all aboard: how rta is breathing new economic life into the region

It’s a sunny afternoon when a rider climbs the stairs at Addison Station in the Wrigleyville neighborhood of Chicago. As usual, the famous “L” train is packed with riders of every cultural and socioeconomic stripe. Bankers mix with bakers as the train winds its way between apartments and office towers during its path downtown to Michigan Avenue. For the Windy City's transit-oriented citizens, the familiar ride is little more than an afterthought.

Sadly, this scenario probably is a more relatable experience for many Clevelanders than a ride on our very own rapid. That’s due in large part to the overwhelming and relatively unspoken stereotype clouding Northeast Ohio commuters: that public transportation is unsafe and reserved exclusively for the lower class.  

Turning commuters, suburbanites and Jane Doe into "choice riders" -- those who choose public transit over driving -- has been an ongoing battle for mid-size transportation systems across the country, and Cleveland is no exception.

Luckily for those of us who have felt the sting of rising gas prices -- and those seeking a less car-intensive existence -- the Greater Cleveland Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) is taking significant steps to cultivate a new generation of riders in the Forest City. Starting in the heart of it all: Downtown Cleveland.

Seeking: Choice Riders

The more choice riders a city cultivates, the more economically viable a neighborhood becomes. For proof of just how revitalizing a sexy new piece of transit equipment can be to a city’s urban core, we need look only as far as the HealthLine. Unveiled in 2008, the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system (or as suburban commuters call it, That damn bus that took my lane away!) has ushered in $4 billion in new development since its inaugural 6.8-mile ride between Public Square and East Cleveland, according to The Plain Dealer. University Circle's Uptown project is just one of many developments spurred on by RTA’s approach to transit-oriented development. Many also believe it’s been a huge contributor to downtown’s population spike. No wonder city leaders in Pittsburgh are envious of the HealthLine and looking for ways to create their own BRT system.

Ready to Ride

Since the HealthLine took over the old #6 bus route along Euclid Avenue, ridership has soared 58 percent, according to Mary McCahon, RTA Media Relations Manager. Overall RTA ridership has increased 16 percent compared to one year ago. Certainly, the spike in gas prices and cost of parking have played a significant role in the shift. But the feeling around RTA is that Clevelanders finally are beginning to look at transit in a whole different light.

One RTA program -- called "Ready to Ride" -- is also providing a boost.

“[We’re working] with HR managers at companies and offering personalized service and free passes to new riders to help them learn the system and how it can save them money on gas, parking, and traffic hassles,” explains McCahon.

Boomtown Buses

Cleveland’s "Rust Belt Renaissance" has become a popular narrative for the national media -- and for good reason. New businesses are opening weekly, vacant office buildings and department stores are being converted to high-end apartments, and red-hot restaurants continue to pop up like morels come springtime. The soon-to-open Horseshoe Casino is expected to generate $17-$20 million in tax revenue annually and the Cleveland Medical Mart and Convention Center is projected to spur hundreds of millions in local spending annually, notes Tiffany Matthews, Med Mart Marketing Director. It’s an influx of cash that should give hope even to the most pessimistic of Clevelanders.

And RTA is doing their part to keep the good times rolling and to show residents and visitors alike the benefits of a transit-oriented lifestyle.

Along with the aforementioned “Ready To Ride” program, RTA -- with the help of Downtown Cleveland Alliance -- is encouraging local businesses to match a $2.88 million federal grant that will be used to introduce three new trolley lines downtown: Casino Line, Lakefront Line and 9/12 Line.

“Financial support has come from partners across Downtown Cleveland and includes the Cleveland Browns, Positively Cleveland, PlayhouseSquare District Development Corporation and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” says Gina Morris of Downtown Cleveland Alliance. As early as late spring, the three routes will work together to move locals and tourists to various hotspots around downtown.

9/12 Line: This route will look to serve primarily commuters by connecting the Muni Lot to the growing E. 9th area. The trolleys will travel all the way down to Quicken Loans Arena during rush hour on weekdays. Perhaps not the sexiest of announcements for those living downtown, but it does have the potential to introduce new suburban commuters to transit.

Lakefront Line: Catering largely to visiting and local tourists, The L-Line will run on weekend days, with stops at Tower City, Browns Stadium, Great Lakes Science Center and the Rock Hall. Clevelanders certainly will have good reason to make use of the new route, especially during those physically punishing winter days after a Browns game, when the walk to the rapid at Tower City feels like The Longest Yard.

Casino Line: The C-Line Trolley will run both weekdays and weekends, escorting folks from the casino to PlayhouseSquare and the Warehouse District. But the hope is that Clevelanders will learn to mix and match lines. After all, one doesn’t need to play Craps in order to use the free service. With the increased traffic that’s bound to gum up downtown thanks to an Indians game or the casino, it will be infinitely more convenient to hop a train into Tower City and switch to the C-Line. It sure seems like a more attractive deal than getting stuck in traffic just for the privilege of paying outlandish parking rates.

Connecting Cleveland

Most important, these increased transit options will make living and playing downtown easier for all parties concerned. The Warehouse and Gateway districts will soon be connected on weekends to University Circle via a trolley and the HealthLine. The delicious delicacies of La Dolce Vita and Presti’s Bakery in Little Italy will be even more accessible once that neighborhood's rapid stop is relocated to Mayfield Road (construction is slated for early 2013). But perhaps one of the most exciting developments is the hope of a West Side Transit Center to mirror the East Side’s Stephanie Tubbs Jones Transit Center. RTA’s plan to build atop one of the Warehouse District’s barren surface lots recently was approved by the neighborhood board and will soon seek potential developers with the help of the Downtown Cleveland Alliance. The plan calls for 39,500 square feet of ground floor retail, 183,600 square feet of mid- to low-rise housing, a garage for 540 cars, and just 4,800 square feet needed for transit center operations.

The Creative Class Takes the Bus

As VP of Business Development at Downtown Cleveland Alliance, Michael Deemer works with businesses that are interested in relocating downtown. Echoing the sentiments of transit boosters across Northeast Ohio, he believes a good public transit system is essential to attracting talent.

“The creative class -- young people between the ages of 25 and 34 -- is a highly-desirable employee to these companies,” he says. “This generation of young people is changing the trend, choosing to replace driving with alternative transportation. And with Downtown Cleveland’s residency doubling in the past decade, the importance of public transit increases. Americans are moving to more urban areas where people can walk, bike and take public transit instead of driving.”

Photos Bob Perkoski

Joe Baur
Joe Baur

About the Author: Joe Baur

Joe Baur is an author, writer and filmmaker who has worked for a variety of local and national publications including Matador Network, Yahoo! Travel, National Geographic and BBC Travel. In addition to freelance writing, he is the author of Best Hikes Near Cleveland and director of numerous travelogues from across the globe. You'll currently find him working in Ciudad Colón, Costa Rica, because spending the first year of marriage where others vacation seemed like a good idea.