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RTA Considers A New Future For Its Bus System

Updated, 10:38 a.m., 6/10/19

The past few years have been tough for transit in Northeast Ohio. The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority has cut routes and raised fares, all while ridership continues to fall.

Transit advocates call it the “death spiral.” Jarrett Walker, the consultant hired to help RTA redesign bus routes, said the service is “stretched incredibly thin.”

“It isn’t really able to be very satisfactory to much of anyone,” Walker said, “because it is simply being asked to do too many things with too small a budget.”

As RTA considers a system redesign, it’s been asking Northeast Ohioans to pick between two hypothetical extremes. On one map, transit lines cover a wide area throughout Cuyahoga County, but many buses come just once an hour. On the other, buses arrive every 15 minutes but travel more limited routes, along interconnected lines mostly in Cleveland and inner-ring suburbs.

“It’s not A or B,” RTA acting head of operations Joel Freilich said on The Sound of Ideas recently. “These are illustrated extremes to understand community values. We do not have to pick A nor B. We’ll probably pick something in between. But we want to know where in between.”

In other cities, Freilich said, Jarrett Walker and his team have found that even with its inherent shortcomings, the high-frequency map could get more people on the bus in the first place.

“They have found in other places that moving more toward the frequency model has increased total annual system ridership,” he said.

The choice between the two alternatives is not an election, Freilich said, where one side wins and the other loses.

If the hypothetical maps were an election, they would be headed for a recount. In a survey earlier this year, respondents were split equally between the two choices.

Riders Torn Between Frequency And Coverage

A few times a month, 66-year-old Susan Bradfield takes the bus from her apartment in Parma up to MetroHealth Medical Center for doctor’s appointments. She has epilepsy and can’t drive. Lucky for her, there’s a bus stop just outside her building.

But her bus, the 79A, doesn’t come as often anymore. Bradfield schedules her appointments in the morning when the bus is available, she said, and makes one transfer on her trip up to MetroHealth.

“One of the reasons people do not ride the bus is because they don’t want to stand there, to get off one bus and have to wait 30 minutes or more for another one,” she said.

Bradfield said she would like more frequent service and better connections between bus lines. But given the choice between RTA’s two alternatives, she picked the coverage map.

“I guess you’d have to take the one where they go further out, but not come as frequently,” she said. “But at least have them come.”

On her way home, there’s no 79A to drop her off outside her building until later in the day. So she gets off her return-trip bus and walks about 20 minutes to her apartment, cutting through parking lots.

Her roommate, Audray Johnson, commutes more than an hour to her job at an industrial park near the airport. Her first bus takes her eight miles north to Ohio City. Then she turns around and travels nine miles southwest.

“They need something running east and west, like on Brook Park, at an early hour,” Johnson said at a May RTA meeting in Parma. “But I have to go all the way downtown, and then I have to get on the train, and then catch another bus.”

The coverage-focused map could give Johnson that east-west route she wants, but the bus wouldn’t come frequently, increasing the chances of Johnson being late for work.

Emily Liptow, with Clevelanders for Public Transit, lives on the East Side of Cleveland and takes the Rapid to work.

“For me personally, the frequency definitely is more appealing, because I live in more dense areas, and I live closer to existing lines,” she said. “And I also have a car. So if I were to go out to the suburbs, I would drive.”

But Liptow said she also wants to understand who would be disadvantaged by that move.

Many riders might prefer more buses in more places more often. But for RTA to do more, it needs to bring in more money.

Update: Greater Cleveland RTA has extended the survey deadline for its ongoing system redesign and fare equity studies to June 15. Click here to participate in the surveys.

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