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RTA’s NEXT GEN planning process for changes to the 2021 bus routes raises questions about equity

RTA’s NEXT GEN planning process for changes to the 2021 bus routes raises questions about equity

by Bruce Checefsky

(Plain Press, December 2020)           In 2019, Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA) facilitated a study for improvement of the bus network with Jarett Walker + Associates. Jarrett Walker, PhD, an international consultant in public transit network design and policy, has been a full-time consultant since 1991 and has also led numerous major planning projects in North America, Australia, and New Zealand. 

   Two on-line surveys were administered from riders and non-riders regarding service priorities. A series of community engagement meetings were held throughout the city. Attendees were asked to comment on two different service plans: one to maximize frequency and attract as many riders as possible; and the other, to maximize market coverage by being available in as many places as possible. Both plans were developed within the constraint of the current operating budget.

   Respondents were evenly split on the question of whether to move towards ridership or coverage with existing resources and showed a preference for a greater focus on coverage with additional resources. When asked about additional resources, respondents were more likely to select an option with a greater focus on coverage than the existing system, according to the report. (http://www.riderta.com/sites/default/files/pdf/presentations/2019-04-26SRSSurveySummary.pdf).

   Overall, 47% of responses came from frequent or semi-regular RTA riders categorized as one ride per week or more, while 41% came from infrequent or non-riders. Only 12% of respondents did not own a car in their households. Compared to the population at large, seniors were the most underrepresented in the survey population. People ages 25-34 and under 24 were the most overrepresented.

   Walker recommended increasing frequency on high-demand routes while decreasing it for less-used routes. By adding more buses to high-demand routes and changing some stops, Walker said RTA could improve access to employment for 11% more riders, according to Crain’s Cleveland Business. Another suggestion from the study is to make changes to the RTA Circulator line, which Walker said duplicates existing bus routes.

   Dana Beveridge, lead organizer for Cleveland Public Transit (CPT), attended several community engagement meetings and described public attendance as minimal. CPT is a riders’ organization in partnership with labor and community allies that hosts monthly riders’ meetings to discuss and strategize about concerns and opportunities with GCRTA. 

   “I attended a number of in-person sessions, and they were never well attended by the community,” Beveridge said. “There were more RTA staff persons at the meetings than the actual riding public.”

   Beveridge isn’t discouraged by the lack of community participation even considering low turnout at the RTA meetings. Not everyone wanting to participate or contribute comments could; residents without computers or internet access were dependent on attending the in-person sessions and the timing of the RTA public meetings didn’t always fit their schedules, according to her.

   “We were concerned about the on-line responding issue and tried to find ways to make sure people could submit comments either in person by mail or telephone. GCRTA is trying to achieve equity with their proposal but not everyone is going to get what they want,” said Beveridge. 

   Those without internet access can still participate by calling the RTAnswerline at 216-621-9500 to learn more about the redesign, and request that an information sheet be sent to their home so they can provide feedback.

   In 2016, CPT actions helped to preserve the #81 bus service around CMHA (Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority) properties on the near west side such as the Lakeview Tower high-rise residences and Lakeview Estates near the Shoreway, and Riverview Tower along West 25th Street. The GCRTA plans recommend a cancellation of route #81 service as part of their NEXT GEN RTA proposal starting the summer 2021 with pending approval from the RTA’s Board of Trustees. 

   The route #81/Tremont – Storer bus travels from Downtown Cleveland to West 25th Street and Ohio City, then continues through Tremont and Steelyard Commons, to Trowbridge Avenue, Storer Avenue, Denison, Clinton Road and West 98th Street to the West Boulevard Rapid Station.

   The proposed RTA changes include discontinuing the #81 and replace daytime service between West Blvd-Cudell Rapid Station and Steelyard Commons with the #18. RTA will provide service between Steelyard Commons and Downtown with the #25 on Quigley Rd, W 7th St, Jefferson Ave, Starkweather Ave, Professor Ave, Fairfield Ave, and I-90. Additionally, NEXT GEN Route #18 will not run in the evenings.

   Residents of Lakeview Tower and Estates, and Riverview Tower, many of which rely heavily on the #81 for transportation to Steelyard Commons for work and to purchase supplies and food, will have to take the #25 bus to downtown Cleveland, then transfer to the #18 bus, nearly doubling the amount of time needed to get there. 

   Rosetta McKinney moved to Riverview Towers ten years ago from E. 140th Street because of easy RTA access to Metro Hospital and the West Side Market, as well as service to retail and drug stores in Ohio City and Tremont. She depends on the #81 bus to take her to the Steel Yard Commons. While an average trip might take her about 35-45 minutes each way, with the new NEXT GEN service and transfer to a second bus, she expects to add another 35-45 minutes to her travel time, and that’s only if the bus makes the connection on time. Otherwise, it could take hours longer. 

   “It’s going to be hard for many of us at Riverview Towers. We shop at the Steelyard Commons. We have nowhere else to go. We’re used to taking a certain bus to get us there. A lot of us have Alzheimer’s. We get on the wrong bus, we’re screwed. We’ll be riding and riding until finally we have to ask the bus driver how the hell we can get home.”

   In December 2019, members of the Clevelanders for Public Transit (CPT) urged the board of trustees of the GCRTA to adopt redesign changes recommended by transit consultant Jarrett Walker. 

   On Tuesday, December 17, Jarrett Walker will present to the community his team’s final report at RTA’s Board of Trustees meeting.  The report will summarize the study’s entire process and offer suggestions on how RTA can best design service to meet transit needs based on available and potential resources according to GCRTA.

   Despite Walker’s recommendations, GCTA recently unveiled its 2021 budget, which calls for no service cuts, fare hikes, or new taxes.

   “It will not be a perfect plan given the current pandemic situation,” said RTA CEO and General Manager India Birdsong in a recent article in the Plain Press. “As we start to have different reiterations of planning over time, this is our best estimate of what will be needed in order to keep the lifeline of transit moving, so that people have an opportunity to get to work and get to health care and get to the grocery store come summer of 2021.”

   “We need to get people to take a chance on it,” she added. 

   Marc Lefkowitz, a public transit advocate and private consultant for sustainability, and transit rider living in Cleveland Heights believes the GCRTA is trying to improve the system given the circumstances and resources available to them. 

   “There’s something not quite equitable across the board about figuring out who they’re going to listen to when it comes to deciding which routes to keep or cancel from the RTA point of view. Who are they going to listen to? Whose pain is worse than someone else’s?” 

PHOTO BY CHUCK HOVEN
Monday, November 23, 2020; #81 Bus Stop at Lakeview Tower Apartments, 2700 Washington Avenue: The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority Next Gen Plan proposes eliminating the #81 Bus line. Stops on the line include downtown Cleveland, Lakeview Tower, West Side Market & W. 25th Rapid Station, Tremont neighborhood, Steelyard Commons, Storer Avenue, Dave’s Supermarket at Ridge & Denison, and the Cudell/West Boulevard W. 98th Street Rapid Station.

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