May 28, 2009

Cleveland’s Bus Rapid Transit

[Radio Transcript]

NEW YORK, NY May 28, 2009 —As American cities increasingly look to expand their transit options but keep costs low, many planners are looking at Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT. The city of Cleveland, Ohio, launched a BRT called the Health Line, about six months ago…with two promises. The first: better, more efficient public transit on an important city artery. The second promise was more nebulous: that the BRT would provide an economic boost to the city’s depressed downtown. In WNYC’s look at BRTs around the world, Reporter Dan Mallthrop takes a look at how it’s going in Cleveland.

REPORTER: Let’s start with the buses.

CALABRESE: They’re not buses, they’re Rapid Transit Vehicles…

REPORTER: And the difference?

CALABRESE: A couple hundred thousand dollars.

REPORTER: Joe Calabrese is the CEO of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority. And, he’s really proud of the new BRT system. So proud, he still cherishes last year’s bus-of-the-month calendar from a manufacturer that featured Cleveland’s new vehicle.

CALABRESE The uniqueness is the rail like design and the rail like operation. We really designed built and are operating this as if it were a rail system. The only difference is that they’re operating on rubber tires.

REPORTER: Cleveland’s Bus Rapid Transit line has been running since last October. Euclid Avenue wasn’t supposed to be serviced by fancy buses. In the early 1990s, city leaders pushed for a surface rail line, but the cost for the four mile line would have been close to a billion dollars. Like New York, perhaps, only more so, Cleveland couldn’t afford that. So the city leaders put their hope in what they saw as the next best much cheaper thing. And they said—and privately hoped—it would spur the economic development the same way light rail has in Portland, Oregon, and other cities.

The downtown end of Euclid Avenue is lined with tall historic buildings—mostly empty. This part of the city stood in for New York in parts of the movie Spiderman Three. Here, it’s not difficult to understand the need for economic development.

LITT: We’re standing near Euclid Avenue and East 13th street, just a few hundred feet east of the Union club which is this fantastic neo classical building…and as we can see it’s a very quiet prospect right now.

REPORTER: Steve Litt is an art and architecture critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer,

LITT: Now fifty, sixty years ago, this was a 100 percent intersection in Cleveland. … The image would have been something closer to Fifth Avenue in New York at rush hour. People hustling back and forth…

REPORTER: In fact, the street level vacancy rate in this part of downtown is astronomical. When the Spiderman Three film crew took over these blocks for two straight weeks… no one was inconvenienced.

Today, you can walk entire blocks without seeing an open, functioning store. And this is literally, the heart of downtown Cleveland.

For crowds and economic development, you have to ride the line four miles uptown. Leaving downtown, you pass Cleveland State University and then vast stretches of empty warehouses. Finally you arrive at University Circle, home to Cleveland’s cultural center and two major hospitals, virtually all of which are expanding right now.

Incidentally, those two health care institutions teamed up to buy the naming rights of the BRT line—it’s called the Health line—and those naming rights will provide the line with anywhere from 12 to 25 million dollars over the next 20 years.

Less than a year since the Health Line service began, ridership is already exceeding projections. What they dream about is that the kind of development happening uptown will happen downtown as well.

But others are skeptical the BRT can ever deliver on the economic promise.

KRUMHOLZ My name is Norman Krumholz…

REPORTER: Norman Krumholz has been teaching Urban Design at Cleveland State University since he left the city planning department in 1979. The Euclid Avenue BRT line runs just outside his office.

KRUMHOLZ: So the idea in one form or another has been kicking around for at least 25 years.

REPORTER: Krumholz remembers every previous plan to solve Cleveland’s transit problems, from El-trains, to surface light rail and downtown subways, none of which were ever built. And the idea for BRT here came from Brazil

KRUMHOLZ: Curitiba, if I’m not mistaken.

REPORTER: He says that system has served as a model for many cities, including Cleveland.

KRUMHOLZ: They might have failed to take into consideration Curitiba has 3 million people and no cars and everyone depends on bus for transportation around town.

REPORTER: Curitiba also has a development pattern with real urban density, that feeds the BRT there. And though lots of people ride the bus in here, he doubts Cleveland will see that level of success

KRUMHOLZ: Lord knows I doubt that they’ll get anything like the ridership of Curitiba…

REPORTER: But there are signs—however small—of a turnaround. Back by all those empty storefronts downtown, there’s a block, just off of Euclid that feels as vibrant as any thriving city. There’s a high end bowling alley there and the restaurant where Iron Chef Michael Symon cooks. Just up the street from there one company is redeveloping an old department store into 240 apartments. The accessibility to the BRT is one of the building’s main selling points.

And some people are returning downtown… to live.

ANDREWS: I had a Cadillac Catera…and I sold the Cadillac Catera…saying that I’ll get new car when I come up to Florida, come up to Cleveland, rather, and I’ve never looked at cars again. I just have no desire to buy a car again.

REPORTER: Meet Sally Andrews. She rides the Health Line every day. And she may represent the most important part of this story—

ANDREWS: I don’t miss my car. I don’t miss any of it. After five years of driving in Ft. Lauderdale you just see how everyone’s in a hurry…and the lifestyle we lead…it’s just nice to have someone else do the driving. I’m done driving… I enjoy this a lot. Here’s our bus! Yaaaay!

REPORTER: If local boosters and developers can find more people like Sally Andrews, and if those people like Sally can find work, well, then Cleveland’s old Millionaire’s Row might just be a part of economic development again.

Hear and read the original radio stream:
Cleveland’s Bus Rapid Transit


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