Cleveland’s Health Line Setting a National Example for Bus Rapid Transit

rtv_nf_render_300x190.jpgThe Tribune reports that the Chicago Transit Authority is studying Cleveland’s new Bus Rapid Transit service, called the Health Line, as it prepares to launch its own BRT lines next year.

Four miles of the Health Line are currently operational along Euclid Avenue, a major downtown thoroughfare that was once packed with streetcars, buses and pedestrians. The route will stretch nearly ten miles when completed this October. With its sleek articulated buses, new stations, and improved trip times, the service aims to woo commuters out of their cars and onto transit:

The transit corridor is geared toward
attracting professionals, many of them doctors and other health-care
workers who commute to a medical district anchored by the renowned Cleveland Clinic. Medical companies are paying the city’s transit authority $12 million for the naming rights.

The challenge facing Cleveland — and ultimately Chicago — is how to set the
new service apart from the stereotype of bus travel as slow, outdated
and used mostly by society’s have-nots.

"In Cleveland, suits don’t ride buses. We are out to change that," Joseph Calabrese, chief executive officer and general manager of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transportation Authority, said last week.

In addition to being a full-featured service with pre-payment, dedicated lanes, signal prioritization, and yes, enforcement cameras on every bus, what makes the Health Line worth studying is the smart planning behind it. The new bus lanes take advantage of excess capacity on wide streets, and the route not only provides direct connections to an employment center, it is also a critical component of efforts to lure businesses and residents to Cleveland’s urban core:

In addition to its transportation benefits, the Health Line is
extending an economic lifeline to neighborhoods on the route that have
been in need of resuscitation for many years. The city has lost almost
half of its population of 1 million-plus when it was a bustling
manufacturing center during the first half of the 20th Century.

Young professionals and empty-nesters are slowly returning to the city
center and to a blighted warehouse district, where restaurants,
neighborhood bars, boutiques and other businesses are sprouting.

Other Rust Belt metropolises and older cities with pre-automobile development patterns could employ a similar transit-oriented strategy to great effect. With rising fuel prices nudging more Americans toward denser, urban areas, many U.S. cities should join Chicago in looking to Cleveland for inspiration.

Image of Cleveland RTA’s new articulated bus: Euclid Transit Transportation Project

  • The key difference from Cleveland, though, will be the CTA bus-only lanes will operate only during the rush hours—one lane inbound in the morning and one lane outbound in the evening on each of the four routes. Off-peak, the lanes will be open to all traffic.

    On most of Cleveland’s Health Line corridor, one lane in each direction is dedicated to only buses 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

    That makes more sense in Cleveland because its congestion isn’t as bad as in Chicago, which ranks No. 2 in the nation for traffic gridlock.

    Ah yes, much more sense. Because in a more congested city, bus riders don’t get stuck in traffic outside of rush hours, while in a less congested city they do? Or is it that outside of rush hours, no one rides buses? At least, no one who matters to the Tribune editors.

    The idea of rush-hour-only bus lanes is really, really boneheaded. Even more boneheaded than rush-hour-only train service, because if a bus lane is open to cars some of the time, drivers will try to use it all the time, and many will succeed.

  • Hear, hear. I rode the Select Bus Service last weekend in Inwood and it struck me that not having a dedicated bus lane (the lane is limited to buses only during weekday rush hours) really limited the usefulness, that is, speed, of the service.

  • JK

    I’d wager a keg of Brooklyn beer that DOT would love to do 24/7, curb separated bus lanes. But DOT doesn’t run NYC and Mayor Bloomberg is not Ken Livingstone or Bertrand Delanoe. He did not run for office on a livable streets platform or improving bus service. If you take a step back you can see that DOT is trying to build constituencies for reprogramming street space from car traffic to ped/bike and transit. Bus-wise, that means getting bus riders excited about peak-hour lanes and demanding 24/7 lanes. All this plaza and public space, and Summer Street stuff is about changing public perception and trying to increase DOT’s political latitude to make bigger, more controversial changes. Look at curbside peak rate parking. The DOT made headlines with pilot projects to introduce peak prices of $2.00 an hour on Kings Highway and the Village. Yet, Broadway and Amsterdam on the UPW have had $2.00/hr parking for at a least a couple years. Point is, DOT is trying to show a very status quo local political establishment that change can be good. But they are having to do a ton of hand-holding.

  • CPingenot

    Aside from the technical distinctions in the hours of the bus lane etc, to me the most interesting part of that article was “Suits don’t ride buses”. That’s been true in a lot of places I’ve lived, but not in Cambridge where I live now. When my bike is indisposed I take the bus and, especially at rush hour, it’s packed with professional types (although this being Cambridge, not too many suits 🙂 ). Is this the case in NY, or is there a real class divide between buses and other forms of transit?

    It seems that this negative perception of buses, especially in cities without the infrastructure for other types of transit is really a barrier to increased transit funding and usage.
    I don’t know if Cleveland’s success is in changing that perception through PR, or a result of demographics of the service area. If it’s successful PR, we should all take a lesson from it, because increasing middle class ridership seems like the key to increasing transit support and funding.

  • I’m only one person, of course, and not a suit (though of the professional class). I can say the reason I prefer the subway over the bus in NYC is that it’s faster. Buses, unfortunately, are slowed by frequent stops, long boarding times, and traffic congestion. If buses went the same speed as the subway or faster, I’d gladly take them. It’s much nicer to travel above-ground and enjoy the city views than be stuck underground.

  • Is this the case in NY, or is there a real class divide between buses and other forms of transit?

    Good question. As I’ve pointed out before, in New York, buses actually have more prestige than the subway. I know many people – who tend to be older, whiter, wealthier and more female, but by no means exclusively – who avoid the subway because they think it’s dirty, dangerous or just plain below their standing.

    In many parts of the US even the working poor drive, and the buses are almost exclusively used by the very poor and people whose disabilities – mental or physical – prevent them from driving. Cleveland seems to be more in the middle, but I think that in those places, a marketing strategy is appropriate component of “BRT.” Not in New York – or Chicago. In these cities, if you make the buses practical people will ride them, no marketing campaign necessary.

    It’s very frustrating to see formulas from other cities applied unthinkingly. Paris has had very little in the way of branding for its BRT, and people ride it. Big cities just don’t have the same prejudices against buses as small American cities.

  • CPingenot

    In Boston our subway is a relatively small system and buses either carry the local traffic to T stops (largely along abandoned streetcar lines) from “streetcar suburbs, or they are express buses to further out burbs without train connections and are almost exclusively rush hour transportation. Most of the express buses travel on the freeway, so while they’re subject to traffic congestion, they don’t have to deal with double parked cars for most of their length.

    In Houston where I was carfree at school, there was a definite stigma attached to using the bus, and there was a big fight over light rail. I think that the reason they went with light rail instead of BRT was to try to escape the negative connotations of buses. Like Boston- most of the bus traffic in Houston is long distances on arterials- without the parking or congestion issues that would be addressed by dedicated lane BRTs.

  • Tom

    Pittsburgh a city with many of the characteristics of Cleveland, has had BRT for years. When I lived there 20 years ago it was very popular with suits. Primarily because it was the faster than any other mode.

  • David R. Yale

    The rush to Bus Rapid Transit is a long-term disaster. Bus Rapid Transit is inferior for several reasons:

    1. Light rail vehicles are less expensive in the long run, with useful lives of 40 to 60 years. Reconditioned LRVs from the 1950s are still running in San Francisco and Philadelphia. Where do you see a 60 year old bus in regular service?

    2. Light rail vehicles have better acceleration than buses do, and can run a route much faster than buses. This means that you need fewer LRVs and fewer drivers to cover the same route.

    3. Light rail vehicles can run in much narrower lanes than buses can, so they take up less space. This is especially important in crowded urban areas.

    4. Light rail vehicles only use energy when they are accelerating. When they decelerate, the momentum is turned back into electric energy. When they’re at rest, their motors use no energy at all. Most buses use energy continually, whether they are accelerating, decelerating, or standing still.

    5. Light rail vehicles give a smoother, bump-free ride far superior to the bouncing around bus passengers are subject to.

    6. Operating expenses for light rail vehicles are significantly less than for buses, according to the Federal Transit Administration’s 2001 National Transit Database. Boston’s light rail line had costs of $1.25 per trip vs. $2.04 for buses. If you want the figures expressed as costs per passenger mile, Boston spent $0.51 for LRVs and $0.71 for buses.

    7. In city after city (St. Louis, Denver, Phoenix, Boston, Philadelphia, Charlotte, Salt Lake City, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dallas ……) people prefer light rail to buses. Ridership on the entire transit system increases when even a single light rail line is opened.


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