The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority posted growth in overall ridership for the fourth straight year, providing just shy of 50 million rides in 2014. RTA did this despite waning state funding support and flagging county sales tax receipts, which account for 70% of its revenue.
The fare box is the second largest source of funding for RTA, the agency writes in its just-released 2014 annual report. What is striking about that is to see the experiments RTA conducted at the fare box, and how they are attracting people to ride a bus or train. They have shown that important factors for Clevelanders choosing transit appear to be: Is it reliable (feeding people’s innate need to feel assured in their transportation choice)? And is it affordable?
First, RTA saw the most growth happen on “sponsored” routes where bold signage, new seats, higher frequency, and the expectation of "riders like you" is advertised. The Ohio City, Cleveland State University and the Health-Tech lines posted higher ridership than the buses they replaced.
Also, free seems to have an almost unlimited power to attract people. The free downtown trolleys posted an impressive 12.7% increase in 2014. And the one-day, free rides provided by The Cleveland Foundation on January 16 attracted 25% more people. U-Pass, heavily discounted passes to students of six area universities, produced 1.9 million rides, also showing that nearly free is hard to resist.
Imagine if RTA was free (or practically free) all of the time. What kind of impact would having millions of more rides have on the development patterns, the air quality, the social cohesion of the city?
It’s hard to imagine a more equitable decision than making transit free or discounted. It would be transformational for Cleveland. Low- and moderate-income earners might not have to choose between riding transit or buying lunch. Riders with higher wages might consider riding all of the time. How would that lead to more equity? More riders across a wider financial spectrum could reduce the number of cars on the road, keeping the air cleaner for everyone. More riders of all incomes could create a greater sense of community. They could gain a collective ownership in seeing Cleveland’s hardest hit areas redeveloped. A greater sensitivity to place might alter people’s perceptions about distances. It could lead to more than a few people reconsidering living closer to transit-serving areas of the region.
Could that lead to a scenario where equity literally surrounds transit in Cleveland? Cleveland, with its low development pressure today, might not have to worry about equitable use of land around transit. But, what happens if we turn around the real estate market? Land around transit could become very desirable. As far fetched as that may seem, a recent survey conducted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland found that Ohioans, for the first time, expressed concern about access to affordable housing. They are particularly concerned about affordable housing options in “hot” urban markets—just where high frequency transit routes can be found.
Considering that, maybe Cleveland should start planning now to acheive “equitable transit-oriented development.” Because “eTOD” can be a struggle, reports Enterprise Community Partners, for various reasons, from automobile-oriented development patterns, to parking standards to a shortage of robust transit service.
It helps to have a plan that focuses opportunities around transit corridors. A great example is the Corridors of Opportunity which Minneapolis created using Sustainable Communities funds. It focuses on what the community wants to see happen around transit lines, and led to the equity goals of the city’s first streetcar line which was built to connect its less affluent southwest corridor with downtown. Minneapolis is now looking to build off that early success, for example, introducing policy that will reform parking around transit stations (would require less parking than the rest of the city). Their mayor, Betsy Hodges, bouyed by the community support, has pledged that no new roads and that fixing income inequities are the key to the city's future growth.
eTODs can produce real benefits to working families. “Greater access to employment opportunities can enhance these households’ prospects if the transit has adequate service frequency,” Enterprise writes. The key is finding a path to create affordable housing nearby.
Cleveland, its development community and the regional transportation agency, NOACA, have started to work together in creating standards for transit-oriented development. The discussion of equity and its benefits could inform how vacant and underutilized land around stations becomes the transit villages of the future.