New eco-friendly HealthLine buses mark a milestone for the storied transit line

Thirteen years—and about a million miles—after officials from then-Cleveland Mayor Jane Campbell’s administration and the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA) cut the ribbon on the $220 million Euclid Corridor Transportation Project, the once-futuristic 60-foot-long bus-rapid transit (BRT) buses serving the RTA HealthLine on Euclid Avenue were replaced with the next generation of BRT vehicles. The fleet of 16 new BRTs rolled out earlier this month.

While the buses appear much the same—with perhaps a jazzier paint job and the telltale Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) fins along the top (like all RTA buses that have since replaced RTA’s diesel-fueled bus fleet)—much about Euclid Avenue looks different from 2008.

“The new HealthLine buses are a welcome addition,” says Alex Rubin, a spokesman with Clevelanders for Public Transit, a transit rider’s group. “They should improve reliability, which is especially important since wait times for the HealthLine during peak hours have tripled since its debut.”

The HealthLine was an idea brought forward by former Cleveland Mayor Mike White’s planning director, Hunter Morrison and others who dreamed that the “dual hub” of Cleveland State University and Case Western Reserve University—with the Cleveland Clinic between the two schools—would raise investment dollars along Euclid when the dedicated bus lanes and center median stations were built.

The HealthLine is one of the first streets in the world to repurpose four general traffic lanes into two lanes for cars and two dedicated to BRTs.

Progressive traffic engineers in the 1990s came up with the idea and branded the lane configurations “road diets.” The result has been an unqualified success story on Euclid Avenue, from a traffic engineering standpoint.

High volumes of cars were replaced by high volumes of public transit riders with an added bonus of a dedicated space for biking (the project also featured the city’s first painted bike lanes of any consequence).

The concept proves that in the same space taken up by six cars and six drivers, Cleveland is able to move 75 people on one (often) full BRT bus—a much more efficient use of space and a reduction in emissions.

Morrison and champions of the development potential around the BRT stations (mainly coming from Cleveland State University’s Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs), could point to a 2015 report that estimated the Euclid Corridor and the HealthLine served as the springboard for $4 billion in new development.

While the bulk of the transit-oriented development (TOD) project came from hospital facilities, recent infill development on Euclid has included residential projects and the addition of quite a bit of commercial office space.

“I think it would be the text book for teaching how to do TOD,” remarks RTA’s Nick Biggar, while giving a tour of one of the 16 new HealthLine buses that rolled out this week.

Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA) will introduce 16 new passenger and environmentally friendly buses for use on the HealthLine bus-rapid (BRT) system.The new buses are very much of their time—responding to COVID-19 with floor to ceiling plexiglass shields for drivers (also a safety feature), operable (transom) windows for more fresh air, and no more upholstered seats.

The new vehicles also respond to what RTA learned over the past decade of operating the HealthLine: There is free Wi-Fi and dedicated space for disabled riders. parents with strollers, and cyclists.

Biggar addressed two of the biggest operational questions that grew over the years of the HealthLine: It’s slower-than-advertised 20-minute trip time between downtown and University Circle (it clocks in closer to 32 minutes); and the complaint brought against RTA that led to a court case—a civil rights violation of using uniformed and armed RTA police officers to conduct fare verification.

Biggar and RTA spokesman Bob Fleig said there is no plan to go back to the 20-minute promise for the HealthLine’s run. More importantly, Fleig said, is the route’s “on-time performance”—making sure the HealthLine keeps to its schedule of buses arriving at a station every 15 minutes during morning peak times of 4 a.m. to 10 a.m. (stretching out to every 30 minutes the remainder of the day).

On the brighter side, Fleig confirmed that RTA will transition from drivers checking fares to a new Fare Ambassador program of civilians checking them in the near future. This follows RTA’s discussion with riders and rider advocacy groups like Clevelanders for Public Transit that were concerned about the loss of all-door boarding as well as the Civil Rights violation at the center of the court case.

“Because the RTA still requires HealthLine riders to line up next to the bus operator to have their fares inspected, we're anxiously awaiting the return of proof-of-payment to the route,” says Rubin. “If well-executed, transit ambassadors and proof-of-payment will speed up every trip by up to 20%.”

Front-door only fare collection by the driver—a move that happened after the civil suit—will continue until a date is set on the Fare Ambassadors program.

Another HealthLine feature that drew the ire of riders is the fare collection system at the stations. Unnecessarily loud with arcane prompts that made for missed buses “hasn’t changed, yet,” Biggar says, “but we’re working on it.” 

Contoured plastic seats make for a more comfortable ride while also allowing for better sanitation.But Biggar is optimistic about the future of BRT. “There were a few hiccups on fare collection—we heard that loud and clear,” he continues. “But when you look at [BRT overall] and how Cleveland would fare [poorly] competing against bigger cities on rail because of population size and density, the HealthLine and BRT is a real practical way to improve transit.”

RTA expects to save a bundle operating the new BRT buses. It pays around 63 cents per CNG equivalent to a gallon of diesel that costs about $3.50. The switchover to CNG from the diesel/hybrid drive system of the old HealthLine will save RTA dollars that the agency has been hard pressed to make up since the beginning of the pandemic which has dramatically reduce ridership and fare revenue.

“The cost savings can provide more and better [transit] service,” Biggar says.

Like many publicly funded agencies that receive federal funding (in this case, to cover 80% of the cost of the buses), RTA is committed to reducing its air pollution. Natural gas produces 90% less nitrogen oxide (NOx) than diesel, according to GCRTA, which should reduce health problems and fewer premature deaths for those exposed to a lifetime of breathing the particles that float in the air from the tailpipe.

Biggar and Fleig also remark how much smoother and quieter the CNG engine sounds while sitting in the light blue and grey interior.

Still, Biggar agrees that CNG is a bridge fuel to a lower-carbon intense fuel. He says RTA is committed to purchasing an all-electric bus—similar to those seen operating in Los Angeles—for a pilot program in its Cuyahoga County service area.

Compared to other alternative fuels like hydrogen (which are similarly in beta mode for powering buses), Biggar and Fleig are confident that electric drives—particularly with the big push for the use of electric vehicles by the Biden administration—will come to dominate the market.

For now, Biggar agrees that the latest round of investments in the HealthLine represent an affirmation of the big leap Cleveland took as an early adopter of a complete, multi-modal corridor.

With an air of authentic pride, Biggar declares, “What a success story!”

Read more articles by Marc Lefkowitz.

Marc Lefkowitz is a sustainability consultant with more than 15 years of experience writing, speaking and advocating for a more sustainable Northeast Ohio. He served as Director of the GreenCityBlueLake Institute and editor of its well-known blog at gcbl.org. He has a B.A. in English from Ohio State University and an M.A. in urban planning from Cleveland State University. He is a regular bike commuter and transit rider. Photo: Liz Cooper.