", there are plans for a new high speed rail/new streetcars to be installed here in town, and the possibility of "tunnelizing" the espressways to re-open streets and add to the built environment. My transport of choice is made right here in Michigan: on a beautiful day, I would choose to ride in an open top carriage; like the carriages they operate in Central Park, (Landaus) the ones the residents and tourists love, the ones that they drive in England, Germany, Poland, France, Vienna, (Bourghams) and many of the other countries that the residents of Grand Rapids' forebearers came from, one day, long ago...