BRT in Cleveland: No mistake by the lake

Late last month, a group of Detroit transit aficionados and activists hopped on a coach bus and went day tripping to Cleveland. While the weather wasn't much better in northern Ohio, the trip proved refreshing.

Their mission: take a ride on the United States' premier bus rapid transit (BRT) route, the HealthLine, which extends for nine miles along Cleveland's Euclid Avenue, and learn something about BRT that will add to discussions back in Detroit about the future of transit in the region.

Freshwater Transit, a Detroit-based transit planning firm, organized the trip, which was sponsored by several Detroit area transit advocacy and planning groups including Transportation Riders United, MOSES, and the Michigan Suburbs Alliance. The Detroit Bus Company provided transportation to Cleveland.

The group arrived at the offices of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority where they were met by Joseph Shaffer, GCRTA's ‎Director of Engineering & Project Development. Shaffer gave a presentation on the system's latest development, the HealthLine BRT route, which opened in 2008 after three years of construction and nearly 20 years of planning.

For the uninitiated, bus rapid transit (BRT) is a form of mass transportation that more or less imitates rail systems. BRT busses travel in dedicated lanes, communicate with and receive priority from traffic signals, are boarded from rail-like platforms that are level with bus doors, and appear distinctive from standard busses. They also tend to have tend to have larger capacities and run at a high frequency. Riders pay fares at station platforms instead of on the bus to increase efficiency.

One of the major differences between BRT and rail is the cost of construction. According to Joseph Shaffer, the HealthLine's $200 million price tag was a mere quarter of what a light rail system along the same route would have cost to construct.

The HealthLine is the highest rated bus rapid transit line in the United States, receiving the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy's silver standard. Its buses travel at a speed of 35 mph in their dedicated lanes while normal traffic is limited to 25 mph. HealthLine service runs 24/7. Busses arrive at stops every 5 minutes during peak hours and between 8 and 15 minutes during off peak hours.

Since opening, the HealthLine has experienced steady annual increases in ridership, up 60 percent from the old non-BRT route.

"The growth has been in what we call 'choice ridership'--people who could otherwise drive," said GCRTA's Joseph Shaffer, who also noted that the HealthLine is nearing its peak daily capacity.

Additionally, $5.8 billion in economic development has poured into the Euclid Avenue corridor along which the line runs since it began service in 2008.

"Over the year the HealthLine opened, there were more building permits issued along Euclid Avenue that in the rest of the city combined," said Shaffer.

Bus rapid transit, which is less expensive and more flexible than light or heavy rail options, has been bandied about as a viable means for introducing mass transit to Detroit, the largest metro area in the United States without a true form of rapid transit. Southeast Michigan's recently created Regional Transit Authority is considering a 27-mile-long BRT route along Woodward between downtown Detroit and Pontiac.

Choosing a fate

A word that accurately describes Cleveland's transit network, of which the HealthLine is only a small piece, is "robust." 

Four commuter rail lines that link suburbs with the central city, localized bus routes that link neighborhoods, and the HealthLine BRT route that links university and hospital job centers with the central business district make up the GCRTA network.

Like Detroit, Cleveland's streetcar system was dismantled in the 1950s. Yet Cleveland (as a region, not just a central city) chose a different fate than Detroit--one in which the region embraced and invested in public transit.

When looking to cities with great transit like New York, San Francisco, and Chicago, it's easy to say, "Why can’t we have what they have?" But as a post-industrial city, Cleveland is Detroit's blood brother and much worthier of comparison. It is smaller in many regards, from landmass to population (Cleveland's RTA serves 1.5 million people, a population just over one third the size of that of Southeast Michigan's RTA service area of Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, and Washtenaw Counties). Yet it's robust transit network is significantly better than what we have in Southeast Michigan.

Daniel Brooks, an urban planner and the Director of Transit Planning at the Detroit Bus Company, a private transit provider that supplied the group with transportation to Cleveland, acknowledged the successes of the GCRTA.

"What Cleveland is doing is more innovative than anywhere in the U.S.," said Brooks. "Cleveland suffered the same series of economic collapses that Detroit, Flint, and Buffalo did. But transit advocates stayed interested and politicians were supportive. The HealthLine is just a part of it."

The GCRTA was formed in 1974, which proved a critical point in the history of transit in Cleveland. This authority and its dedicated funding source, a countywide sales tax that constitutes 70 percent of GCRTA's revenue, have helped Cleveland invest in and grow its regional transit network. GCRTA is what Southeast Michigan's newly formed Regional Transit Authority (which has yet to secure a dedicated source of funding) aspires to be.

Since the formation of the GCRTA, the authority has been able to upgrade existing lines in Cleveland and push new transit developments forward. Branding and institutional partnerships have been key components of its success.

The Cleveland Clinic, one of the country's premier health systems, was active in promoting the HealthLine's development, describing the project as "great for the heart of the city." The Clinic now sponsors the line, which connects it with downtown Cleveland.  

The GCRTA itself launched a large scale branding campaign, which defined BRT as "Better Rapid Transit" and repeated this BRT mantra:

"It's not a bus. It's not a train. It's the future."

Building a network

We in Detroit are well aware of the shortcomings of our fragmented, inefficient transit system that is anything but rapid. New Detroit Department of Transportation Director Dan Dirks admitted in an interview with Model D last week, "I'm not going to lie; it is going to take quite a while to get the bus fleet up to the standards that our customers deserve."

Yet we can look to Cleveland as a beacon of hope. A place that shares many of Detroit's challenges, Cleveland has embraced transit and is now enjoying the benefits of its investments.

We have a lot to look forward to in Metro Detroit--M-1 Rail, the maturation of our own RTA, and perhaps the eventual development of a BRT line (which is already happening across the state in Grand Rapids!). If leaders and citizens of the region choose a fate that embraces transit, a lot can happen.

As Daniel Brooks pointed out, "There's a lot of room for growth in the transit economy in Detroit. It's wide open."

Matthew Lewis is a freelancer in Detroit and Model D project editor.

Read more articles by Matthew Lewis.

Matthew Lewis is a writer and former managing editor of Model D. He's currently the communications officer for the New Economy Initiative.