More than 100 people showed up on a Wednesday evening in Cleveland to participate in a discussion about the future of transit in Northeast Ohio.
On the heels of the victorious campaign to open up Public Square again to transit, Clevelanders for Public Transit hosted national foundation, TransitCenter, for a conversation about the current and future state of funding, politics and the best in national practice for cities looking to improve transit.
The @CLEforTransit group—formed in 2016 to organize bus riders, the local transit and service union and a host of other interest groups in opposition to a fare increase and service cuts at Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (RTA)—has been instrumental in keeping the conversation going. Last night was about the intersectionality of transit with creating a sustainable city as much as with the looming funding crisis created by the state of Ohio’s inaction on the medical care organization sales tax, which, if not addressed, will create an $18 million budget shortfall at RTA and an estimated 10% service cut (by comparison, the 2016 service cut affected 1% of riders).
“Transit can make cities stronger and more sustainable,” TransitCenter advocacy and communications director Jon Orcutt said during his prepared remarks. “But transit riders want service that works.”
Frequency, or the assurance that the next bus is coming soon, is the most important factor in people taking transit, TransitCenter found in its Who’s on Board 2016, a longitudinal study of transit riders across the country on what works to influence growth in transit.
“Cleveland’s HealthLine is a great example of (predictable frequency),” Orcutt commented. “If you miss one, you can count on another bus coming quickly. But, the HealthLine doesn’t help with the rest of the system.”
The rest of Northeast Ohio’s transit service, particularly the bus routes, come nowhere near that performance benchmark.
What should Cleveland do to improve the situation?
Orcutt suggests that Cleveland look at lessons from Houston and Columbus where transit operators are taking a clean slate to their routes. A complete system redesign has lured them, because threats to transit funding are looming, and there’s a promise of a cost-neutral response (Columbus predicts its will improve frequency and service coverage by 10%).
While GCRTA has resisted calls from Clevelanders for Public Transit and others to redesign its system, Orcutt came just shy of adding his voice to the chorus.
“Cleveland’s is probably the most radial system out there,” he said.
It was designed in an era to serve one central business district -- downtown Cleveland. As population and jobs have sprawled to multiple edge cities, the transit system has become less useful.
The trade off for more frequent service will likely be consolidating routes. In Greater Cleveland, that would lead to more transfers from suburban bus routes to more frequent bus and rail lines that serve downtown.
How it serves a region that continues to sprawl is an open question.
Panel moderator Bethia Burke, Director of Strategy and Resource Allocation at the Fund for Our Economic Future, said that her organization’s study, The Geography of Jobs, confirmed Northeast Ohio’s mounting crisis of moving jobs away from population centers.
The most important metric to building up transit is to build a walkable city, said Orcutt, who addressed the point by advising the city to follow through on its commitments to reform its zoning code, notably, to address land use issues that can make or break transit—such as parking.
Setting the right price for parking could be achieved through performance pricing, agreed panelist, Cleveland City Councilman, Kelly McCormack. If Cleveland used a parking system that has a sliding scale for price that uses real time information on demand like Chicago and San Francisco have attempted.
The event raised hopes both in terms of the turnout and the collaboration between Clevelanders for Public Transit and TransitCenter that a grassroots effort was taking hold in Cleveland ahead of catastrophic funding cuts. The state transportation budget that was approved by the Ohio General Assembly last week includes $60 million for transit in a $7.8 billion scheme to build roads, said Clevelanders for Public Transit co-founder Akshai Singh, who called the budget “massively inequitable.”