As mayor pushes BRT for Metro, a look at Cleveland and Eugene may shed light on system

Monday, August 27, 2012 at 7:22pm
By William Williams and Craig Runyon
Bus art.JPG

The HealthLine, Cleveland's bus rapid transit system (Courtesy Greater Cleveland RTA)

In Ohio

Cleveland proves that bus rapid transit can work — giving Nashville a reason to take note.

By William Williams,

It’s a recent Tuesday morning in downtown Cleveland. Business people are arriving to work, coffees in hand. Buses chug along. Pigeons are visible. The energy is palpable — a level somewhere between New York City and of Knoxville.

Both vintage buildings and contemporary structures cast shadows on the hustle and bustle at street level as a Tennessee visitor to Ohio’s most misunderstood — and occasionally maligned — city steps upon the boarding deck of the Public Square stop of the HealthLine, Cleveland’s bus rapid transit (BRT) system.

Within three minutes, a large yet sleek vehicle arrives — its look mimicking a 21st century light-rail car more than a conventional bus. The visitor boards, his maps in hand, ready to make the approximately 20-minute journey to the University Circle neighborhood. He will then return via the HealthLine to Public Square, his pleasant and surprisingly quick excursion (considering the nine-mile round-trip distance) undertaken not as a work commute or a simple trip from Point A to Point B, but as a chance to experience what Cleveland has accomplished with BRT. At the conclusion of his ride, he is impressed. He is envious. Cleveland has implemented an impressive bus rapid transit line.

Will Nashville do likewise?

It won’t be as easy for Music City as it has been for Cleveland, which lends itself to a bus culture. The HealthLine runs along a much more building- and people-dense corridor than Nashville’s proposed line (which would link Main Street, Broadway and West End Avenue). And many Clevelanders depend
on buses. Comparatively, the city, with an approximately 26 percent poverty rate, is home to far more carless folks than Nashville, with a poverty rate of about 17 percent.

Regardless, Nashville could learn from Cleveland, as the HealthLine has seen more than 10 million rider trips since it opened in October 2008. Given that most Americans are no more familiar with bus rapid transit than they are with, say, the life of the late Irish harpist Turlough O’Carolan, BRT’s success in transforming Euclid Avenue is noteworthy.

“No one grew up saying, ‘I wish I could take the bus to work,’ ” Joseph Calabrese, general manager of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, said jokingly as he and this writer chatted. Nonetheless, Calabrese said, BRT has been largely embraced in Cleveland.

The roughly $200 million system likely has minimized private vehicle usage and clearly has spurred urban infill development. As of 2011, about $4.3 billion in such development had been completed since the HealthLine began operations, according to a report in Cleveland’s daily paper, The Plain Dealer. And of course BRT has been hugely helpful for those many Clevelanders without cars.

Cleveland, like Nashville, considered adding a modern streetcar rail system instead of BRT. However, its $800 million price tag was daunting.

“If my attitude had been ‘rail or nothing,’ we would have had nothing,” Calabrese said.

Instead, the city known for its rock ’n’ roll history has a BRT line that officials nationwide are studying. Calabrese has entertained transit pros from, among others, Boston and Chicago. Smaller cities can benefit, too, as Eugene, Ore., is proving, he added.

Calabrese said he thinks BRT could be effective in Nashville. He has visited Music City numerous times — one of his sons once lived in Midtown — and said he has a basic feel for its urban core.

But a key in garnering support and ridership, he stressed, is public perception.

“The biggest hurdle is how you brand it,” Calabrese said. “We call BRT ‘better rapid transit,’ a rail system on wheels.”

Ari Maron has seen firsthand the positive impact the HealthLine has had on Euclid and its intersecting streets. His MRN Limited Partnership owns almost every building fronting East Fourth Street. BRT spurred Maron to reinvent the buildings with residential above retail.

“There was no housing that you see there now,” he said. “The first floors were filled with wig shops, which were fronts for drug dealers. East Fourth and Prospect was known for prostitution.

“It was not a place you would walk.”

Much less sit, people-watch and enjoy a cup of coffee.

Influenced by the HealthLine, MRN Limited Partnership has either under way or finished four projects (some of which involve multiple buildings) located on or near Euclid, with an estimated value of $300 million.

“What happens in University Circle is directly related to what happens in Midtown and in downtown,” Maron said. “When the HealthLine opened, people thought of Euclid Avenue as a connecting corridor for the first time.”

He noted that University Circle entities are adding about 1,000 jobs annually, and Case Western University, a neighborhood anchor, has accepted its largest freshman class in recent memory.

Terry Schwarz, director of the Kent State University Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative, said the HealthLine has spurred a significant portion of the city’s adaptive reuse and infill projects.

“The HealthLine is the infrastructure that threads through [Euclid],” she said. Indeed, Maron said, Cleveland has “caught fire” thanks, in part, to BRT.

“Holistically, people are rediscovering [Euclid and its side streets] as a wonderful place to live and work.”



In Oregon

Eugene’s EmX system has exceeded both ridership and many personal expectations of public transit.

By Craig Runyon, City Paper Correspondent

My favorite part of the daily commute is the half-mile stretch along the Willamette River between Eugene and Springfield, Ore. I usually turn up the radio and stare at the water as the sun glistens off the little rapids and I rush past at 40 or 50 mph. I’m not putting lives at risk though, because I’m not driving. I’m riding the area’s bus rapid transit system.

I ride EmX to work on average four out of five days a week. The bus ride is actually a small part of my commute. I have a 25-minute walk to the station and then ride for 10 minutes, and I prefer it to the alternatives. Full disclosure: I’ve worked as a graphic designer for Lane Transit District, which serves the Eugene metropolitan area, since the beginning of the year, and I ride for free. Prior to my current job, I rode a traditional bus route until it was canceled. Then I got a Vespa and filled it up about every week and a half. In my eight months on the job at the transit district, I can count the times I’ve filled up the scooter on one hand.

EmX (pronounced M-X) debuted with a four-mile stretch connecting Eugene and Springfield in 2007, a year after I moved here. For the first 12 months, all passengers rode free and EmX carried 1.5 million riders, exceeding 20-year rider projections in its inaugural year. The EmX buses have infrared technology mounted above every door that counts riders as they get on and off the buses. In May, EmX celebrated carrying its 10 millionth customer.

The transit district expanded its EmX service in January 2011, connecting a hospital and mall with the addition. Plans for a third addition are in the final stages of approval, but have faced opposition.

The majority of EmX’s riders are University of Oregon students and commuters, and the system has high public approval, according to a 2011 survey. The buses run every 10 minutes on weekdays from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and about every 15 minutes during off-peak hours and weekends. They are very dependable. Sometimes too dependable for my late-arriving tastes, as my 8:20 a.m. bus often pulls away from the station just as I’m getting there.

My wife and I moved to Eugene from the Washington, D.C., area for a change of lifestyle. In D.C. we relied on the subway and buses quite a lot and often found the system to be frustrating. The buses in particular were a source of aggravation because they were often overcrowded, rarely on schedule and many times got caught in traffic.

EmX rarely gets snagged in traffic. It travels in dedicated lanes at key points and in normal traffic lanes at other times. Buses have wide double doors on both sides, and the artfully designed station platforms are raised a few feet off the street to decrease boarding times.

The whole system works quite well, and I really enjoy my commute. Now if I could only make it to the station on time.


Craig Runyon works for the Lane Transit District in Oregon. He’s a former journalist for The Eugene Register-Guard and The Washington Post.

24 Comments on this post:

By: JeffF on 8/27/12 at 9:29

the description of the system in Oregon sounds more like what will more effective AND effiicient here. There is no reason to build an inflexible modal out of something that is inherently flexible. New York runs BRT on routes on streets without lanes blocks and it works. Busses have steering wheels to steer around planned and unplanned obstacles, why build a system where the buses are forever limited to concrete lined chutes with no route flexibility?

By: Ask01 on 8/28/12 at 4:57

I have an observation. Many in Nashville seem to equate bus ridership with poverty, unemployment and other circumstances which seem to disgust them.

The truth is, the demographics reflect a much broader cross section of society.

Many downtown office workers, city and state employees, and other professional people take advantage of public transportation to avoid often extortion worthy (in my opinion) parking fees, the gridlock which is Nashville traffic, lost tourists meandering across lanes of traffic, making left turns from the far right lane, and other annoyances rendering Nashville driving far from pleasant.

The upside for those unable to navigate the bus system is, increased ridership means less cars on the road. In addition, more extensive routes mean fewer old folks (like me) driving around at 5mph.

While I do believe Mayor Dean is assured a reserved spot in the nether regions once he shuffles off the mortal coil, a delayed reward for what he has done to the city, I also believe the expansion of MTA is actually a plus point, serving all citizens, perhaps even helping his afterlife situation.

Much as doing so galls me, I actually support this program.

By: producer2 on 8/28/12 at 7:11

Just a note for clarification, the route being looked at will not have concrete lined chutes as described above. In fact the only obstruction for motorists to the lanes will be something reminiscent to a rumble strip and a slight elevation change in the street. The buses will have alternate routes available when needed and the lanes become important for emergency vehicles as they will be able to manuever through traffic much easier. Cars are not permitted in these lanes but could in effect get there if they wanted to. A few hefty tickets for doing so will keep this practice to a minimum. If these vehicles moved at the same speed of regular traffic there would be no need, the fact that they have dedicated lanes and technology to keep lights green upon approach is what make this effective.

By: localboy on 8/28/12 at 7:48

"Cars are not permitted in these lanes but could in effect get there if they wanted to. A few hefty tickets for doing so will keep this practice to a minimum." Sure, that worked for the HOV lanes.

By: MusicCity615 on 8/28/12 at 7:55

Comparing a dedicated lane in Nashville's most urban sections to an interstate HOV lane isn't comparable localboy.

Nashville's metro leaders need to do everything they can to approve the BRT. Nashville has to have alternative transit options. Thank you Karl Dean for moving this proposal forward. I hope we get it.

By: Vuenbelvue on 8/28/12 at 8:06

It looks like what the city is operating now, mostly empty buses. Nashville is a low density city and it's needs are between 7AM and 6PM, mostly twice a day or in the morning and afternoon on certain sides of town. Is the idea of speed, 40 to 50 mph, suppose to be a lure? That will occur on certain stretches but buses stop and go. If ridership needs a bus every 20 minutes, well, add another bus and driver. If the need reduces at 9AM, take the bus and relocate it to another route or park it. Instead of trying to impress city list makers, think economies of scale. How is this system going to be paid for and how much will the individual rider cost be. Can it be practical with low ridership 16 of the 24 hours in a day?
The US Government is making spending cuts now which some experts agree will last 10 years or more. This state's congressional leaders have historically never really brought in grants, earmarks or free money as evidence that they can't even get a new US Courthouse funded after 20 years trying. I smell a property tax increase because riders won't pay $10 for a 5 mile one way ride. I think the city has a long history with buses, probably mostly underfunded, and should work with the system they have.

By: Jughead on 8/28/12 at 11:30

Yep--and those stupid "green" car charging stations were another great idea!! Tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars wasted on a California company to install equipment that favors crickets.

Stupid,stupid, "green" people. Just idiots who have the mental faculties of rocks. And,. they want Joe Sixpack to pay for every one of their moronic "bright" ideas.

By: on 8/28/12 at 12:57

This is absolutely the stupidest idea that Dean and his young minions have come up with yet to spend money on something that almost nobody wants! Nashville doesn't even fill up the buses that they have (I never see a full one) much less larger faster ones. But that, as bad as it is isn't the worst, no spending $100m as our part of this scheme is criminal. The money that we were just charged for a property tax hike was shoved down our throats like a baby bird. The finical problems that we have in this country today are caused in part by the federal government trying to be everything to everybody, taking our money to give to whom ever they feel needs it more. There should not be any federal money for this kind of drivel. God willing in November we may be rid of this kind of idiocy. Vuenbelvu is correct, the Democrats funded 18 federal courthouses across the country with only money to buy the land, no money for building the buildings so there are no courthouses. Maybe the GSA spent the money on it's latest convention. Nashville as well as the other 17 cities now have whole city blocks generating absolutely no property taxes because of this government stupidly. I figure about $200k/yr for Nashville. How many teachers would that buy? Ultimately the city couldn't do anything about it but the administration at the time didn't even try. In fact I was told by the GSA representative that their first choice for a site was the Municipal auditorium but were told by city hall that it was off limits. I guess it didn't lose enough money. Nashville hasn't had a good administration since Bredesen left. Dean is as much a financial fool as Obama.

By: on 8/28/12 at 1:02

Gridlock, Nashville doesn't have gridlock. We have two times per day, rush hours morning and evening that traffic is heavy. Why not try to stagger the large employers (city, state, Vanderbilt, HCA) start and end times to smooth out the heaviest flow? That would be cheap and probably much more effective. BRT my arse! Tax and spend fools!

By: Ask01 on 8/28/12 at 11:55

Gridlock I suppose exists in the eyes of the beholder.

When I see traffic not moving, or inching along at a snails pace, I, in my simple minded way, immediately think gridlock.

When I can, using my pedal driven bicycle arrive quicker than someone in a motor vehicle, I think, 'gridlock.'

If we don't have true gridlock now, I suspect upon completion of the MCC, we will finally join the big league cities, just as Mayor Dean, the Metro Puppet City Council, and downtown business owners desired, and enjoy the same gridlock I experienced in Los Angeles, New York, Tampa, Miami, Atlanta, and so many other major cities.

Maybe, if MTA did a better job of publicizing bus routes and did more to encourage ridership, there would not be so many unfilled busses.

Oh, and if some commenters have never seen filled busses, I suggest they enjoy the standing often room only travel on the 12, 3, 15, and other high travel routes.

I have used MTA for nearly a decade now, and have noted a marked increase in bus use.

In the coming years, the trend will likely grow as more baby boomers, voluntarily or at the insistane of family, opt for using public transportation. Additionally, I recently read an article detailing how many young people are defering starting to drive, or actually declining to drive, feeling what was once a vital rite of passage not so important.

As Nashville continues to grow, we will need more efficient mass transit. The time to begin planning this is, to be honest, probably about 20 to 30 years ago, which would have allowed the growing city to meld with the transit system. Better to start late than wait even longer until the program becomes even more difficult and painful to put into place.

By: producer2 on 8/29/12 at 6:52

i think the point of many of these things is the future. its not necessarily good or easy for you but it should make life better for future generations. or we could just say screw them and keep going at our current pace...

By: NewYorker1 on 8/29/12 at 8:02

I don't understand why Nashville doesn't build a subway system like what we have in New York City. Just do it dammit and stop talking about it.

By: on 8/29/12 at 8:25

All of you liberals should have listened to Chris Christy's keynote speech last night. You would have heard the future. Living within our means, no more sticking our heads in the sand and hoping it will go away, grow up, we are not NYC, Atlanta, Los Angles or any of the other large cities quoted WE CANNOT AFFORD THIS! The lower taxes mantra couldn't have a better poster child than this kind of exuberant spending wish. With lower federal taxes there won't be any federal matching funds. If Nashville can afford to build it ourselves than we can vote on it and build it if we want to. But we have to pay for it, just like every other town in the country will have to build theirs. Back to sanity is what it boils down to.

By: Kosh III on 8/29/12 at 9:27

Subways are very expensive and inflexible, as is any rail system.

I have used MTA for over 5 years; at peak hours the bus is packed. Just because at some times of day a bus is not full is not a valid reason to oppose the use of a bus; freeways are nearly empty at 3am--should we tear up the road?

More buses, more often on more routes. MTA is adding several new routes soon, including more cross-town routes and feeder routes. It takes time--and money.

By: Kosh III on 8/29/12 at 9:31

Judy, if we used your notions, we would not have any Insterstate highway system as no city or state could afford it on their own, it had to be done with the funds collected from all states for the benefit of all states. Your comment sounds great as a sound byte but not as sound policy.

If you want to save tons of money, shut down our Empire. Get our military out of Japan, Korea, Europe, Latin America and most other places. We should not be the global cop nor the global bully, we are both right now. Washington was correct to advise non-intervention.

By: tbulgarino on 8/29/12 at 11:08


It was a nice piece by WW...However, I was hoping that the article had included the funding formula implemented by the both cities to build/operate the BRT services. It may have proved instructive...

I also noted the rider that commented on his previous bus line being discontinued.....forcing him to by a Vespa and now he rides because his fare is free...

We are almost in September but still no answers to my questions that I posted months ago....

1) How does the city proposed to pay for construction and ongoing operations?
2) What existing MTS bus routes are to be discontinued to force riders onto the BRT?
3) What will the travel time be for the BRT vs. current travel time on the '3' and '5' MTS routes?

...not sure what the consultants/MTS/Metro are doing but getting out details must not be in their scope of work agreement .... isn't the application deadline in a couple of weeks? A cynic would observe that the window for any public discourse regarding funding/service will be brief indeed.

An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.
- Winston Churchill

By: on 8/29/12 at 12:22

No Kosh lll, I'm not advocating the tearing up of the interstates, they serve to many people to much of the time. Besides how are going to escape the cities when the bombs drop? I think we need more smaller buses running more frequently also. I read that one of the hybrid units costs around $800k, thats obscene. I don't know what a regular bus costs but I'm sure it's several hundred thousand dollars. The city could have a lot of smaller van based units for that kind of money. The extra expense would be with more drivers, but at least it would create more jobs. They also should run on natural gas, in fact all of Metro's fleet should run on natural gas. But you don't get your name on plaques for doing that sort of thing so the mayor and the boys and girls on the council don't have much interest. Please don't anyone tell me how much less the current buses cost when you factor in the maintenance & longevity costs it will never make up the difference. As far as reining in the military in the world, I agree to some point, that point being the safety of our troops if called into action. tbulgarino, it will cost at least $200 million half at least will be the cities to come up with so the rest really isn't very important. Dean and company are pretty good at waiting till the last minute so not much discussion is possible. Bottom line IT'S TO DAMN EXPENSIVE!

By: Kosh III on 8/29/12 at 2:08

I read that one of the hybrid units costs around $800k, thats obscene."

No it's not. Look at the cost this way: it carries at least 50 people, 50 people buying an individual vehicle at 25 thousand each is 1.25 million. Which is more? which pollutes more, adds to traffic congestion, wear and tear on the infrastructure?

By: Kosh III on 8/29/12 at 2:12

I don't know the answer to #1 but number 2 is none. This will be in addition to the existing routes because the BRT will have limited stops, the 3 will still stop anywhere.
The 56 on Gallatin Rd did not eliminate the need for the 26, it just relieved the over-crowding on the 26 and got more people into buses who, in the past, would not ride the 26.
3. It will be a substantial time saver, I don't remember the precise time but MTA has a presentation online which gives the answer.
It may be as much as half the time. The 56 takes 45 minutes from end to end, the 26 an hour. This proposed line will be even more time-saving. Does that help?

By: tbulgarino on 8/29/12 at 4:58


Kosh III thanks for the response. If I may ask, are you in a position to know if the existing MTA service will not be impacted? If you are correct, I think it is a wise decision. My concern is that in an attempt to engineer ridership benchmarks will lead to a cutting back or eliminating of the current service on the same route (3, 5) to 'force' BRT riders.

An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.
- Winston Churchill

By: tbulgarino on 8/29/12 at 5:04


I looked on line without any luck. But I will try again.

I am unfamiliar with the '56' and '26' designations. Since I live downtown I know that the 3 and 5 each take around 17-22 minutes between the 9th North at Broadway and the Harding Rd at Cherokee Rd stops. If the BRT does it in 8-11 minutes I will be on board.... if the stations are near by.

Thanks again.

An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.
- Winston Churchill

By: Ask01 on 8/29/12 at 5:59

Producer2 and I don't agree on some subjects, but this is one issue on which we are in complete accord.

The time to modernize out transit system is now. We should not wait until we are forced into throwing together some slapdash assortment of ill fitting patches to fix localized problems when we could plan out a well organized system serving the citizens of Nashville and tourists.

As with NewYorker1, I would love to see a subway system meshed with a streetcar, bus and light rail network.

The problem with the subway, NY1, is the rocky nature of Nashville substrata. Had the basis for an underground system been incorporated into the city early during the last century, the process would be easier, but considering how densely built the city core is today, the cost would likely be prohibitive, and the construction dangerous. Perhaps out of the city center, subways integrated into future projects, but I wouldn't hold my breath.

By: Kosh III on 8/30/12 at 7:08


The 26 is the regular line that runs from on Gallatin Pk all the way to near the county line on the other side of RiverGate Mall. The 56 is the limited stop BRT(lite) which only has 15 stops on the same route. It takes the 26 one hour, the 56 45 minutes.

When it was only the 26, it ran every 15 minutes and was badly overcrowded. After the 56 had been in service for 6 months they did adjust the schedules, keeping the 56 at 15 minute intervals but the all stops 26 was stretched to every 20 minutes.

Keep in mind that the proposed service would have a feature which will further speed the trip: a device which notes the upcoming signal. If the light is green or amber, the signal will be instructed to stay green or amber until the bus has passed through the intersection. Plus the bus will be in it's own lane.

By: NewYorker1 on 8/30/12 at 8:13

I love taking the subway in NYC and then walking to my destination. I guess that’s why body is still so slim and tight and built like a Greek God.