University Circle's boom comes with a vexing question. Cleveland’s fastest growing neighborhood outside of downtown has 9,366 residents vying for 5% vacant rental properties. But, the foreseeable problem in University Circle’s future is how many of them plus the 43,264 people who show up for work here bring a car with them.
The pipeline into University Circle is about to get a lot bigger, too. By some estimates, the $331 million Opportunity Corridor that connects the West suburbs to University Circle could bring in another 20,000 cars. If every one of those cars had a dedicated parking spot—at an estimated $20,000 per space—it could cost University Circle institutions upward of $400,000,000.
It has led some to ponder, how does a 1 square-mile district invest $1 billion in development and retain its leafy charm? What can the institutions who call University Circle home do to relieve the pressure to build more, expensive parking garages? To tackle this quandary, non-profit developer University Circle, Inc. (UCI) hired Seattle firm NelsonNygaard to lead a Transportation Demand Management study.
The idea is to take a more sophisticated look at how University Circle’s current 30,000 parking spaces are being used. They’ll try to determine whether calls for more parking should be heeded, and devise a strategy that might bring parking, but also a plan for building off recent investments—like the $64 million Uptown development, Case and CIA student housing and clusters of private market condos on Euclid—which are putting feet back on the street.
Dotted around the U.S., university and downtown districts are managing traffic by offering incentives and promotions to make alternatives to driving more attractive. In the spring, UCI heard from leaders of Transportation Management Associations (TMAs) in Cambridge and Boulder about their use of free bus passes and services like bike share.
“How do we manage job growth of 1,000 new employees a year?” UCI President Chris Ronayne said at the time. “Transportation issues are getting bigger. We can’t simply widen our roads.”
We caught up with the sustainability directors of the big three institutions in University Circle, to ask them about transportation. What can the city, transit agency and UCI do to help, and what are they working on at their home institution to curb the demand for parking and encourage greener forms of transportation?
Dr. Aparna Bole is running late to a meeting at University Hospital. It’s not her fault, though. The bus coming from Shaker Square was running behind schedule and got bumped from its usual route because of road construction. A few emails exchanged, a forgiving next appointment, problem solved. After apologizing, Bole, a pediatrician with a practice at the main campus and also the hospital’s resident sustainability director, talks about hers and Greater Cleveland RTA’s responsibility for making transit (and biking) not a missed opportunity for others like her.
“A tremendous amount of our employees live in the Heights or around Shaker Square,” explains Bole who lives near Shaker Square with her husband and two children. “I hear from a lot of them who say ‘it would be nice to have better connectivity.’"
What do they want?
“They want a shuttle,” she continues, “which is essentially what the RTA #48 bus is. I ride the bus, and it’s usually reliable. I’m guessing they want something more frequent, but also to ride with people who dress like them; who wear a UH badge.”
The Cleveland Clinic piloted a shuttle from its main campus to Shaker Square a few years back, says the Clinic's sustainability director Jon Utech. “We had about 30 people, but it didn’t have the critical mass for RTA to continue it.”
The Clinic surveyed its own 19,000 main campus employees about their commute patterns in 2001. Of the 4,725 respondents, only 175 said they take transit regularly, says Utech. The survey was part of a study where the Clinic sought to reduce demand for parking through alternative modes of transportation. It concluded that non-clinical staff under the age of 40 who live within 20 minutes of the main campus would be the "movable" population. Utech believes with the right level of incentives, a discernable mode shift at the Clinic could happen.
"No one (on staff) has owned it," he says. That will start to change, he hopes, with a Human Resources-led effort to promote and sell transit passes through the Clinic web site. RTA will run its Ready to Ride program this year at the Clinic which offers free or discounted transit passes and taxi vouchers.
Follow the leader
Of the big three, University Hospital is probably out ahead of the other two in offering incentives, if not encouraging, greener ways to commute.
Since taking on her dual role, Bole, a native of Portland, Oregon who lived in New York and Boston, convinced University Hospital System to offer employees who want to bike or take transit an option to buying a monthly parking pass. Recently, UH introduced a Alternative Transit Parking Pass which, Bole says, reserves a parking lot on campus for transit riders who opt out of the monthly parking pass but still occasionally drive.
“It’s an interim solution, but it’s a huge step forward,” says Bole who would like to see the policy—which is driven by UH’s provider, Standard Parking—changed so that hospital employees who opt for the monthly transit pass instead of a parking pass would not have to pay a higher, daily parking rate. The “all or nothing” parking policy works at odds with UH’s generous incentive to try transit: The hospital offers a 10% discount for each year of employment, and, at 10 years of service, UH subsidizes 100% of a monthly RTA pass.
Is a free transit pass the answer?
But, if a UH employee opts in to the transit pass, they cannot also have a parking pass. And the thought of not having parking—at least sometimes—is a deterrent to those who want to try leaving their car at home, Bole says. The parking policy—and access to a parking lot—applies to those who bike to work as well.
The Clinic and Case currently do not offer a subsidized transit pass, but both heavily subsidize parking. Utech, who took over for Christina Vernon, the Clinic’s first sustainability director who piloted a number of transit and biking initiatives, feels that the “timing is right” to introduce an incentive for transit and biking.
“We want to reduce our costs by 20 percent,” Utech explains. “We’re running parking at a $8 million a year loss, and have had some conversations about, ‘should we stop subsidizing parking and offer a transit incentive?’ I think it would be hugely unpopular because rates would go up. At the same time, paying for another parking garage is also unpopular with our CEO.
“I wish this conversation happened about a year ago,” he adds. “We’re building a new medical school, and (Cleveland building) code is pushing us to build a parking garage.”
Parking minimums are a big barrier
Utech feels that the city might consider the implication of parking minimums in its code. He says that a removal of parking minimums would enter into the calculus of whether or, at least, how large the Clinic considers building its next parking garage.
Bole says arguments, like reducing 100 spaces at $20,000 a spot, didn’t change the calculus when it came time for UH to knock down and build a new, bigger parking garage at Circle Drive. Even though UH makes payments to Standard Parking—essentially paying a subsidy to reduce the cost for employees to park—hospital executives still view massive parking structures as a cost of doing business.
The problem is compounded, says Bole, by a perceived inferiority of transit, and what amounts to a cultural birthright in America that places parking practically next to The Constitution.
“Cleveland is an easy place to drive, and an exceptionally easy place to park,” says Bole, whose family shares one car. “Downtown is a big parking lot. People have this perception that it’s our right to drive on a smooth superhighway and park in a giant lot. It’s a cultural norm. And then there’s this fear about making parking not as convenient.”
In Ohio and at the local level, the lavish investment in cars comes at the expense of transit, which has been forced to cut its service. It reinforces, Bole says, that a late running bus, a confusing fare system, or the environment of the bus that isn’t to the liking of someone who is choosing between driving and riding transit will choose to drive if they can.
“There are perceptions of a lack of safety and convenience. I hear, ‘(transit) takes too much time,’ or ‘it’s so easy to get in the car,’” she says. “And then there are better financial incentives to drive. Some externalities are out of RTA’s control. But the ride experience can be a barrier as well. I don’t see RTA police intervene when individuals are acting inappropriately on the bus. RTA has an I Watch RTA app to reassure passengers that you won’t be harassed. I think they could send a stronger message through their marketing, such as, here’s the number you call. As soon as it’s rowdy, it’s not comfortable.”
Across campus at Case Western Reserve University, Bole’s counterpart, Stephanie Corbett, says she’s fighting a similar battle—some perceived, some real problems—when it comes to convincing her co-workers to try transit.
RTA’s campaign message, Feel the Pain at the Pump, is not exactly targeted to the “movable” population, Corbett comments.
“It’s probably not going to get those families whose barriers aren’t cost,” she says. “For them, it’s about convenience and availability. Ease is the main thing.”
Corbett’s comments touch on a long-held opinion that, if RTA improves its service, more supporters will get off the sidelines and onto the bus.
Connect suburbs with the city
“We need new partnerships with suburban leaders and councils to really make transit aesthetically more pleasing and accessible,” answers Corbett, who previously worked with Entrepreneurs for Sustainability and on transportation issues with Clean Fuels Ohio.
But, RTA is not exactly flush with cash and most suburbs lack the population density and political support for this goal.
Shaker and Rocky River are two suburbs with “not particularly high density, but who take advantage of being close (to the city),” Corbett notes. Shaker is considering its Rapid Blue Line an asset to build around, and Rocky River’s bike lane on Hilliard Road connects to Westlake’s Crocker Park and to Madison Avenue, a spine connecting Lakewood and Cleveland.
Corbett also sees RTA’s $27 million investment in the Cedar-University and the Mayfield Road/Little Italy rapid stations as a potential game changer.
“People are really excited about the capital improvements. It will make transit more convenient.”
Case’s sustainability agenda is led from its Climate Action Plan, completed after it signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment in 2008. Case now has a goal of carbon neutrality by 2050, and a carbon footprint analysis which found that buildings account for the lion’s share of their energy consumption (with much of that coming from an old coal plant on campus). Transportation to and from campus is “well below ten percent” of Case’s carbon footprint, Corbett says, and a reason that it hasn’t risen to the top of the agenda.
“We can more clearly communicate where the transit stops, bike racks, and where employees can buy transit passes,” she says. “Even though we don’t have a big, new carrot, we can know what already exists.”
Build it and they will come
Like Bole, Corbett is interested in emerging ideas, such as bike share. Near term, Case will launch a shuttle bus service into the Coventry and Cedar-Fairmount areas of Cleveland Heights this fall following a successful pilot project last winter. The university also recently launched a wellness program where employees can earn up to $100 a year for trying out active transportation alternatives. Longer term, Corbett expects the university’s master plan, which is launching this year and will be lead by Sasaki, the Boston firm that was hired by the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium, to influence a more sustainable transportation plan.
“I’m really excited to explore how we can make sure our campus benefits,” Corbett said. “It’s well recognized now that we don’t have bike paths and there are some bike/ped conflicts. We are one of the few here who say, ‘we have enough parking.’”
The major employers based in University Circle might admit that free and low cost transportation, for one, keeps the region competitive. Northeast Ohioans are generally shelling out an unsustainably high slice of their income on housing and transportation (depending on the location and cost of owning a house). An online tool from Center for Neighborhood Technology, The H+T Index, shows that affordable transportation takes a dip in many of the suburban areas that act as bedroom communities for University Circle, but also for residential areas in University Circle.
The problem of where to store cars and promote a better environment did not crop up overnight. Groups like EcoCity Cleveland started a discussion after it produced a report on Transportation Demand Management (TDM) for University Circle in 2007. The report anticipated the district’s growth trajectory colliding with its “land-locked” geography.
“There is relatively little promotion within the District to educate employees, students, and visitors about their transportation choices, and to actively facilitate changes in their commute patterns,” it stated.
The University Circle TDM report noted that “Eds and Meds” districts have come to rely on TMAs to reduce individual commuter costs and to serve as a relief valve for parking. From Pittsburgh to Portland, TMAs have membership models that produce the kind of buying power that makes deeply subsidized transit passes, for example, pencil out for transit agencies and the TMA district’s members.
The goal of a TMA would be to coordinate, accentuate and accelerate the combined efforts of University Circle institutions interested in reducing the pressure for parking.