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As Pittsburgh grows its transit use, Cleveland struggles

Marc Lefkowitz  |  09/01/15 @ 2:00pm  |  Posted in Transit, Transportation choices

For many Northeast Ohioans, transit exists only at the extremes: either it’s a luxury or a lifeline. For many, their interaction with transit involves driving to a train station in the suburbs, parking their car (for free) and riding a train when they want to go to a ballgame or to save on the cost of a monthly parking pass near their downtown Cleveland office. Then, there are families who own one or no car and rely on transit to get to work, a grocery store or doctor’s office. Or put their kids on the RTA to school.

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The way many of us were raised to fear transit has something to do with the struggles of our transit system. Many of my peers in Generation X—especially squarely suburban kids like yours truly—grew up without ever once stepping foot on a bus.

Our later in life interest in transit comes at an opportune time -- as many of us see transit as a way of confronting the environmental problems associated with climate change.

This appreciation for transit would be recognizable to a generation who grew up in the 1960s and 70s when 20% of the American population rode the bus or walked to work. Transit was a daily exercise for many young Baby Boomers. Just as it had been for their parents in the Greatest Generation.

Could Gen X and Millennials make a choice to use the transit system that their parents divorced themselves from? Or do they only get the illusion of choice if the region’s transit system is not able to keep pace with demand?

It is indisputable that Northeast Ohioans today have less choice to ride transit than their parents did. Blame it on a continual shortfall of funding—starting with the Recession and compounded by the State of Ohio's stinginess. It has forced the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA) to cut service twice and raise fares in the past five years. Even as interest is rising, the practicalities of accessing transit is getting harder.

Transit has become a political issue in Ohio, evidenced by its 80% reduction or $37 million drop in the use of funds since 2000.

When states, like Pennsylvania, support the use of funds for reducing pollution or for alternatives to driving, cities like Pittsburgh have seen tremendous growth in transit ridership (and walking). You know the situation is pretty dire for Ohio’s transit agencies when the state hires a big firm to find an answer to its transit misgivings, and then drops the ball when it doesn’t like the answer.

Transit can be a Conservative value, a transportation engineer working in the private sector once told me. For Ohio to hang its shingle out as a state attractive to business, the state could start seeing transit as a viable part of the economic lifeblood of metropolitan regions.

One of the problems Ohio faces is a pattern of developing away from existing communities and placing jobs outside of where those who can’t afford a car or where transit can access them. Northeast Ohio is in danger of creating an economic Apartheid by separating haves and have nots through its transportation and land use investments.

“Most new jobs are out of reach for those who need them the most, due to a mismatch between open jobs and available workers’ skills and to the fact that jobs are much more dispersed and harder to get to today than they were even 10 years ago,” Fund for Our Economic Future president, Brad Whitehead wrote here.

Put in perspective, GCRTA has a 250 million annual budget and 4 million of it is supported by the state of Ohio. In many ways, it is remarkable that Cleveland still ranks 14th in the nation for those who use public transit. The fact that Pittsburgh ranks 11th and has a 388 million dollar budget with $212 million being funded by the state of Pennsylvania, should give hope to those who believe in connecting Northeast Ohioans to opportunity with a little help to our friends at GCRTA and the state’s hard working transit agencies.

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