Bitter on Twitter

IMG_4374Transit authorities rely on adept communication staff to relay vital information to those who rely on their services to get to work every day – this is the baseline upon which most RTAs have established their twitter following. The CTA (Chicago’s “L”) twitter feed is a great example of an RTA using social media primarily for rider alerts.

Transit is also undeniably cool, particularly the rail-based variety. Another common typology of social media activity around transit is hype-based, whether planned or organic. For instance, the Cincy Streetcar twitter is a great example of a hype-based twitter feed, promoting the intangible advantages of their mode of transit.

Then there’s advocacy, which comes in both positive and negative flavors. When I used to ride Cleveland’s Rapid to work every day, once a year was transit advocacy day, in which organizers canvassed trains and buses to raise awareness of the political and funding challenges that may be unbeknownst to rush hour commuters. That’s advocacy the old fashioned-way. Twitter is the new way to advocate.

When it comes to transit advocacy, CityLab’s preferred means of communicating is ye ole fashioned angry tweet. Nothing gets the anger out better than 140 characters or less, it seems. I myself have tried to refrain from Twitter drama, but they say that is for the weak of tweet!

When SF’s BART was down back on Trainmageddon Day, they stood in awe of BART’s twitter meltdown, which CNN also covered. When Cleveland RTA faced hours-long waits for the Cavs Championship Parade, CityLab once again stood in awe of the angry tweets (directed at the State of Ohio). Who will they egg on next?

Here are some choice tidbits:

You can follow Cleveland RTA @GCRTA for even more saltiness to come. Hopefully Cleveland wins another ‘ship so that person can finally celebrate!

Nuanced Thoughts on RTA’s Fare Hikes + Service Cuts

Nobody ever stops the press when government works. Everyday, government works to get people to work, to ship goods to markets, to power our economy, and protect our national defense. Occasionally, we do stop the press for major stories when government does not work as we expect. When a bridge crumbles, it’s a headline. When a train derails, it’s a headline. When bus drivers strike, it’s a headline. In all of these cases, lives are disrupted. Also, in all of these cases, rarely is the fundamental issue ever addressed: We do not pay, and seemingly will not pay, for the infrastructure and services upon which we rely; we insist on something for nothing.

The problem with infrastructure and transit is that the entire nation, or even the entire State of Ohio, does not collectively rely on the same bridge or the same transit route. However, as we complain about the cost of individual projects and transit services, our own community’s infrastructure is crumbling because we refuse to also pay for that of our neighbors.

In Ohio, here is how we got into this situation:

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Nation-wide, here is how got into an even bigger situation, regardless of mode:

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Among modes, the decline has been particularly steep among federal transit and passenger rail spending, which was basically slashed in half during the 80s and never recovered.

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This all collectively means we find ourselves in a situation in which local government picks up more and more of the tab for transit.

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Lastly, for a most interesting chart, particularly for “equity planners” whom decry spending on anything other than bus routes to poor neighborhoods – there appears to be a correlation between overall transit services and poverty concentration. As transit funding declines along with the varieties of constituencies that it serves, the differential between urban and suburban poverty rises. To advocates for “transit equity” meaning transit as a social service: What are you really trying to do?

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We now find ourselves with the transit service that we deserve, pretty much. The fragmentation is pretty much complete. Where a unified front could possible exist as an effective force to solve these issues collectively, we find drivers succeeding in shifting money for transit to roads, we find transit-dependent constituencies advocating to shut down transit that serves middle and upper income people, and we find developers and transit growing farther and farther apart. It is 2016 and things are getting worse.

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What gives? Flats Forward (and/or Backward)

The big debate in Cleveland right now is whether to continue service on the Waterfront Line. The Waterfront Line, completed in 1996, is a 2.2-mile light rail that bends around downtown, following the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie waterfronts, hence the name. Cleveland’s RTA spent $70 million to build it, and then not longer after opening it, decided to eliminate weekday service on it in 2010. Service levels were then revived in 2013, upon the accumulation of $500 million + in development spurred by the route, adding jobs at Ernst & Young, hundreds of dwelling units (soon to be thousands), and dozens of new entertainment venues.

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It so happens, that the Flats East Bank project was built with an over-supply of parking. So while ridership has risen on the Waterfront Line, the trains aren’t exactly packed. Transit “advocates” (can you call those who advocate against transit, “transit advocates”) have dubiously branded the Waterfront Line as the Ghost Train. Mark Naymik of the Plain Dealer, generally considered that newspaper’s foremost loudmouth, wants this route to “be the first service trimmed to help close budget shortfall” (sic). (Personally, and this is the only personal opinion I am writing in this piece, but I’m still not over Naymik’s nasty fight in favor of the Ohio City McDonald’s by labeling opponents including myself as the “$6 Beer Crowd.” Seriously, who advocates FOR a McDonald’s in a historic district??) Flats Forward, a non-profit development arm aimed at revitalizing the Flats as a beloved community gathering place, has led the charge to retain service.

What’s at stake, besides hopes of continued ridership growth on the Waterfront Line? Well, developers did make a $500 million investment along it. One of the historic advantages of rail over bus service is that tracks can’t be moved like a bus route often is – and that goes out the window in this political climate. By burning the developers who invest in sites along transit, we get further and further from an ultimate solution to this wicked problem. Let’s not lose sight of a potential solution, in that Americans overwhelmingly want TOD – 73% support changes in land use zoning to encourage TOD. 73% of Americans rarely support anything.

Where the Waterfront Line was just one example of the solution, combining forces between transit and development, that is now at-risk. The reality is that the Waterfront Line is a choice rider service. By spurning those choice riders, as is often the goal of supposed “transit equity,” it becomes harder to pass needed local tax increases to support transit for everyone.

Don’t forget that the only reason Cleveland RTA is able to provide Ohio’s only decent transit system isn’t fare revenue, but rather the 1% county-wide sales tax that supports RTA. While other Ohio cities would kill for that (COTA in Columbus for instance must operate on half that), will County voters renew Cleveland’s RTA tax next time it is up the renewal? Keep burning choice riders, and County voters are less likely to see how they could benefit.

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What we have here is ultimate dysfunction and fragmentation in which transit segments have turned against each other to throw each other under the bus. While we are all implicit, it is hard to blame anyone specifically; while each side seems to have missed the big picture, can you blame them considering what an ugly picture it has become?

Cleveland: RTA “Rapid” Photo Tour

Cleveland, once the fifth largest city in the United States before its suburbs took over, is one of those cities that inherited an old-school transit system. In a way, it’s Rapid Transit system is manifesting new-school trends as well, diversifying its modal split in recent years. The old school still prevails though. While best-known for its award-winning Healthline BRT (which was supposed to be light rail, but switched to BRT in order to get FTA funding), the older rail network still carries the bulk of ridership.

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Overview of TOD across the entire city

Its 19-mile, heavy rail (think MARTA or WMATA) Red Line dates back to the 1950s, and carries 19,500 daily riders in retro “silver bullet” trains, which is higher ridership than the Blue and Green lines combined. Utilizing a historic railroad trench, most stations are grade-separated – TOD designs are just now emerging that facilitate a seamless integration with that grade separation. Every single Red Line station has recently been rebuilt. Red Line station redevelopment has been a decades-long initiative, primarily moving from west to east. The Red Line connects the Airport to Tower City through westside neighborhoods such as Westpark, Lakewood, West Blvd, Detroit-Shoreway, and Ohio City. After Tower City, the eastbound Red Line connects to University Circle and East Cleveland through some of the east side’s hardest-hit communities, such as North Broadway, Fairfax, and Kinsman.

For the photo tour, I will start with the westside Red Line – but it is worth noting that all of these photos are from 2013-2014. Where possible I will contrast these outdated photos with renderings and newer photos from myself or the media. I need to take newer pics one of these days, but I’ve just gotten out of the habit of doing this in my adopted hometown:

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Large TOD planned for a current strip mall site that separates the Red Line from the iconic West Side Market

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The half-completed Eco Village surrounding the W. 65th Red Line Station

Tower City offers connections to the Blue and Green lines to Shaker Heights, the Waterfront Line to the Flats and lakefront, as well as the Euclid Avenue Healthline BRT. Tower City is one of the nation’s largest and oldest TOD’s, originally built by railroad moguls O.P. and M.J. Van Sweringen. The Van Swearingen brothers actually founded the Cleveland Interurban Railway to connect their master planned suburban development, Shaker Heights, to Downtown Cleveland. Tower City, then the Union Terminal Complex, was the western terminus for that transit network, which anchored downtown’s Public Square.

Public Square is a large, 4-block commons area in the dead center of the city, typical of communities founded in the Connecticut Western Reserve. Just as Cleveland’s open space legacy harkens back to its New England roots, so do its liberal politics and extensive transit legacy. Before Tower City was finished, there was Shaker Square – the entrance to Shaker Heights, and where Van Aken Blvd (Blue Line) and Shaker Blvd (Green Line) split. To this day Shaker Square is one of the city’s hottest and most-integrated neighborhoods, a testament to the enduring value of transit-oriented real estate. On the other end of the line, transit is being totally revolutionized in Downtown Cleveland – particularly with the new Public Square. Below are some photos inside the Terminal Tower complex and the adjacent Public Square. Renderings of the new Public Square follow.

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$32 million makeover of Public Square, designed by James Corner Field Operations (designer of NY’s High Line)

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It doesn’t get more real than this

Fare thee well old Public Square, hello new Public Square.

The new Public Square and corresponding improvements to Tower City, including the $400 million Horseshoe Casino, aren’t the only transit-oriented development change in downtown. In fact, it is downtown’s western periphery – the Flats East Bank, Warehouse District, and the lakefront – that show the most promise for TOD. While much has recently been finished, more is underway currently – the largest impact will be plans that the city will get to after the RNC Convention. The Waterfront Line is the $70 million extension of the Blue/Green lines past Tower City, to wrap around downtown. While it was “finished” in 1996, it has always been considered incomplete – original plans included a complete loop back into the Rapid system, around Cleveland State University.

Ridership was so low when the Browns left town until a new stadium was built that service was discontinued shortly after its completion. Service was resumed in 2013, but ridership remained low until the Flats East Bank development opened. This line will be further rejuvenated by a Cumberland Development and Trammel Crow project at North Coast Harbor, in between the Browns stadium and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. This area will also be bridged to Voinovich Park by a $25 million modern drawbridge, that may also connect to a new intermodal transit hub that will replace an embarrassing Amtrak station.

I find it incredible that this bridge costs almost as much as the entire Public Square redesign, which underscores two things: in the public works realm, $32 million for a high-quality project like Public Square is an incredible bargain; and secondly, the city is all in on this pedestrian bridge to the lakefront. I hope there is a good way to match its design up with the intermodal rail hub, but it may be too late. The drawbridge is already funded, but has been delayed by a promised “downtown construction freeze” for the RNC Convention. After that date, the city will also start discussing (ie., look for funding, hire designers, start planning, etc) the lakefront rail station. As a final note, redevelopment in this area will be complicated by a 70-foot grade separation (downtown sits on top of a bluff, above the lakefront), as well as parking lots that are known as Browns tailgating ground-zero (this is a big deal).

As I mentioned above, this line is heavily in flux with several projects currently in various stages. The Flats East Bank project is nearly finished, the new drawbridge is funded and about to break ground, the North Coast Harbor is similarly financed but still on the boards, and then the new Amtrak/intermodal hub is still in discussions.

Of course, this blog article would not be complete without mention of the Healthline. Not unlike other transit authorities that volunteer themselves to FTA to be BRT guinea pigs, the transit authority’s own focus has shifted to the surprising success of the Healthline project. It helps that Euclid Avenue is the historic “Millionaire’s Row,” built-out all the way to Wickliffe (suburban Lake County) by the Rockefellers and their ilk.

The Healthline has been described by proponents as light rail with tired, and by detractors as a “federally-funded streetscape,” yet from my point of view those are both good things. I have covered the Healthline TOD phenomena ad nauseum, including a lengthy expose at CEOs for Cities that showed both sides of the coin. Given that the Healthline’s center-lane alignment and platform stations were designed to allow for easy future conversion to light rail, I’m a fan.

The project also branded the Euclid Corridor, the city’s iconic main street, and got the east side of Cleveland moving. The distinctive corridor project has been an undeniable magnet for TOD, nearly $6 billion according to this heavily BRT-slanted ITDP study. While most of it has been market-rate development with minimal affordable development to date, making it feel perhaps more like Dallas than Minneapolis. Despite that, this is all the more incredible given the weak market conditions along the corridor, and the fact that most all development has just been infill with no displacement potential. As crazy as it sounds, this bus project really was the impetus for Downtown Cleveland’s remarkable resurgence.

It’s worth mentioning that a lot of the $5.6 billion in TOD was mostly institutional expansion that may have been negligibly spurred by the Healthline. While these institutional actors (such as Cleveland State University, the Cleveland Clinic, Case Western Reserve University and University Hospitals, etc) may have still needed a green light from the public sector before reinvesting in their physical presence along Euclid Avenue, you can’t seriously attribute the expansion of the Cleveland Clinic to a BRT system. There are Saudi sheikhs who maintain private wards at the Clinic just for when their family needs check-ups. The magnitude of the Clinic is not even in the same ether as Euclid Avenue and its bus rapid transit, and for better or mostly worse, the planning of the Clinic (and its cornucopia of parking garages going up every year) reflects this. In my opinion, TOD should have to be underparked in order to qualify.

The Healthline is also not perfect. Signal prioritization absolutely does not seem to be working. I say that because I was a frequent Healthline rider who sat at many a traffic light in my day, which is the whole point of signal prioritization, especially when the BRT has its own lane. In fact I’m pretty sure the only purpose of the traffic signals along Euclid is to first infuriate everyone, then put cars second, and transit last. The route is also longer than BRT can be expected to remain on schedule. Also, due to congestion in University Circle, the ideal center-lane alignment gives way to curbside-alignment and mixed traffic operation.

It is that eastern end of the Healthline corridor that is perhaps the strongest. That is also where the Healthline is least Healthline-like (just described above), which also casts aspersions onto the catalytic extent of the BRT itself.

While the long-term civic vision of Downtown, Midtown, and University Circle being continuously bridged is slowly coming to fruition, the pace of infill is rampant in the last two miles of that 5-mile trek. University Circle is the hottest square mile of real estate in Ohio, and to get there, you have to first traverse the mile-long Cleveland Clinic campus. You don’t necessarily have to go through Midtown, though. Motorists often prefer the scenic route on MLK Blvd and Rockefeller Park’s cultural gardens, while transit riders may prefer the tried-and-true Red Line which has 1/4th the number of stops along the way. The eastern Red Line is just now getting its new stations, except for some that may realistically just be closed. Below are two year-old photos, with photos of the new stations at Cedar and Mayfield roads. Major TOD is transpiring at these gateways.

And now for the transformative new stations, and resultant TOD:

Lastly, the oldest transit asset in all of Cleveland – the Shaker Heights Blue and Green Lines. These two combine for around 15,000-17,000 daily riders, not bad – but certainly brought down by lower density in affluent Shaker Heights. This is another case where what is old is being made new again. The Shaker area, beginning at the St. Luke’s redevelopment area at MLK, connecting into historic Shaker Square, and then splitting up through Shaker Heights – is seeing renewed development interest along the Rapid. Some of this is legacy real estate, including Shaker Square and Van Aken Blvd’s linear mid-rises. Some of this is recently completed, particularly at Lee Road, between Van Aken and Chagrin.

As with many things in Cleveland, the best is yet to come, with the Van Aken District now under development. Van Aken is the redevelopment of a huge strip mall that used to sit on a complicated 6-way interchange. Roads are being reconfigured, the Blue Line is being extended across the interchange (where it used to terminate), and new urbanist infill is taking over on all corners.

First, the Cleveland-proper parts of the Shaker area (St. Luke’s Hospital area and Shaker Square):

Lastly, the Shaker Heights-proper part of the Shaker area, where higher-end TOD is beginning to transpire.

All of the above (for the Shaker part of this post) is about to soon by overshadowed by Northeast Ohio’s largest TOD in nearly a century: The Van Aken District.

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Rendering looking NW to SE through proposed Van Aken District

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Site plan diagram

That, from these ashes:

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Existing conditions at Warrensville Center Road / Van Aken Blvd / Chagrin Blvd intersection

While all of these rails may have lost some of their luster, they still work well. They are traversed by around 40,000 passengers daily. They are the formative first experience of many newcomers, when they first land at the airport. They may not always comprise the scenic route, but there is a good chance they can get you where you need to go. They are Cleveland’s most underutilized practical development asset, which it is just now beginning to realize.

The future of transit in Cleveland is in flux. The city is currently debating a contentious fare hike that will undoubtedly hit the poor the hardest. Transit in Cleveland, and the breadth of access it provides compared to other Tier 2 metros, is still a bargain. Even the Healthline’s naysayers will admit that the Cleveland RTA is very well-ran, which goes a long ways. RTA has identified 10 “transit-propensity” corridors, which is a way of saying that they have a priority list of Cleveland’s primary corridors.

The agency just completed a $20 million BRT-lite project on Clifton Avenue, which serves high-density pockets like West Blvd, Edgewater, and all of Lakewood. The agency is currently beginning a project to extend either the Red Line or Healthline eastward, all the way to Euclid (population 55,000). It will hopefully be Red Line extension that is chosen in the end, but that will be dictated by the planning process that is currently underway. Lorain Avenue and West 25th are likely next-up, and activists are already duking it out in the media. Me thinks West 25th would be a phenomenal streetcar corridor, and so do many others, including Ohio City Inc. RTA may go path of least resistance with just another BRT-lite.

P.S. For some extra reading, here is the text of the CEOs for Cities article. While they cleared their website, it made it up onto some blog or forum. The article is one of my better pieces, offering a fair and balanced look at the Rail v. BRT debate in Cleveland.

P.P.S. Please ask for permission before reusing pics. Almost all are mine, but some are from Cleveland.com. Renderings are obviously the intellectual property of the architect and/or developer.