Cleveland proves that bus rapid transit can work — giving Nashville a reason to take note.
By William Williams, firstname.lastname@example.org
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.”
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.