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How far can we take transit

Marc Lefkowitz  |  11/08/12 @ 3:00pm  |  Posted in Transit, Transportation choices

As our cities grow, the challenge of how to comfortably and efficiently get from place to place defines the quality of our experience. So, what about transit—what part does it play for the 82 percent of Americans living in an urban place?

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Northeast Ohio boasts of transit agencies that provide millions of passenger miles a year. In Cuyahoga County, RTA was (not too long ago) recognized as one of the country's top transit agencies for the reach of its service.

Why then do we have a disconnect between the way we fund transit in Ohio, and the growing number of transit users in Cuyahoga County? RTA reports a 5.7% increase in ridership so far in 2012, and the agency is considering a modest 4% expansion of service in 2013. Local revenues (mainly from the sales tax) are up at RTA, offset by the percentage of state and federal funding for transit that has generally decreased. Ohio has been skimping on public transit for years. The news isn't getting any better from Washington.

Transit, bikes, even historic preservation are not gaining ground in the new federal transportation bill: The area (called MAP-21) which covers these modes is not going to help RTA. Other regions are growing faster than Cleveland, and population change drives the formula used to divvy up the same sized pot. Which means RTA is bracing for several million dollars less from the federal government, even during this time of growth. There may not be a whole lot we can do about faster growing metro regions in places like the Sunbelt. So that leaves RTA and transit agencies in the same boat to chase after grants like TIGER (which most likely will see continuity with the Obama Administration). And hoping ridership stays on its growth curve.

Clearly, transit, like education, needs a change in the state and federal funding formula. Bolstering the case for transit is its ability to take cars off the road, which lowers spending on pavement and health care (accidents and asthma rates are still too high here). Developers reap all kinds of benefits from transit. Cities like Seattle recognize this and have updated their zoning to eliminate parking requirements for development with convenient transit nearby. When parking requirements are removed or rightsized, developers don't have to spend as much to acquire property, and their housing can be priced more affordably.

It's taking a while for this vision to catch on in the private sector in Northeast Ohio. But as more people demand 'low mileage' neighborhoods, the real estate professionals doing business here, well, they'll have to respond to a market trend toward more urban living or continue to swim upstream.

Downtown Cleveland's residential population growth led the county last year, but is that signal being heeded in Columbus? How is the local Home Builders Association responding to the sea change? Read an issue of Crain's Cleveland Business lately? Developers are chomping at the bit to pick up where they left off before the Recession with cul-de-sacked houses on corn fields.

Yet, the market grows faster for neighborhoods where walking, biking and transit are feasible. It's clear we're in the beginning stage of a generational shift. Again, we hear a lot about respecting the market, well, people are voting for urban and transit connected with their feet. When does the real estate market and the Fix it First agenda catch up with the rising demand?

RTA is tapping a transit friendly partnership in the private sector, philanthropists, and the federal government that gets its importance in the rebuilding of its rail infrastructure. In its recent newsletter, RTA reports progress on the following major building projects:

  • Ground breaking on a $18.5 million iconic redesign of the Cedar-University Circle Red Line Rapid Station
  • The plan to extend the Blue Line Rapid in conjunction with the New Urbanist make over of Warrensville, Van Aken and Chagrin roads and shopping centers was approved by FTA
  • A $9.5 million Bus-Rapid Transit corridor—like Euclid's HealthLine—for Clifton Boulevard is back on the table, with construction planned to begin in 2013. The project is a joint effort to put Clifton on a road diet between RTA, Cleveland and Lakewood with funding provided by Federal Transit Administration, ODOT, NOACA and the cities.

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7 years ago

I think that most transit riders (and non-transit riders) would agree that best management does not equal "North America's Best Public Transportation System." I'm a supporter and rider of RTA and public transit, but that is one poorly named award. Also, is there any movement toward establishing a riders' union --- independent of RTA --- in Northeast Ohio? Doing so might help push for changes to problems like the ticket machines in a more timely manner.

Sean Bender
7 years ago

I believe there is a real need and opportunity (in Northeast Ohio and elsewhere) for a cooperative transportation association that could facilitate a more seamless, efficient, equitable, and sustainable transport ecosystem...and break apart the nonsensical mentality that pits cars versus public transit versus bicycles and so on. Few people truly demand or need just one mode of transport. Few people have an actual vested interest in a particular mode of transport Rather people, businesses and their communities/regions at-large DO have a stake in having more varied and easily accessible transportation choices. They have a stake in improving the operating conditions, lowering costs, scaling the adoption of best-practices and standards. They further have an interest in nurturing and rewarding innovation in transportation AND sustaining some form of shared strategic planning, assessment and research functions; that are independent of the budgetary and "formal" public planning processes. To be effective, this group would not be in the business of running or operating any service directly; nor would it have a stake in any particular mode/sector over another. The group would ideally offer several forms of Ownership/Membership that would in turn feature a number of benefits, rewards and services (think American Express, which is a Membership that packages a variety of financial management tools and services--it's not a bank, not a creditor, it represents its membership; which is primarily consumers but also includes small-businesses and enterprise (corporate) members).

To be more than just another committee, association or think tank this group would need to expressly adopt an "open standards" platform as its driving organizing principle and it's chief aim. That is this group wouldn't focus on developing more trade secrets, or owning/operating any transportation services, equipment or assets. Rather it could/would work to organize, align, integrate, develop, and maintain infrastructure assets, operations and services from both the provider and end-user perspectives.

For instance such a group could offer a variety of customized, managed mobility plans to their members including personal/family or group/small business & enterprise varieties.

Personal/family plans for instance could be aimed at facilitating optimal transportation planning and usage (factoring for costs (monetary/time), benefits (comfort, quality, convenience, reliability), rewards, and even impacts i.e. health, environment). These plans could vary quite widely in their scope and scale, but would in principle be aimed at providing each member with the mechanisms and means of making more informed, responsive, and optimal use of their mobility choices.

Another function of this group could be to act as an informative clearing house on transportation technologies, equipment, and related goods and material. Creating a means by which members or even the general public can learn and share through activities, events, and publications that are designed and produced by a group that has no direct or correlated stake.

David Beach
7 years ago

Regarding RTA's top transit system award, it was given not for quantity of service but for effective management of the service provided. In Northeast Ohio, we will never have levels of transit like the cities mentioned below (Washington, Chicago, New York, etc.) until we have a lot more density of development and population. Lakewood, which has the highest population density in the region, is the best bet.

Marc Lefkowitz
7 years ago

Details of The Enhance Clifton Plan can be found here:


Essentially, the Cleveland section will get a landscaped center median, and new shelters installed on the curb lane which is Bus Only during peak hours (no, there will not be a separated lane or platform boarding). W. 117th will get additional treatments like rain gardens, benches, new pedestrian lamps and bike racks.

That's right, I was referring to RTA's recognition as the top transit system in 2007 by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) for demonstrating achievement in efficiency and effectiveness. Here's the press release explaining the award:


Thanks for your questions.

7 years ago

Can you elaborate the following statement: “RTA was (not too long ago) recognized as one of the country's top transit agencies for the reach of its service”? I think that I have seen RTA marketing materials touting RTA as being awarded recognition as THE best transit system in North America in 2007 (sometimes the date is omitted). I think that folks who are familiar with RTA and are from or who have been to Washington D.C., Boston, Montreal, Mexico City, Chicago and New York, to name a few North American cities, might have trouble understanding how RTA was capable of surpassing those cities for that award.

Also, what level of bus-rapid transit will the Clifton Boulevard project take on? Will it have platforms at the same level as the entrance to the bus, will passengers buy tickets before boarding the bus, will the bus have a dedicated bus-only lane and, if so, will the bus-only lane have a physical barrier separating it from other lanes?

Lastly, how is the Clifton Boulevard project putting Clifton Boulevard on a road diet? Won't the road maintain the same number of motor-vehicle lanes?

Marc Lefkowitz
7 years ago

Alternatives to transportation

Northeast Ohio isn't alone in feeling the pinch of state and federal transportation funds drying up. This articles pinpoints local funding options being explored such as Special Improvement Districts or a new one, Value Capture, where a commercial district forgoes future gains in revenue from a new street scape. Where might we try this here?


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