5 Reasons NOT to Kick the Buses Off Public Square

The overhaul of Public Square is done and it looks fantastic and everyone is very excited.  Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 1.07.54 PM

But among all the excitement some people are pushing for the reversal of one of the major compromises that made the project possible. In the first weeks after its opening, a petition has been circulated that calls for removing all “traffic” from the square. This is a misleading way to put it because cars are banned and there was never any question about that. The whole design and construction was designed to exclude cars, but allow buses on Superior only. Below I will try to explain why removing the buses after the fact is a bad idea.

#1. Removal of Buses Would Compound RTA’s Financial Crisis and Cause Real Harm to the People Who Depend on it

According to a study by the consulting firm Nelson Nygaard, shutting Superior to buses would cost RTA an additional $2.6 million in annual operating costs. This comes as the agency is staring down an $18 million shortfall — and just after painful fare hikes and service cuts. The closure of Ontario to buses already increased RTA’s operating costs by $1 million.

As important as great public spaces are to cities, strong public transit systems are equally if not more important. Undermining the quality of our transit system for the sake of public spaces works at cross purposes. Below I will try to explain why bus traffic shouldn’t harm the square and may benefit it anyway.

#2. Removing Buses Seems Easy — But It’s Not

I get why a lot of people think, ‘oh closing Superior to buses is no big deal. They can just go around!’ It SOUNDS easy. But actually it’s really complicated.

Closing Superior to buses would require RTA to reroute about 75 percent of its routes. All these routes will be forced to do a series of turns and wait at a series of light unnecessarily. Also, they would no longer have dedicated transit lanes, the way they did before the square was redesigned, so they’d be forced to wait in traffic.

About 20,000 transfers from bus to bus used to happen in Public Square every day. It was the center of the whole bus system, which carries more than 100,000 rides per day. Such a large number of transfers — a lot of people — requires a fair amount of space. You can’t just force all those people onto some narrow sidewalk. Also, moving them further from the square would put them farther away from transfers to the Rapid and to the Healthline, undermining the usefulness of the whole system.

#3. Buses Shouldn’t Hurt Public Square Anyway — And May Benefit It

I reject the whole idea that buses are going to reduce enjoyment of the square in any real way. On the contrary, more people can enjoy the square if it is used for yoga classes and picnics as well as for people waiting for buses.

Buses are slow moving vehicles and in this case they’ll mostly use Superior for stopping, not speeding through. Buses, unlike cars, are supportive of pedestrians — they deliver them to walkable spaces without hogging urban space for parking.

Bus riders, in addition, will be “eyes on the street” helping keep the square populated at all hours and deterring crime. Real cities — great cities — are full of bus riders and various types of activity. Rather than trying to segment every place into a single type of activity, they thrive off diversity and variety.

#4. The Square Was Designed with Stakeholder Input After-the-Fact Petitions Ignore

Ultimately, the decision to close Ontario to buses but leave Superior open was made after hearing out a number of different stakeholders — not just the kind of people that will drive to the square to do yoga, people that had been using the square prior to this redesign as part of their daily lives (well at least agencies representing them). The best projects consider not just the hoped-for outcome but also whether any groups might be harmed and if so how that will be managed. Disregarding that process after the fact is unfair and not in keeping with the best practices of city planning.

#5. If You Want to Get Concerned About a Threat to Downtown’s Image, Worry About the Giant Parking Lot to the West 

Photo: Green City Blue Lake

Photo: Green City Blue Lake

Here’s the great thing about bus riders. They come to your city and they don’t require a parking space. That means more space can be dedicated to cool urban amenities like picnic hills and less space can be devoted to dreary asphalt dead zones like the giant parking crater just to the west of this project. The more drivers that be converted into bus riders, the better downtown will be.

I urge people to email the mayor using this link and encourage him to leave the square open to buses.

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Public Transit Cuts Inflicting Real Pain on Clevelanders

Just wanted to share this excellent documentary about the difficulties faced by Clevelanders who are reliant on public transit. Riders are currently bracing for more service cuts and fare increases, thanks in part to a woeful lack of state support.

This video was produced by The Fixers, a group of artists that are trying to tell the “real story” of Cleveland ahead of the press deluge that will accompany the RNC this summer.

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The Case for Overhauling Transportation in NE Ohio

A new report from the Century Foundation used Cleveland as an example of a how not to do transportation. I thought it was worth highlighting in full. TCF’s Beth Osborne writes:

Osborne_Fig4-1

Figure 4 shows the region in 1948 and in 2002, which over time, urban development spread across the county, yet the population actually stayed about the same. This pattern of urban sprawl means that the same number of people now have to pay to maintain almost double the amount freeway and arterial roadway miles. And for their increased investment, they now get significantly deteriorated transportation performance. While the population actually decreased from 1982 to 2007, the amount of travel time spent in congestion in Cleveland went from 10 percent to 23 percent, and rush “hour” has increased from three hours to five hours.

So we built a lot of highways. Traffic got worse. Costs went up and no new people showed up. This is why leaders in Akron and Cleveland are calling for a new approach.

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Brain Drain in Cleveland — Still a Thing

I’ve been a little bit skeptical of the Cleveland-based research saying Cleveland’s brain drain problem is basically solved. That’s because mostly because when I see research that wasn’t produced in Cleveland, it tends to say the opposite.

Anyway, a think tank I follow, City Observatory, recently took a look at “brain drain” in a bunch of metros. So I inquired about how Cleveland fared. Joe Cortright of City Observatory passed this on to me. It’s from Jonathan Rothwell of Brookings:

Cleveland retained about 50% of local BA recipients

In 2013, IPEDS reported 10,284 BA or higher degrees awarded in Cleveland, or about 5.0 per 10,000 population.

When we multiply the BA award rate by the retention rate (5.0 * 50%) we get a 2.5 locally retained BAs per 1000 population per year. That ranks 45th of the 51 largest US metros.

Boston and Minneapolis are #1 & #2 (8.3 and 7.5, respectively)

Riverside and Las Vegas are #50 and #51 (2.0 and 2.1 respectively).

The median for large metro areas is about 4.0, which means that each year, Cleveland is locally producing and retaining about 1.5 fewer BA recipients per 1,000 population than the typical metro.

I don’t claim to be an expert on this in any way, but looking at this, it just kinda makes sense. The Cleveland metro isn’t really growing. What that means is some people are leaving (but births outnumber deaths still, and that’s why we don’t see big declines in our regional population.) It makes sense that some of the people leaving would be college grads, and so Cleveland would perform poorly on this. It also makes sense that growing, well educated metros like Boston and Minneapolis would be top performers.

Anyway, this is just one data point. And it flies in the face of some of the conclusions we seem to have arrived at recently locally. It’s not the end all be all, but we shouldn’t pretend like this issue has been resolved or that we are objectively “winning” on this issue. At least, there’s some good reason to believe that’s not the case.

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What Would a Real Urban Policy Look Like for Ohio?

Ohio’s cities are in bad shape. A recent economic distress study placed three of the state’s cities, Cleveland, Toledo and Cincinnati in the top 10 most distressed in the nation, using indicators like job growth, unemployment and educational attainment as the criteria. Cleveland, for its part, topped Detroit, for the number one spot.

A new study this week found that in the Cleveland region, along with Toledo, are in the top 10 nationally on concentrated poverty. In response, Democratic Party Chair David Pepper posted the following Tweet:

Ohio needs an urban agenda, reversing five years of raiding city budgets https://t.co/etJWq0DWfW

— David Pepper (@DavidPepper) March 31, 2016

I gotta say, I don’t know how serious he was about that, or whether it was just an opportunity to slam Kasich, but the idea of Ohio having a real urban agenda is something that excites me a lot. It’s hard to believe, urban leaders haven’t coalesced around some sort of urban platform in the past. All of its major cities except Columbus have been in some state of decline for decades. But in the past when I’ve inquired about this, I’ve come up empty. Ohio lawmakers spend so much time squabbling about abortion, they haven’t had time to come up with a comprehensive strategy to help Ohio’s cities from sliding further and further into the “most miserable” rankings de jour.

I think we should try to hold Pepper and at least our urban Democrat electeds to it.

I’m going to tick off some of my quick choices for best state policy improvements:

  • A fix-it-first policy for ODOT. Stop widening highways to save suburban commuters a few seconds and let’s fix what we’ve already built. While we’re at it, some real transit investment would be nice. It’d also be great if ODOT could figure out how to build roads in cities that won’t undermine the whole development potential and safety of the area.
  • Eliminate tax subsidies for companies that sprawl from cities to suburbs. This creates no actual value and undermines access to opportunity for vulnerable groups. Prioritize incentives for transit-accessible development.
  • Enable regional land use planning, so shrinking metros like Cleveland especially can try to get a handle on sprawl. This will save money on unnecessary infrastructure and also demolition.
  • Boost funding for brownfield remediation.
  • Preservation and potentially expansion of historic and low-income tax credits.

What do you think a real urban strategy for the state of Ohio would look like? Do me a favor and Tweet them at David Pepper, or your elected rep!

–Angie Schmitt

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The Biggest Story About Cleveland Not Being Told

This is the biggest story not being told about rust belt cities, and maybe cities generally, in my opinion.

Check out this map of cities in Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) that fared “best” and “worst” since the recession. This was published in the Plain Dealer, based on a real estate analysis by Frank Ford.

Screen Shot 2016-03-30 at 3.48.49 PM

Kevin Leeson, who works for Cuyahoga County, really cut through the clutter here. The places that are fared the worst are the blackest. The places that fared the best are among the whitest. Notice how one of the best performing places, Orange, is nestled right up against two of the worst performing. What’s the big difference? Among other things, I’m sure, Warrensville Heights is 93 percent black and Orange is less than 10 percent black.

Households by percentage African-American:
Highland Hills: 93.6%
Warrensville Heights: 92.8%
Orange Village: 9.8% https://t.co/8MgDrbfY6g

It’s actually pretty remarkable that such starkly contrasted segregation could be maintained.

Anyway, this an enormous equity issue. Millions and possibly billions of dollars in black wealth tied up in homeownership just evaporated in the last few years.

I tend to get a little frustrated when equity advocates seize on the issue of gentrification, which is admittedly a huge problem in Coastal cities like New York and San Francisco, and try to apply the same kinds of struggles to Detroit and Cleveland. This is a much, much bigger problem for the Cleveland region from an equity perspective. And it’s hardly discussed.

I’ve heard it called a “segregation tax.” Because of racism in the housing market, essentially, some people even wonder if homeownership is a worthwhile investment for black people. Meanwhile, homeownership has helped lift millions of white families into the middle class.

The median home selling price in East Cleveland (93 percent black) last year was $12,500. It’s disturbing.

The blog Streets.mn recently shared a study from Social Psychology Quarterly investigating how the racial composition of neighborhoods affects their perceived level of “disorder.” The study found there was a correlation, basically showing that racial biases are a fundamental way we understand neighborhoods. That leads to a “stigma” for black neighborhoods. It’s easy to see how that “stigma” can translate into lower home values and white flight.

chart-disorder-v-race-1

Admittedly, I don’t fully understand the causes. If I had the time and financial support for it, I’d love to interview researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland about this issue. (I have a feeling unfair lending is part of the issue, as well.) Anyway, I wish we were having a more substantive discussion about it locally.

–Angie Schmitt

 

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Peace, Justice and Tamir Rice

I had to roll my eyes at Plain Dealer Editorial Board’s response to the grand jury’s failure to bring charges against police officers in the Tamir Rice case: “Tamir Rice Protests Must Be Peaceful.”

For starters, the whole premise that powerless people, frustrated with the system to the point of boiling over, would be consulting the editorial board of the Plain Dealer before they act is laughable. The Plain Dealer Editorial Board is a super powerful organization in this town, in my opinion. But come on, there are limits.

It’s not clear exactly who this editorial is addressed to, or if they are just articulating a worry. Which, to be fair, it seems like a legitimate worry (rioting), given what has transpired in this city over the past year or so. (Although overall protests have been peaceful, and even then some 70 people were arrested on trumped up charges and many held for 72 hours, but that is an aside.)

What really bothers me is the whole premise here — this calling for peaceful protests after the state-supported killing of an unarmed boy — misses the point so entirely. This refrain has been extremely common though in Cleveland. We heard the same thing in the Brelo trial (“137 shots case”) just a few months ago.

And of course I don’t want protests to be violent. No one wants that. But the idea that the response to this case must be upstanding, while the events that preceded it so clearly were not, I’m just having a hard time understanding why so many people find that argument to be so seductive. It’s like they’re issuing a reminder: the rules apply to protesters, but not to police officers. And while that, quite frankly, may be true, it is nevertheless a complete load of bullshit.

This whole habit of prematurely condemning protesters for not being peaceful in response to state-sanctioned injustice and violence, in this case against a 12-year-old boy, is exactly the type of double-standard that this whole case is, at its core, about.

The Plain Dealer Editorial Board really ought to understand that justice is a necessary precursor to peace. The whole justice system, in theory anyway, helps safeguard a peaceful society, by providing a fair and impartial check on violence and other anti-social behavior. For example, let’s say someone steals your jewelry in absence of a justice system in which to seek recourse. What options do you have? Well, you can forget about it. Or you can try to seize it back and punish the perpetrator, through violent or coercive means.

In a civil society, however, with a justice system, this matter is resolved without violence. And the party with the most muscle doesn’t necessarily prevail. Nobody responds with baseball bats. Nobody gets killed. The justice system provides a dispassionate intermediary that helps resolve the matter in peaceful terms. It punishes the “bad guy” and protects the “good guy” — at least in theory.

But the justice system isn’t handed down by God, or a dictator, in a democracy like ours. It’s negotiated by willing participants. It is entrusted to decide the matter objectively, and in fairness, and without respect to the status of the individuals involved. And if it does so at least to a large degree, its legitimacy won’t be drawn into question.

Then we have a case like the Tamir Rice case, and the Brelo case, and the countless others around the country. And here we so clearly have this pattern where justice seems to be being applied unevenly. Where some people benefit and some people are harmed, based not on any consistent moral terrain, but based on relatively arbitrary social characteristics of the victims.

The question for the aggrieved parties in this case — black people in Cleveland (and, zooming out, in other cities around the United States) — is why should they follow the rules if the rules don’t apply to other people? How long can people be expected to follow the rules, when it becomes clear that the rules serve to oppress, not protect them? That is the kind of question this case raises.

The Plain Dealer Editorial Board members, in my opinion, are as close an approximation to Cleveland’s patriarchy as practically anyone. It’s disappointing that they don’t recognize that the integrity of our justice system and this question of peace are tied up in each other.

They call for peace, but not for justice, but there can never be one without the other.

–Angie Schmitt

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