Cities that are jumping on transit are glad they did. Transit attracts "environmentally conscious, outgoing people, largely in their 30s and 40s, who are open to taking transit but find the service inconvenient or inadequate," a 2014 national poll found. "Policymakers and transit providers could most easily increase transit ridership by focusing on this group."
More often than not, Cleveland's major investments in transit have experienced a positive return. The $221 million HealthTech Corridor and its bus rapid transit (BRT) line in 2008 supported downtown and Midtown's growth. In the last decade, downtown’s residential base grew from 4,000 to 14,000 people. In the same time period, employment in the HealthTech Corridor doubled.
Another recent example is the “BRT-lite” project known as the Cleveland State University Line. Brand new RTA busses and stations serving Lakewood and Cleveland led to a 43% ridership growth in its first 12-months of operation. The CSU Line is a case of smart, strategic investment in improved transit service.
The big picture
In analyzing the nation’s transportation needs, a 2014 National Economic Council report found that “infrastructure is not keeping pace with the demands of a growing economy.”
They note how people are suffering from greater anxiety due to the distance they travel between home and employment. Sprawl is making it nearly impossible to offer an alternative: 45% of Americans lack access to transit. As a result, a significant share of the population have been excluded from recent investments.
When surveyed, 14-31 year olds have clearly stated their preferences. They may not abandoned driving outright, but they want a variety of transportation options where they choose to live. Age is a bigger factor than what part of the country you live in when it comes to your attitude toward transit.
Yet despite all the ballyhoo about young people being attracted to transit because of smartphones and apps, it turns out they think the most important attraction of transit is its reliability and speed. They prioritize having a bus that comes frequently over an app that tells them it’s coming in an hour.
For that reason, a growing group of cities—Denver, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis-St. Paul—are investing in transit.
Despite data and trends pointing this way, Ohio has been moving in the opposite direction. From 1990 to 2010, the state invested heavily in highways. ODOT added 324 lane miles of highway in Northeast Ohio during a time when population held steady. The region’s population density has steadily eroded (-24%).
In a comprehensive study of the region’s priorities, Vibrant NEO 2040 found that Northeast Ohio has increased the amount of developed land in the region by 4-5% and regional job growth has been relatively low. Even with growth in the number of people working and a slight expansion in the amount of land on which they could work, Northeast Ohio’s rate of employed people per developed acre worsened (-11.6%) from 1979 to 2006.
It is an especially problematic trend for Northeast Ohio. As the region sprawls outward, it dims the prospects of transit. The Fund for Our Economic Future discovered that only 28% of Northeast Ohioans are able to access a job using GCRTA, the regional transit system. The situation is more dire for City of Cleveland residents. The region’s job sprawl has excluded many city residents from reaching service sector jobs in outlying areas—taking a bus requires a lot of fortitude and time.
As a result, fewer people are riding the bus: in 2016, RTA provided 600,000 fewer rides or -8% compared to 2015. The drop was precipitous in the second half of the year, from July (when the RNC arrived) through August when RTA cut service and increased fares.
Northeast Ohio - the long journey home
If dense, walkable communities and public transit are in demand, how does it scan that Northeast Ohio continues to build in such low densities and design streets for the exclusive domain of the car? The map above from the Ohio Department of Development offers insight. It shows how we have been enslaved to a past trend—acting as though outmigration were the only future possible.
In making plans for the future, highways and expansions are almost assured to receive more funding than fixing roads.
But, what if the region wants to do things differently? What if we choose to incentivize shorter trips or prefer to build more pedestrian friendly streets and transit lines?
Transit-oriented development succeeds in bolstering economic activity and is essential to building thriving places. Northeast Ohio will need to re-examine it goals to achieve more “TOD” success stories. Like those other mid sized cities, Cleveland has an opportunity to fix its roads and meet the rising tide for vibrant, walkable transit-connected places.
Fixing our current roads should appeal to all political ends of the spectrum who are concerned about resource efficiency. TOD translates goals of managing the demand for transportation. We can do this and meet the rising tide for vibrant, walkable places.
Download this report "Emerging market for transit: Cleveland" (155 KB pdf).