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The long distance affair for transit

Marc Lefkowitz  |  03/10/17 @ 12:00pm  |  Posted in Transit, Vibrant cities

A healthy debate is swirling around Northeast Ohio's “spatial mismatch” between people seeking work and the employment centers where jobs are moving.

The debate centers on the role of transit to connect households in Cleveland’s urban core—up to 40% of which are car free—to jobs that are increasingly moving out to the periphery of the metropolitan area.

Rail runs through it<br />Solon, Ohio has gained manufacturers like Stouffers. Transit is limited from Cleveland. A freight line (seen here) was studied for its commuter rail feasibility in 2002.Little there<br />A low density suburban development in Northeast Ohio typifies the challenge of increasing transit.

Two influential reports are still making the rounds thanks to a PD editorial and a well-timed blog post.

In his letter to the editor, The Fund for Our Economic Future’s Peter Truog argues that edge cities, like Solon, are where manufacturers have been locating, provide a good reason to invest in transit there.

Truog takes umbrage with Cleveland State University Center for Population Dynamics’ report, Transportation’s Role in the Economic Restructuring of Cleveland which concluded that a strategy of investing in transit to Solon would have limited impact on the employability of Clevelanders.

The Fund was a prime mover of the debate with its 2015 Geography of Jobs report. The central finding: employment centers were moving further away from most Clevelanders (the average is a 20-minute drive or 75-minute transit trip away). The report found, “for a resident living in (Cleveland’s east side neighborhood) Kinsman, the number of jobs in his or her vicinity declined by 35% from 1998 to 2013.”

The reason for this, writes Center for Population Dynamics senior researcher, Richey Piiparinen and Jim Russell, stems from the outmigration of a large share of manufacturing jobs.

“These corresponding realities—i.e., the remaining manufacturing intensity in the Cleveland metro and the sprawling of manufacturing firms and associated back office operations...has led to what has been described as a ‘spatial mismatch’ between jobs and people. This mismatch affects both employees and employers.”

Piiparinen confirmed earlier findings from the Brookings Institute that the Cleveland metro experienced the largest drop (-27%) in the number of jobs near the average resident from 2000 to 2012 in the nation, just ahead of Detroit (-26%). It follows a pattern that Brookings’ Executive VP Bruce Katz calls the country’s “exit ramp economy.”

The exchange led to another round of debate. This week, blogger Tim Kovach examined Truog’s claims that a significant share of Cleveland residents did not benefit by the doubling of ‘eds and meds’ employment resulting from the HealthTech Corridor which features bus-rapid transit. Truog presents data that shows where most of residents in neighborhoods around the HealthTech Corridor still work—outside of the city. Kovach follows up with his own analysis looking at employment data for Cleveland’s Central neighborhood and finds evidence that adds more nuance to the “bring people to jobs or jobs to people” debate. Key findings include:

  • Just 11.2% of workers in Central are employed in the manufacturing sector, compared to 13% for all city residents
  • A larger percentage of ‘eds and meds’ workers take transit both within Central (28.6%) and citywide (8.35%) than manufacturing workers (24% and 7.5%, respectively)
  • Of those Central residents with commutes shorter than 30 minutes, roughly one-third drive to work, while just 10.8% take transit

Kovach concludes that the utility of transit to serve the needs of urban residents commuting to jobs in the outer suburbs is limited.

From a transportation equity standpoint, we agree with two central themes of Piiparinen and Russell’s work. First, that Cleveland’s Health-Tech Corridor is a leading example of directing transportation, in particular, transit-oriented investment, to guide job growth—evidenced by the doubling of high skill jobs in the corridor.

The second is the question of time lags. In Piiparinen’s estimation, the region has been slow to recognize the shift from an auto-centric, geography of nowhere pattern of development versus capitalizing on an urban repopulation trend or “fifth migration”—which resembles the “third migration” of the early 20th century when the dominant mode of travel was the streetcar and intercity rail.

Of course, there have been laudable planning efforts to expand transit between Cleveland and its suburbs. In 2002, then-Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic led the charge for a plan to add commuter rail service between Cleveland, Akron and Canton. It could run on an underused freight rail line 62 miles north-south and connect the central business districts. The right of way and track still exist and self-propelled diesel cars would make start up costs affordable. Along the line are the east side Cleveland neighborhoods in the Opportunity Corridor, including Central, and Solon (there is a spur that runs literally to Nestle and Stouffer’s).

Back to the central question: would an intentional strategy of investing in transit close the “spatial mismatch” gap? While the debate centers on transportation investments as a strategy for attracting employers to where larger groups of people can have easy, affordable (i.e. public transit, biking and walking) access or bringing people to jobs, the region and cities like Solon need to give serious consideration to the underlying land-use conditions (density minimums, block sizes, street widths) as well as the political will needed as a precondition to expand transit.

If the current, $330 million auto-centric plans for the Opportunity Corridor are any indication, Northeast Ohio is not questioning whether its major, new capital investments for transportation ensure that the future will remain auto dependent. This debate seems to hang on the condition of the present which always obscures the future path unless we can envision a new way of defining this question of how to make transportation investments that serve all people best. With that in mind, a tip of the hat to Piiparinen and Russell for placing this conversation in the flow of time and recognizing we are again starting a new era that may place greater value on proximity and transportation as an option.

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