HealthLine: Bus rapid transit is revitalizing a corridor in Cleveland
By DAVID SOUSA
July 11, 2012
As continued opposition to the Hartford to New Britain busway shows, there is no shortage of skeptics when it comes to mass transit projects. Transit needs a poster child to promote its many benefits, such as environmental sustainability, lower cost of transportation, enhanced property values and improved livability.
The prospering transit systems in Portland and Seattle don't seem to resonate here. Perhaps Connecticut can better relate to the success of transit in a nearby city that has suffered significant economic decline: Cleveland. This Rust Belt city has been struggling to reinvent itself for decades. While many American cities experienced a decline in population in the 20th century, Cleveland's fall was dramatic — its current population of 400,000 is less than half of what it was in 1950.
In the past few years, however, Cleveland's Euclid Avenue, which was decimated by the social unrest and acute disinvestment of the 1960s, has experienced an improbable rebirth thanks to its new bus rapid transit system, known as BRT. Efficient and streamlined, the six-mile system, dubbed the HealthLine, links the city's two largest employment centers — downtown Cleveland and University Circle — with dedicated bus lanes, pedestrian safety measures, bike lanes and streetscape improvements.
The city and the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority were committed from the beginning to making its BRT a high-quality experience, like light rail without the tracks. The custom-designed rapid transit vehicles are stylish, comfortable and fast.
HealthLine riders pay in advance at platforms and board at multiple doors, which expedites the boarding process. The 21 diesel-electric hybrid buses produce 90 percent less emissions than conventional buses. Stations are equally high-tech, with real-time display of approaching buses, interactive kiosks, enhanced security and generous seating.
This game-changing project came in time for Cleveland to ride the wave of a national trend. Young professionals, students and empty nesters are spearheading a back-to-the-city movement. They want to live close to transit, shops, schools and restaurants where they can own fewer cars and spend less time driving and more time enjoying active social settings. For the first time in decades, demand for housing is growing along Euclid Avenue, in spite of the mortgage foreclosure crisis that left 12,000 homes vacant in the city.
Key institutions and employers in the area, including Cleveland State University, Case Western Reserve University, University Hospitals and the Cleveland Clinic, have also responded to the new tree-lined streets, beautiful sidewalks and increased transit and foot traffic on Euclid by investing in new facilities. These institutions and corporate campuses, which once turned their backs to the avenue, have reoriented their "front doors" to the street, adding light and new activity. Local artists enrich the avenue with memorable and unique art and sculpture, and street vendors and performing artists further enliven and animate the district.
The public investment in transit and a face lift of the public realm was also celebrated by Cleveland's developers, who saw BRT as a catalyst for transit-oriented development even before the HealthLine was operational. Investments in the corridor have totaled more than $5 billion since the BRT broke ground, and include hospital and university expansions, millions of square feet of commercial development, and 4,000 new residential units. This success story is especially impressive considering that the $200 million project was completed in October 2008, at the onset of the recession.
This new development and vibrancy not only encourages further private investment, but also increases bus patronage. Ridership levels on the BRT have increased 60 percent at a time when ridership on conventional bus lines on other routes in Cleveland has declined. Transit provides improved quality of life by reducing commuting stress and transportation expenses, and increases property values of areas near lively urban transit hubs. The symbiotic, self-perpetuating relationship of transit and land use creates a more livable city.
The HealthLine BRT is so successful that many Clevelanders are eager for more sustainable, multi-modal transit and asking "Where's the next Euclid Avenue?" Connecticut residents may well ask, "Where's our first Euclid Avenue?"
David Sousa is a landscape architect and urban planner. This article comes from a presentation to the Connecticut Main Street Center.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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