Ten years have passed since Cleveland took the bold step to re purpose two “car lanes” on Euclid Avenue for a higher capacity bus-rapid transit line built around center median stations, with enough room “left over” to paint in bike lanes.
It is instructive that a road diet of this magnitude, a 4 mile stretch between E. 105th Street and E. 22nd Street, was considered a major gamble a decade ago. Today, road diets, while not exactly readily available, have firmly entered the vernacular of municipalities, and for that forward movement, a debt is owed to Cleveland.
It helped that the HealthLine’s first decade coincided with a resurgence in urban living and an embrace of mass transit and biking, led by a generation raised in minivans in the suburbs. The HealthLine also improved the service for long-time RTA customers, promising a 20 minute ride from Windermere Station in East Cleveland to Public Square. And while that 20-minute promise has been beset by challenges, including a well-documented decision by City of Cleveland Streets Division to not optimize signal prioritization and instead have the old system stay in place—because of few complaints that one or two busy north-south cross streets were experiencing a few more seconds of waiting at a red light—the overall promise of fixed-route transit service that functions like a rail line at less cost has been met.
RTA and the city tout the HealthLine for driving the infill development boom that was missing like a prizefighter’s teeth from Euclid: 8,000 housing units and 1,300 hotel rooms generating $65 million in revenue—mostly in downtown, but also around the Cleveland Clinic—have come online since 2008. It is hard to argue against the economic stimulus of infrastructure that works well in an urban environment. In fact, it is to the credit of the “dual hub” visionaries—the strong urban planner culture in Cleveland—for pursuing it despite what must have felt like naysayers at every turn. The high capacity of the long buses and their ability to haul down Euclid work well on the length of Cleveland’s Midtown. The choice of vehicle instead of a slower (if cleaner) streetcar was a good one.
Of course, RTA’s new leadership will want to take this 10 year anniversary as an inflection point; to learn from the HealthLine’s promise and its problems, like settling the lawsuit that alleges riders’ civil rights were being violated by having police officers validate their passes. More than a big PR blow, it has generated delays as riders have to validate their pass at the front door, like the old bus system.
As a whole, the HealthLine was a wise use of $200 million. It created the environment for billions in public and private investment. It moves hundreds of thousands of customers on an annual basis. And it put some wind in the sails of a transit agency that is often seen as behind the times. It spurred a second “BRT light” line on Clifton Boulevard, garnered positive international attention for Cleveland, and generated local interest in transit and transit oriented development in the suburbs where its now conceivable that a road diet on auto-oriented roads like Mayfield Road could lead to a bus-only lane and sustainable, walkable, infill development.