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Cleveland's curse: Getting BRT right makes second act so tough

Marc Lefkowitz  |  06/17/13 @ 2:00pm  |  Posted in Transportation choices

Whether we realize it or not, when Cleveland launched its Bus-Rapid Transit system on Euclid Avenue in 2008, it joined an international community dedicating bus lanes that promise to speed transit riders along faster than conventional buses. Clevelanders have taken great pride in seeing their BRT splashed across the pages of the international press—it was even crowned top BRT system in the U.S.

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With some minor gripes aside, we all get to witness BRT success everyday. But, has the influx of “choice” riders to the HealthLine whet the appetite for another BRT line?

Certainly, at $200 million for 5 miles of infrastructure and hybrid buses, an award-winning BRT system is not cheap. But, this isn’t just infrastructure, it’s transformative, high-value infrastructure. The economic return is an estimated $4.3 billion for infill and redeveloped buildings on Euclid Avenue. It makes the case for a second act. But is there a will among the leadership at Greater Cleveland RTA, a city in its service area, and at the source of funding, NOACA, to build another BRT line in Northeast Ohio?

It took quite a bit of swimming upstream to get the Euclid BRT line funded (80% was federal and 20% a local match. The case was built more than a decade earlier in the Dual Hub Streetcar plan hatched by Hunter Morrison and others during Mayor Michael White’s Administration).

So much has changed in the world since 2008 — much for the better in transit projects. Nearly every city in the U.S. is clamoring for a new streetcar line — and at least half a dozen, including Dallas, Charlotte and Cincinnati are poised to add lines soon to existing streetcars in Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Denver, and Portland.

Before the recent leadership change at NOACA, observers noted, there was no more juice to do a follow up project at transformative scale like the HealthLine. With the most to prove, and with energy to spare, NOACA’s new Executive Director Grace Gallucci probably embodies the best hope for the next big transit infrastructure project. With her statements over the weekend that Cleveland’s experience with the Shoreway closure showed that alternatives to the car exist and will be used in great number if the opportunity arises, Gallucci signaled a new chapter at NOACA, and raises the possibility that a local leader sees the big picture about creating value through placemaking and placing transit at the center of it.

RTA's director of planning, Maribeth Feke, told CEOs for Cities where the transit agency could envision another BRT line. But does anyone else besides RTA see BRT as a catalyst for revitalizing old streetcar districts on Clifton, Lorain and W. 25th? Without a concerted effort to the multi-year planning and development, it's unlikely the region will see another Bus-Rapid Transit line soon.

Euclid should make the case as riders flocked to the HealthLine. Cleveland's experience is not an anomaly. The City Fix writes that it's consistent with the 277 dedicated bus lane and BRT projects installed now in 156 cities in 38 countries:

“Dedicated lanes enable buses to travel at higher speeds and increase user satisfaction, as higher efficiency and less variability in travel time leads to better system quality.”

BRT might not spin off as much development as a streetcar, but, the HealthLine shows that with the right location, it can come pretty close.

RTA’s second attempt at BRT—on Clifton Avenue between the Shoreway and Lakewood got the cold shoulder from the inner-ring suburb. The experience in Lakewood illustrates that BRT will meet with resistance from those who don the mantle of fiscal conservatism. The much ballyhooed rejection of Ohio's $400 million investment in intercity rail made anti-transit sentiment and fiscal conservatism popular, but completely out of step with the rest of the country, conservative or progressive.

The prospect of being out in front of a big economic development play spooked Lakewood which, admittedly, has mostly single-family residential on Clifton. Lakewood might not see as much development, but the density of residents in Lakewood that would be served by a BRT line would boost the case that it could have received funding for a full BRT treatment. Instead, Cleveland and Lakewood will pursue what is being dubbed BRT lite. The line will have new curb-side stops and an off-board fare box, but it will not have the dedicated lane that defines BRT, and which confers its benefits, too.

It might be worthwhile to re-open the discussion of a full blown BRT line on Clifton if it was adapted to new assumptions, including:

  • A regional plan like VibrantNEO, that recommends new priority funding for transformational BRT lines
  • Cost of gasoline above $4/gal and as high as $8/gal
  • An international BRT consortium has developed a BRT simulator tool to test designs like Clifton, and offer small tweaks that can “improve rider capacity by 50 percent.”

An initial design for the Clifton bus line was completed and presented for public comment. Similarly, cost and visions of traffic jams were underlying fears touted during the Euclid Corridor planning. The ship may have sailed on BRT for Clifton. If so, it offers lessons that can be applied to the next attempt to build a real BRT in the region.

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Complete Streets?
4 years ago

Thanks for the article, Marc. A few thoughts:

1. We need to stop referring to RTA's plans for Clifton Blvd. as BRT, as it dilutes the very meaning of BRT. It's hard to believe that Lakewood is blocking true BRT implementation on Clifton Blvd., especially in light of the success of the HealthLine. I guess this is yet another example of one of our progressive communities in NEO struggling to understand progressive transportation policy. And it's sad that Lakewood so willingly bears the burden of the car-centricity of the westside, allowing its living environment along Clifton to be degraded twice a day with highway-style traffic. Lakewood should be demanding the traffic-calming and traffic-reducing effects of BRT on Clifton and demanding the west-shore rail project, both of which would make one of its most architecturally interesting streets more attractive to homeowners.

2. Cedar Ave. starting at the Cedar-University Rapid Station or somewhere along Euclid Ave. is my vote for the next big BRT or streetcar improvement. It would connect three universities or colleges, two shopping malls, a county metropark, Cedar-Lee, Cedar Center, Coventry, Cedar-Fairmount, while reducing congestion along a densely populated stretch. Anyone ever try driving from Cedar-Fairmount to Legacy Village? It takes at least twenty minutes to travel the three miles to get there, which is a very long time in a car.

3. Have Cleveland and RTA resolved the dispute regarding traffic signal synchronization along the HealthLine? I'm still waiting to get from Public Square to the 20th President in 20 minutes flat. I can't even get to University Circle in 20 minutes flat, which would be an acceptable travel time for the 4-5 miles between Public Square and University Circle. I'd be curious to know whether the entity that bestowed the award upon the HealthLine gave credit to the HealthLine for traffic signal synchronization. If it did, that's a major goof, and it calls into question the very credibility of the organization. If not, what's the status of achieving true traffic-signal synchronization?

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