NEXT GEN RTA to launch on June 13


NEXT GEN RTA to launch on June 13


by Bruce Checefsky 

Plain Press, June 2021        Joel Freilich, Director of Service Management, presented the final version of the NEXT GEN RTA public launch to the Greater Cleveland RTA (GCRT) Board Committee on May 11. The redesigned public transportation system consolidates some current routes while eliminating others. NEXT GEN RTA is scheduled for a launch on June 13, 2021. The redesign was done with community support to determine RTA service priorities, according to Freilich. The community was key in helping RTA make difficult choices and tradeoffs.

     “We checked back with the community repeatedly during the process to see if we were progressing along the direction the community was asking us to,” Freilich said. “The community spoke loud and clear.”

     Prioritize trips to work, education, and heath care with more frequent service all day on weekdays, and more direct transportation between downtown and the suburbs were among leading concerns, while adding more frequent service on Saturdays and Sundays was also needed.

     Kristie Cox, Marketing Manager, Greater Cleveland RTA, explained how the new service would be communicated to the RTA employees and to the public during the rollout. Internal communications include email signature, screen savers & ScreenCloud, posters of maps and reference table, messages in SelfServe, HASTUS, and Ultramain, along with Q&A sessions and an upgraded NEXT GEN RTA webpage. 

     “These are various tactics to let all employees know the changes going into effect,” said Cox. 

     External communications include printed materials– route books, posters, interior car cards, and stickers at shelters, transit centers and train station. Cox pointed to a new webpage, social media posts, media conference and press kits, onboard audio messages, and community outreach to inform the public on the changes. 

     Interactive maps on the RTA webpage will provide passengers with exact bus routes and compare them to previous routes. A visitor to the site can toggle back and forth from the maps to get a clear picture of before and after the changes.

     Printed materials will include a route book of maps and route reference chart, posters, and paladin screens at the transit centers and transit stations which contain a QR code.

     “When you scan the QR code with your smart phone it will take you directly to the NEXT GEN page. We also have on board messaging and route specific GeoTargeted communications,” she said, adding, “in conjunction with the June 13 launch, RTA is offering free rides on bus, rail, Park-n-Ride, and paratransit from June 13 through June 19.”

     Freilich responded to questions by the GCRTA board members on how decisions were made on routes to keep and which to eliminate. RTA held three rounds of public involvement and community input hearings back in 2019 that ultimately led to the changes, he explained. Public involvement included opportunities to respond to the NEXT GEN proposals online as well as to respond in-person at community meetings. Ridership was measured and analyzed at every stop.

     “We eliminated bus stops recognizing that the community wanted to get home from work and school faster even if it meant they had to walk four or eight minutes more to get to their neighborhood,” said Freilich. “Frequency of service was our priority.”

     The NEXT GEN RTA rollout is likely to cause problems for people unfamiliar with QR codes or without a smart phone and access to the Internet. Digital technology is needed to access the information, Freilich acknowledges, saying that he is “particularly sensitive to the issue”.

     “All of our publicity emphasizes a call-in answer line. We have customers that communicate with us by calling the same telephone number RTA has been using for over fifty-years,” he said. “216-621-9500.”

     Chris Stocking with Clevelanders for Public Transit (CPT) is satisfied that GCRTA is moving forward with NEXT GEN RTA. He believes that taking service from the suburbs, like the Park-n-Ride lines that are express service for downtown commuters, and increasing frequency to jobs will benefit residents that live in dense areas of the city as well. 

     “Overall, it’s a win and not perfect but the current plan will double the amount of people living within a half mile walk of high frequent transit by 100%,” said Stocking, chair of CPT. “That translates to 167,000 more people in Cuyahoga County having better access which is significant.”

     Stocking supports the expanded funding redesign concept for public transit, which calls for frequent service seven days a week.  NEXT GEN RTA focuses on frequent service Monday through Friday, leaving weekend service underserved. Some essential workers require frequent service seven days a week.

     “We like the expanded funding concept because it would make seven day-a-week service work,” said Stocking, adding, “but RTA currently doesn’t have the funding to do it.” 

     A recent Brookings report found that the Cleveland metro area experienced the largest drop in the number of jobs near the average resident among the 96 largest metropolitan statistical areas in the United States, according to the Cleveland Federal Reserve Bank. The most accessible employment centers in the region are the Downtown, University Circle, Ohio City corridor and Clark/Fulton district in the City of Cleveland, followed by commercial districts in Lakewood, Independence, and Parma, all located in Cuyahoga County. Over 60% of all jobs in Cuyahoga County were not accessible within a 90-minute transit commute.

     Employment centers with higher concentrations of low-skill jobs tend to be less accessible making low-skill and low-paying jobs the hardest to get to. Metros that provide job access will likely have a leg up in the twenty-first century economy, the Cleveland Federal Reserve Bank report concludes, with job access an important component for regional economic success. 

     Stocking would like to see a more diverse public outreach strategy when it comes to collecting information from riders. Most of the outreach for NEXT GEN RTA was based on online surveys that don’t necessarily represent the demographics of the average RTA rider. 

     “We live in the poorest large city in the country with some of the worst high-speed Internet and access rates in the country,” said Stocking. “We need to be more focused on talking to riders in person.”

     The NEXT GEN RTA public outreach program has come under criticism for relying heavily on responses from non-RTA ridership. Despite the social media blitz, 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. 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.

     Public approval rating for Cleveland transportation ranked nationally near the bottom according to a separate report by the Brookings Institute. Share of workers who use public transit was below 3% and less than 65% of RTA stations are ADA-accessible. 

     “The expanded funding concept could add 25% more revenue into the system, with over 340,000 people within a half mile of high frequency transit service,” said Stocking. “It’s all about running buses to more places more frequently and getting you to where you need to go.” 

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