University School - Hunting Valley
Instructor: Molly Klaisner
Boarded Up: Cleveland's Ailing Public Transit System
Boarded Up: Cleveland's Ailing Public Transit System
Every day as the sun rises over Cleveland's gleaming skyline, beaux-arts terminal tower abutting the gleaming edifice that was once the headquarters of standard oil, a coin is tossed. Whether or not it comes up heads or tails has everything to do with public transit and its functioning: its busses, its trains, its tracks, and its funding. If this coin comes up heads, everything will go according to plan. Those individuals who ride public transit will wait in frigid weather in unsheltered bus stops for twenty to thirty minutes to catch their bus, and they'll be off on their morning commute. If this coin comes up tails, any number of people could suddenly be facing unscheduled bus repairs or busted lines, late busses trundling to a stop half an hour late, or a bus which is only still somehow moving by dint of the bus driver's willpower. Misfortune may strike at any time, misfortune aided by the shameful underfunding of the Cleveland RTA system — Cleveland's public transport agency — as well as the breadth of area it must serve. Area which it cannot afford to serve. This is not the fault of mismanagement, not the fault of the sheer greedy idiocy of two bit politicians with their heydays long gone, but simply due to poverty; Cleveland's coffers are empty at the best of times, and public transit is often the first thing to go when things get spotty. Yet there are voices and movements crying for funding for this necessary leg of city life, and this intransigent state of transit is unequivocally set to change.
Public transit is as ineluctably abused as it is necessary. Two hundred thousand people ride the RTA each weekday, forty five million a year, and uncountably many more over the city's long existence ("RTA Service Facts"). This usage is well belied by its quality, as can be demonstrated by one meta-statistic: a report conducted by the Fabric Insurance Agency reveals that, across a variety of fields including public approval, number of trips per person, and share of workers who used public transit, Cleveland ranks close to the bottom of the pack at 30th out of 35 ranked municipal system (Duball). It shouldn't have to be spelled out that this is atrocious. This lack of quality bears numerous detriments for the RTA's various many and sundry riders; in one particularly salient example, a grandmother, one Marvetta Rutherford, must traverse half an hour of concrete hellishly hot concrete in the summertime, simply because the bus does not reach her workplace (Morris). She doesn't have a car, or anybody to drive her; she must exclusively rely on the bus for access to her workplace. There are efforts to fix this, efforts coming from the municipal, state, and national levels — efforts totaling hundreds of millions of dollars. Nevertheless, people are still suffering. There are still problems. There are delays between busses, last mile gaps and underserved areas, and a pervading sense of inadequacy.
What nonetheless remains to be explained is why Cleveland's public transport system is as it is. The answer is twofold: lack of available resources, and diffusion of available resources. There is certainly a poverty to the system, in the words of the chair of Clevelanders for Public Transit "while funding for the RTA has not been increased since 1975, services have been cut by more than 25% and fares have doubled over the last 15 years" (Bennett). This had a significant effect on the system, which has manifested itself as sordid and broken down busses and railings, along with a plethora of other difficulties. In a city where 23% of all homes lack a vehicle, this is unacceptable (Barry). In a city with a metro area population of 1.7 million, this is unacceptable. In a city as large and intricate as ours, this is unacceptable.
There is also an active diffusion of resources, providing a weighty strain on the RTA itself. Among 96 metropolitan areas ranked in the United States, Cleveland faced the largest drop in the number of jobs located near the average resident from 2000 to 2012, thus implying a larger area that must be serviced by the public transit system in order to be effective at transporting residents to and from their workplace (Morris). As an added bonus, there are areas which the RTA now serves which don't see much traffic now, and which might not have seen traffic ever. One spokesperson for the RTA, speaking on proposed changes to their system, acknowledged this as a problem: "We want to reallocate and make tradeoffs and discontinue some services that are not very successful and not very well used" (Bennett). Furthermore, Cleveland's funding for public transit, when ranked per capita, is one of the lowest in the nation (Morris). At the risk of stating the obvious, this is abhorrent for all involved. It should be a comfort, then, that I am not the only one who has noticed this problem. Much is being done to salve Cleveland's public transit wound, with "much" being well north of the amount needed to make a difference.
There are two primary strategies which will be used to combat the many tribulations of the RTA systems: injection of resources into the system itself, and thinning of the area served. Most prominently, at the time of writing, Cleveland is set to receive 1.3 billion dollars directly from the federal government over the next half decade, all given towards the aid, repair, and expansion of the RTA system (Eaton). That's roughly five times the RTA's entire annual operating budget, all given to patching up our system ("The Greater Cleveland RTA"). This money will go towards all the various places that are lacking within Cleveland's public transit system: the cars, the tracks, the busses, and the stops themselves. It should be noted that if this money is used poorly, used to pay more for the present than for the future, then in a measly space of a few years we may find ourselves back to where we once were. Yet this money still bears the potential to be spent well, and if it is the dividends reaped will be enormous.
The area served will be correspondingly thinned as well, having little served routes eliminated and resources directed where they are needed most. In one proposed redesign, the "15-minute service frequency to bus routes on Detroit Road, Lorain Road, St. Clair Avenue and Superior Avenue during the weekday morning and evening rushes and at midday on weekdays", as well as correspondingly increasing "weekday and weekend service frequency for routes on Mayfield and Cedar roads" (Bennett). Moreover, the Greater Cleveland RTA "plans to alter bus routes and eliminate stops in some of its low-use areas", a decision which can only provide better and more consistent service to those areas most in need (Chilcote). Efficiency is key.
Another, more mercantile solution would be to raise the price of fare. This is a fundamentally sound idea; currently, paying customers only cover roughly 20 percent of the RTA's operating costs. Certainly, raising prices would be a more sustainable solution than just taking money from the government and hoping everything works out. Nonetheless, there are some very obvious caveats to this plan: namely, that raising fares unduly might harm the very people who rely upon public transit to get by. Instead of assisting people who ride public transit by using the extra money earned to fix the litany of problems the system is currently experiencing, such a move may instead do the poorer riders of the RTA undue harm by pulling sorely needed money out of their wallets. Whatever the case may be, such a move will have to be thoughtfully considered before being implemented.
However, these are merely a few facets of a diversified approach towards fixing public transit; there are quite literally dozens of ways one might go about repairing Cleveland's system. Incentivizing ridership, reallocating road space to transit, lowering fares and adding discounts, organizing public campaigns to reduce the stigma permeating the air against public transport. All of these are viable solutions! These changes are necessary for the people involved as well, the fact being that, in the words of one interviewee, "If the train is delayed 10 minutes, now I have to wait half an hour for my next connection," … "You can't have maintenance and broken rail cars all the time and expect people to take it because it's just not reliable" (Morris). The necessity of these alterations is ineluctable to anybody who accepts public transit a necessary part of city life.
Solutions aside, one question remains: why? Why spend hundreds of millions of dollars on public transit, hundreds of millions of dollars which might go to other worthwhile causes, such as healthcare and public aid? Well, the answer is clear enough: public transit is all this and more. It confers fiscal and health benefits upon all who use it, actively improving and developing the society within which it resides. Public transit very obviously has a lower crash rate than its asphalt bound alternative, with a far greater efficiency and correspondingly lower rate of emissions to boot. One notable survey-study hybrid discovered that, of the people who took the 2001 National Household Travel Survey, 29% were able to achieve half an hour or more of exercise from public transportation ("Expand Public Transportation"). The quality of life improvement that exercise has brought to these people is enormous, when counted in totality. Vast amounts of money have been saved as well, for the simple reason that one vehicle carrying fifty people will by its very nature be cheaper than one vehicle which only carries one person ("Expand Public Transportation"). This inherently benefits the poor and underserved among us, and if you, dear reader, do not believe in helping the poor, you are beyond help.
Even if this litany of facts fails to persuade you, there's the simple economic benefits of the thing — "Every $1 invested in public transportation generates $5 in economic returns" ("Public Transportation Facts"). The reason why money should be dedicated to public transportation as opposed to more obvious, seemingly expedient sources is simple: it's because public transit assumes the roles of these services vicariously.
The RTA's motto is "Quality Service: Every Customer, Every Day". In light of recently discussed facts, this motto shines perhaps just a notch less than it would otherwise have. But it still shines, testament to a public transit system which may have failed its city, but by God will it try harder next time. Efforts are being made, buttons are being pushed, and legislation is being written. Though we live in a city where many have to suffer the ills of an underfunded public transit system, where people have to endure baking heat and frigid cold even after paying fare, where people may not be able to get themselves where they need to in an efficient manner for the simple sin of not owning a car — there is still hope. There is still much to be done, and we may still yet become stronger.