CLEVELAND — Under a concept debuted Tuesday by nationally renowned public transit expert Jarrett Walker, the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority’s bus system would provide greater, more frequent access to areas of potentially higher ridership across the coverage area. While cautioning the public that the concept remains a draft and is subject to further review, the redesign study could play a major part in how the RTA adjusts to the current needs of its users.
For the past year, Walker, the principal at Jarrett Walker + Associates, has studied the RTA bus system by soliciting public feedback and examining the coverage area’s current and future needs. Walker said the study found a mere 15% of those surveyed felt that the current system should remain in place.
“This whole process was built around learning about the public’s priorities about a future service plan,” Walker said.
Walker told the RTA Board of Trustees that any redesign of the bus system will have to weigh two key tenants: ridership and coverage. The ridership goal focuses where ridership potential is at its highest. The coverage goal, however, places greater emphasis on providing service to the widest range of people, even those in sparsely populated areas. Walker’s recommended concept marries those two objectives.
“We do not actually eliminate all service anywhere,” Walker said. “However, we might under certain circumstances reduce the frequency of service to a very low demand area.”
Walker’s concept bus system includes more frequent bus service on both the west and east sides. The Detroit Road and Lorain Avenue lines on the west side would feature service every 15 minutes and the South Broadway and Kinsman avenues lines on the east side would also be increased to 15 minute intervals. In addition to buses arriving more frequently, a new bus route on the east side would also be created, cutting across the east side up to East 222nd Street.
Walker said these changes could be implemented immediately under the RTA’s current budget. To do so, however, Walker said the downtown trolley system would undergo significant revisions and the three park-and-ride lots would be consolidated into one of the main west side bus routes.
The downtown trolley system often duplicates existing bus routes, Walker said.
“For the first mile or so going down Euclid, east of Tower City, you have a trolley going down the Healthline. We’re going to say just use the Healthline,” Walker said. “The park-and-rides… continue to be served with downtown service but not always via the freeway. They [won’t be] as fast to economize a bit on those services.”
To place a greater emphasis on areas of high ridership, Walker said the redesign concept would reduce the frequency in which buses service areas of lower ridership. That trade-off may concern some residents, Walker said.
“Making tough trade-offs within the existing budget [is] always controversial. In fact, the more they achieve the more controversial they are,” Walker said.
The system redesign may have significant benefits in the ability of residents to access local job centers. According to Walker’s study, under the current budget, residents would have access to 11% more jobs within a 45 to 60 minute bus ride from their location. Additionally, as many as 165,000 more people would be within a half-mile of frequent bus service compared to the existing system, Walker said.
“If you are going to depend on public transport, your life is contained in that wall. You really can’t get beyond that,” Walker said. “Isn’t it great if we can move that wall outwards so people can get to more placeS? If we look just at minority populations and also just at low income populations, they also, on average, get an increase in access.”
Walker also authored a second concept system that includes a significant increase in RTA’s budget. Under the expanded budget concept, frequent bus service would be expanded into more areas of the Cleveland metro area. Beefed up bus service on the weekends would also be possible.
“I like the expanded coverage. I like turning up weekend service and re-working the trolleys. I like that concept. I think if we do it right, it gets more ridership in the long run but we have to do the math on that,” said RTA trustee Valarie McCall.
GCRTA CEO India Birdsong welcomed Walker’s concepts but stressed the need for more community engagement and feedback. Birdsong also suggested that adjustments to the conceptualized bus system may also be needed.
“The RTA staff will be deep diving… but we do have to take another look to determine what is best for our community and what is best for our business,” Birdsong said. “It’s really important that we provide the best service that we can and that we have a plan that is sustainable over time.
Walker’s concepts were largely applauded by those in the audience, including several members of public transit advocacy agencies. Christopher Stocking, a member of Clevelanders for Public Transit, urged the RTA board of trustees to implement the system design immediately, even going as far to weave his opinion into a new set of lyrics for the holiday tune, Jingle Bells.
“Frequent bus, frequent bus, frequent bus all day! Redesign grows ridership, RTA cannot delay, hey!” Stocking sang, earning a roomful of applause and laughter.
The trustees took no formal action on Walker’s concepts but said the RTA will hold public meetings in 2020 before making any changes.