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

7_14_08_cleveland.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new service apart from the stereotype of bus travel as slow, outdated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

  • BRT is a joke – and anybody promoting it with this level of credulity is a fool or in the pocket of the road lobby. For the most part, ‘professionals’ stay away from buses like they were the plague, especially when the BRT treatment inevitably devolves into a shared-lane service with cars.

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    @M1EK: Thank you for yet another evidence-free fantasy from the LRV lobby. Do you have anything constructive to add on the topic of BRT?

  • Alek F

    M1EK, great point!
    I totally agree with you.
    BRT cannot be taken seriously!
    A bus is a bus is a bus. Even on dedicated bus lanes.
    If we want to seriously invest in mass transit, we should abandon the idea of BRT’s permanently! BRT is less than mediocre service, with slow buses, running at slow speeds, limited capacity, and bumpy rides.
    And “Stereotypes of bus travel as slow” will always be the reality, not just stereotype.
    Time to invest in Rail transit!

  • Alek F

    Jeffrey, no need to be rude about Mr. M1EK’s comments, because he certainly has a point, and not evidence-free!
    As an example, I’ve used the Orange Line BRT in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. This line is horrible, comparing to LRT or Subway.
    Very slow, takes long to get to the destination, an astonishingly high number of accidents due to lack of crossing gates (BRT may not get crossing gates by law), bumpy ride, deteriorating pavement, etc. – all of which ends up in low customer appeal. So-called “success” of our Orange Line is also overrated. The “success” simply resulted in overcrowding, part of the reason because BRT buses have limited capacity (as opposed to LRT vehicles, which can be doubled, trippled, etc. thus greatly expanding capacity – which can also lower operating costs).
    So – I’ll repeat it: BRT lines are a joke! They’ve gotta stop building them.

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    What a load of horse hockey. The Orange Line BRT is a success, which counters M1EK’s claim that people won’t get on buses. The fact is that 25,000 people get on the Orange Line bus every day. Do you claim that all 25,000 riders are derelicts, and none of them are “professionals” as M1EK claims?

    It’s very silly to say that buses have limited capacity because you can double up an LRV. You can just as easily run buses in packs of two, three, or more.

    Meanwhile the Gold Line light rail has about the same number of daily boardings on a route almost exactly as long as the Orange Line, but the Gold Line had double the capital costs. Which one of these could be considered a better investment?

  • Merritt

    Jeff, Yes, the Orange Line is a success, but its success simply points out why it should have been a rail line in the first place. It has only been in operation for a short time, and it is already about at its maximum capacity.

    And running more busses is NOT the same as running a multi-unit LRV. Each bus requires an operator, which is one reason buses are much more expensive to operate that LRVs. Multiple buses have have some reasonable separation, so to move the same amount of people as an LRV means much more linear space is required. But, the big killer is that more frequent bus operation blocks cross traffic on the roads that cross the busway at grade, assuming the buses have crossing priority. It the buses do not have priority, the whole system slows down and is no different than ordinary bus service.

    There may be cases where BRT makes sense, but it never makes sense when high-capacity is needed. After spending all the money to build the Orange Line as a BRT busway, it will now have to be rebuilt for LRV operation. It should have been built that way in the first place.

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    Merritt, you obviously are not a student of the Orange Line. It would have been, and still is, illegal — against explicit laws — to build a light rail line on the right-of-way where the Orange Line operates. To say that it should have been built as a light rail line in the first place is the same as saying it should have been built as a fairy-powered superlightspeed maglev line to the moon. Neither one is possible.

  • Marcotico

    I wish everyone would give the BRT / LRT feud a rest. To not take political considerations into account when discussing transit alternatives is foolish. Light Rail projects are great, but the engineering, and procurement processes are much more arduous than those for BRT. This is an institutional reality that has to do with federal, state, and local transit funding, agency operations and procurement, legal environmental regulations, and voter opinions. Had the Orange Line been planned as LRT it would still be in planning and design stages. To say ” well all of that should be changed to “level the playing field” is naive.

    I don’t live in the Valley, but last year I rode the Orange line on a couple of weekdays and weekends at various times, and i saw a group of people from what I perceived to be diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds.

    Yes technically LRT can be a better alternative, but not always. Most importantly most people who are not transportation buffs don’t care about what transit mode is employed, they care about getting where they want to conveniently and with regularity. As transportation professionals we need to start thinking or BRT, LRT, and subways as tools, not as the end goals. The point is to move people in groups not quible about how they move.

    The biggest problem with LRT is that absolutely no surface rail line is going to be built in Southern California due to land prices, unless it is in an existing right of way. So that means that the lines are planned and built and then we all sit around and hope that origin and destination points will move to the line rather than evaluating where people are and building the connections they need. This is exactly the problem in transporation planning. LRT in Southern California is an excellent solution in search of the right problem, rather than the other way around.

  • Great point Marcotino. I’ve noticed that a lot of transit advocates tend to fetishize rail because they like riding trains far more than buses. Well, most other people do to. But even more so, outside of taking a weekend pleasure ride, people like to get where they need to go, as expeditiously and inexpensively as possible. That’s why there are 1.2 million boardings on Metro buses per day as against a fraction of that on the rail lines.

    I like rail too, and if I had a bazillion dollars, I would put a first-rate subway under every major street in LA, from the central city all the way out to the far suburbs and run trains on them every 5-10 minutes, 24 hours a day. But unfortunately I do not, and neither does LA County. Therefore, we’re looking for ways to maximize our existing infrastructure as best we can, while making wise investments to expand it where it makes the most sense.

    Personally, I’m not a huge fan of “BRT” in particular, but as the commentor above noted, if it had been proposed as LRT it would probably still be an idea as opposed to a reality. My vision, however, is clean-fuel, comfortable, modern “Rapid”-type buses (full implementation, not the half-ass version that Metro has been doing outside of Wilshire/Ventura) running on every major street in LA County, at 5-10 minute intervals, in exclusive lanes where needed, 24-hours a day, connecting with a skeletal network of rail lines tying it all together. Add in vastly improved bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure and I think we’d be well on our way.

    All of that with the exception of the big rail projects can be accomplished with investments in the tens and hundreds of millions of dollars. The problem with the rail is the scale of the investments (billions) is so much more that it can tend to gobble up all of the money. Is one mile of the Wilshire subway really worth the same as a billion dollars in bikeways, pedestrian improvements, and dedicated bus lanes? …

  • The Orange Line would be carrying far more people had it been built as rail.

    “our analysis concludes that “the Orange Line busway’s ridership is approximately 24% lower than one would expect from a comparable LRT service in the same corridor.””

  • “Is one mile of the Wilshire subway really worth the same as a billion dollars in bikeways, pedestrian improvements, and dedicated bus lanes? …”

    Yes, yes it is, especially since the dedicated bus lanes will inevitably be less than promised – usually vanishing to nothing, in practice.

  • Marcotico

    Okay M1EK, great point, it would be technically better off as rail, but you haven’t addressed any of the political financial considerations I raised.

  • Marcotico, I thought I had explained it enough: BRT treatments inevitably devolve into service so little improved from regular bus service that the bang for the buck is trivial, even if the buck is small.

  • Marcotico

    I’m not sure that is really a convincing argument for most transit board members or most of the public. “BRT will inevitably not be as good as light rail. So we should spend more and take more time now.” Quantifying that “inevitablity” is the challenge for advocates of light rail. Again, I prefer light rail as well, but mostly I want to see improved transit period, and as I said transit needs as many tools in the toolbox as possible.

    this is actually the sentence before the one you quoted above from the same posting, which seems to confirm what I am talking about.

    “Certainly, there is no question that the Orange Line “BRT” is a major transit improvement in the corridor it serves (and, given applicable legal restrictions constraining LACMTA, a busway was effectively the agency’s only option for implementing a high-quality, rapid public transport service in the available former railway alignment).”

    The post you cited also highlights that the big fight between LRT and BRT is not one of advocates or dollars and cents, but really an issue about how the transit agencies model and then measure ridership. LRT Now is right to call on more and improved measurement of LRT and BRT ridership so that transit agencies can best now when to deploy one tool or another.


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