A Leading Expert Shares his Vision for a Transit Friendly Northeast Ohio

This post was written by Jason Segedy, head of the Akron Metropolitan Area Transportation Study — Akron’s metropolitan planning organization. It was originally published at his blog Notes from the Underground.

Marc Lefkowitz of GreenCityBlueLake was kind enough to ask me to share my views on the future of public transit in Northeast Ohio with him.

Because I think it such an important topic, I’d like to share some of the same thoughts here at Notes from the Underground.

Q: Do we need a big, transformative vision for transit in Northeast Ohio, or do we manage the best we can within our current realities and chip away at needs as they arise?

I think we need a little bit of both:

I think we do need a big-picture vision for transit, both at the metro-by-metro (Cleveland, Akron, Canton, Youngstown) level, but also at the regional (12 county level).

The key elements of the big-picture vision should involve the following: a) how can we improve cross-county express service between our core cities and our job centers – this should include express bus in the short term and commuter rail in the longer term; b) how can we improve cross-county local service for shorter trips (i.e. going from Bedford to Macedonia); c) how can we make transferring/transitioning from one RTA to the other as seamless, easy, and convenient as possible; and d) how can we improve the sharing of services (and service) between RTAs so that their county sales tax based sources of revenue are not such an impediment to providing service across county lines.

I think we also need a finely-grained, locally-oriented, service-oriented approach to transit fundamentals that is geared toward improving service, attracting “choice” ridership, and improving public transit’s image in the region.

I would argue that most of these things are not very expensive monetarily, but they do involve a lot of time, energy, creativity, and hard work.

The kind of things that I have in mind would involve the RTAs focusing even more on things like improving rider safety (mostly perception of safety); ease-of-use (using smart phone technology to give real-time travel information and for electronic fare payment); improving transit waiting environments; improving walkability and bikability to transit stops; and working more closely with local governments and private developers to improve signage, wayfinding, and to institute transit-friendly urban design.

In Greater Akron, 90% of transit passengers earn less than $20,000 per year, and our level of “choice” (non-transit dependent) riders is extremely low.  A focus on these fundamentals wouldn’t necessarily lead to a sea-change in choice ridership, but it would certainly help a lot, and it would have the equally important benefit of improving service for existing passengers.

Q: What does a bold vision for transit in Northeast Ohio look like?

I covered the “bold vision” a little bit in the first part of my answer to question #1, but I’ll elaborate a little bit more on two issues I didn’t directly address.

I think a bold vision entails two things:

First, the recognition, realization, and internalization of the fact that the county lines don’t matter to potential transit passengers.  Therefore, each RTA should be operated and administered with this fact in mind, and conduct its business accordingly.

There are lots of trips between Bedford and Macedonia and between Twinsburg and Solon, for example.  Who is serving these?  Conversely, express connections between core cities and job centers are not very good.  There are good reasons for this (fiscal, administrative, etc.) but we have to do better.

I think that the state needs to get involved in funding inter-city transit service (Canton-Akron; Akron-Cleveland, etc.) and that a transit counterpart to the Ohio Rail Development Commission (ORDC) should be created that would provide general revenue funding for this.

Second, the vision entails the recognition that land use, economic development, and transportation policy at the state, regional, and local level is generally geared toward undermining the efficacy of transit in nearly every way.

This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if we were just talking about free-market competition between one mode of travel versus another, but it is a lot more than that.  Our current way of doing business in Northeast Ohio has negative ramifications on the natural environment and the built environment; it wastes energy, wastes money, leads to greater inequality, leads to more disinvestment and abandonment in our core cities, and it costs taxpayers far too much.

I blog about this issue in much greater detail here, but suffice it to say that if we continue with the land use, economic development, transportation status quo, we will never ever have a viable public transportation system.  Period.

From a public policy standpoint, we have to quit encouraging people and businesses to spread out from our core cities and inner suburbs.  It’s impossible to have a cost-effective, robust, competitive, and useful public transportation system serve a region that is built at a semi-rural population density, and that is essentially what we have in Northeast Ohio – a semi-rural region, from a built-environment standpoint.

Brooklyn, New York, for example, is roughly the same land area as the City of Akron, and it has 11 times more people.  And we’re talking two “central cities” here.  I’m not advocating that we build at New York style population densities, but we must recognize that when we get below the population density of an Akron, or Cleveland, or Cleveland Heights, or Cuyahoga Falls, it becomes virtually impossible to make transit work, especially when you don’t have significant traffic congestion or parking costs – and we don’t.

So we need to learn to reinvest in our core cities and inner suburbs – by building new higher-density housing, and encouraging business development and job creation in these places.

Ohio’s statewide transportation policy and investment decisions are a huge impediment to public transit, in this respect.  I think we are fooling ourselves if we think that we can do things like spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to widen I-271, widen I-77, and build the Opportunity Corridor, and simultaneously make transit more attractive and viable.  It can’t be done.  State transportation decisions seriously undermine efforts to reinvest in transit and in transit-friendly places.  We have to stop doing it.

Q: If Northeast Ohio had a new, large infusion of capital funds, what investment(s) in transit would you like to see?

I’d like to see most of these funds go to the “transit fundamentals” that I identified above.  I think doing 1000 small things really well, is so much more important than doing one or two large, high-visibility projects.

As much as I am a supporter of (eventually) establishing a passenger rail system, I think it would be foolish to build a commuter rail system without getting the transit fundamentals right (not just the transit “service” fundamentals, but – even more importantly – the land use, economic development, and statewide transportation investment fundamentals).

From the neighborhood, to the local government, to the region, to the state, leaders (elected and otherwise) need to understand the holistic nature of how highway expansion and also non-transportation related decisions can negatively impact the viability of public transit.

The challenge for sustainability advocates is to advance and articulate a vision for land use and economic development in the region that everyday people can understand and support, which will create the conditions where big capital transit projects can actually succeed and thrive.

If we try to avoid this political reality simply for the symbolic sake of saying that we built a large capital transit project (like commuter rail) without doing the due diligence to set it up for success, we will set transit back even further, when it fails to attract sufficient ridership, and the taxpaying public justifiably responds with “I told you sos”.


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