It was a red letter day as Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority’s Board of Trustees heard loud and clear from Portland-based transit expert Jarrett Walker — and from the collective voice of rider advocates, Clevelanders for Public Transit (CPT) — that Cleveland’s bus system needs a redesign. “Without delay” in the words of CPT volunteer Chris Stocking who belted out a rousing rendition of Jingle Bells with the lyrics “Frequent bus, frequent bus, frequent bus all day!” to a packed Board room.
RTA Board and staff, including new General Manager India Birdsong, listened as the public urged them to act quickly on Walker’s study which is navigating a tricky route to increase transit access to jobs on the current budget.
Complicating matters, the region’s jobs have been sprawling for decades, said outgoing Board member, South Euclid Mayor Georgine Welo. How can transit keep jobs that continue to move further away from population centers within reach, especially for residents of Cleveland?
“There’s nothing transit can do about that,” Walker said. “Employers have saved money by moving out where it’s cheaper to develop. But, they can’t just dump that cost on RTA. They have to share the cost.”
After months of studying how to accommodate jobs sprawl — including a survey that split rider opinion on their preference evenly to shift the bus system toward higher frequency buses or wider coverage, Walker presented a redrawn bus map that would increase access to jobs by 11% mainly for Cleveland residents who have long (over 90 minute) commutes by bus to suburban jobs in Solon, Orange, Westlake, and Strongsville.
“The first question I have is, why only 11% and not an increase of access to 25%,” Welo asked.
Walker had an answer, called the High Frequency Alternative, that would increase access to jobs, but it would reduce service to outlying areas.
Birdsong promised to put a “Rush stamp” on evaluating the Coverage versus Frequency alternatives, and come forward with a plan that would require a full set of public hearings.
The earliest public hearings could happen is the spring, with service changes in the summer of 2020, said RTA’s acting deputy general manager for operations Joel Freilich.
“We plan to come to the Board and the public with a cost neutral package of adjustments in the next year,” Freilich said.
He added that the Walker proposal for current funding supports the direction that RTA has in “meeting the needs of the those who need us most.”
The Walker proposal has increases in east-to-west side connections, opportunities to cross the river other than going through downtown, but largely has an emphasis on making more connections for transit-starved areas of Cleveland to jobs in edge city locations.
“Instead of forcing Clevelanders to get on the rail and (transfer) on a bus (the Walker redesign) extends some of these lines a bit,” Stocking of CPT observes. “On the west side, the Detroit Road bus extends to job centers like Crocker Park, or the #55 (on W. 25th/Pearl) would extend to Great Northern Mall. It makes a lot of sense instead of ending at Rapid stations. The #22 would extend to Westgate Mall, connecting people on Lorain Avenue. Its better to get to jobs. There are trade offs — bus service at E 55th is cut and E 79th is cut. But walking up 55th, there’s not a lot there, unfortunately. With lack of planning, a lot of jobs moved out.”
“When funds are short, the services we took (away) most were a route that runs only during rush hour,” Freilich explains, indicating the express busses and service from the suburbs, “or a route that’s in a neighborhood which doesn’t allow jobs because zoning doesn’t support it, and comes back uptown empty. We had a lot of routes like that.”
Walker said that increasing frequency of buses to every 15 minutes in a smaller geographic footprint would have multiple benefits like increasing ridership and encouraging transit-oriented development. He suggested that the large gaps — the giant donut hole in Cleveland left by Northeast Ohio’s sprawl — is worse than Houston’s where the donut hole was filled in by development.
“Not to pick on Solon, but so much of that employment is hard to walk to from the bus stop,” Walker said. “The transit agency can’t do anything about that last 1/4 mile of a trip that discourages people to ride transit.”
Like the consensus of the RTA Board, member Valerie McCall said she wants to pump the brakes and take the time to evaluate. The public wasn’t so sure it shared that sentiment, with the cycle of declining ridership, another fare hike looming and only 15% of riders, in Walker’s survey, saying they are satisfied with the current system.
“Implement the redesign right away,” a Strongsville woman urged the Board. “It will help those in the medical field get to jobs.”
Or, as Stocking, a medical practitioner and daily bus rider, put it: “What are you waiting for? You can take the best of the network, in a holistic way, and reverse this decline. If your ridership is in decline, and you ask for more money, why would you put more money into something that is going to bleed out and go through this cycle again.”