10 Shocking Takeaways on Public Transit and Commuting From a Month in Cleveland Without a Car

click to enlarge 10 Shocking Takeaways on Public Transit and Commuting From a Month in Cleveland Without a Car
Photo by Sam Allard

As fate would have it, my car broke down a few days before I was slated to begin a promotion, sponsored by the ride-hailing service Lyft, that would entail "Ditching [My] Car" in favor of alternative transit modes for one whole month (Oct. 8 through Nov. 6).

Lyft randomly selected 50 local participants for the promotion — occurring concurrently in other American cities — and was careful to include a handful of "influencers" like yours truly to help get the word out. Ditching our cars, the promotional literature assured us, was a "bold step toward creating a better future for our cities, our planet and future generations."

That's something I could get behind and was eager to promote. And my own car's malfunctioning ensured that I wouldn't be tempted to cheat. I was delighted, in any case, to put off what might be a costly repair and leap headlong into regular public transit use. Lyft was providing all #DitchYourCar participants ("ditchers," in the preferred lingo) with $300 in use-em-or-lose-em Lyft credits — the cost, we later learned, of an upcoming monthly Lyft "subscription" — and a monthly RTA transit pass that retails for $95. Along with these items, ditchers were sent a clear plastic box into which we were meant to symbolically deposit our car keys.

My plan was to participate sincerely, to document all my trips for the duration of the promotion in the hopes of identifying areas where I could cut back on solo car trips. This struck me as a good and achievable goal.

For background, my wife and I are a two-person household with two cars, an arrangement I'm not proud of, but one which often feels necessary given our busy, divergent schedules, and one which — since we've got our cars paid off and our downtown parking subsidized — requires a deliberate effort to escape the tyrannical convenience of. For those of us in the luxurious position of being able to make transit choices, walking or biking or busing can sometimes feel like a sacrifice. And to the extent that that's true, my personal position is that it's a sacrifice worth making. The National Household Travel Survey found in 2017 that roughly 45 percent of all vehicle trips in the United States are 3 miles or less, and that those trips account for more than 100 billion total miles. I sometimes imagine all those miles as tiny arrows fired at Earth's weakening atmospheric defense.

Speaking of which, the authors of an all-hands-on-deck National Climate Assessment, released last week, argued that climate change is aggressively shifting where and how we live and will continue to wreak havoc on the American economy and built environment. Humans must act urgently, the authors said, to adapt to current impacts and mitigate future catastrophes.

We all have to be much more intentional about our individual and societal impacts on the environment. That means both fighting for policies — and supporting leaders who advocate policies — that combat climate change. It also means holding ourselves accountable for the choices we make every day. In many individual cases, that might not translate to a radical change in behavior. It might just mean being more thoughtful about our actions: making conscious decisions about what we eat, for example, and how we move around.

Lyft is of course a fleet of cars — private vehicles operated by their owners — and the company makes no mention of climate change in the #DitchYourCar promotional materials. Rather, its stated vision of the future (which they take for granted will exist) is one which "moves away from [car] ownership and into transportation as a service." The $300 monthly subscription presumably wants to do for personal transportation what Netflix has done for home entertainment. A press statement from the company's co-founder and president John Zimmer said that cities should be built "around people, not around cars or parking lots."

In my view, that vision requires investment, first and foremost, in convenient, reliable, equitable public transit.

It is perhaps needless to note that those I spoke with who participated in the #DitchYourCar challenge did not interpret the promotion the same way I did. Responding to a series of emailed questions when the month was over, not one of the three ditchers Lyft put me in touch with mentioned using RTA. All three said they'd used their personal vehicles occasionally, if not daily — in defiance of the promotion's mandate and symbolism — for long trips or when there were time constraints. Two of the three lived downtown and typically walked to work, but said they enjoyed being able to avoid the hassle and stress of downtown parking for evening outings. Two mentioned the decorations of the cars and the personalities of drivers of Lyft vs. Uber. All three said they intended to keep using ride hailing services for short trips or weekend outings, especially with groups, but expected their transit habits to remain about the same.

"I do think sometimes having a car and paying for gas is cheaper than [ride-hailing] costs," said one.

When Lyft's community associate, Abbey Svigelj, posted a survey on the Ditch Your Car Facebook group asking which mode ditchers were using most, 15 people responded. Ten of the 15 said they'd been using Lyft most. Three said the Rapid. Two said RTA buses.

Lyft's regional market manager, Jay Dumaswala, told Scene that the promotion was aimed at changing people's attitudes and encouraging multimodal transit use.

"Our goal was to bring together the public and private sector to shift behavior in how people move around their communities and show that it's possible to maintain your routine and lifestyle without car ownership," Dumaswala said.

And he stressed that members of transit ecosystems must work together. Companies like Lyft must work "hand-in-hand with public transportation partners" in order to obtain the future Lyft wants, he said, (i.e., one where transportation is a subscription service run by tech companies?)

Last year, a Cuyahoga County subcommittee proposed that transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft pay a $0.27-per-ride fee as a mechanism for funding public transit. That fee, though, was dead on arrival due to a 2015 pre-emptive state law which forbids Ohio municipalities from regulating or taxing ride hailing companies in any way and which was literally written by an Uber lobbyist. When Scene asked Dumuswala about the fiscal crisis of RTA, and whether Lyft's commitment to public transit meant helping to overturn the 2015 law, he deflected.

"Cities should be built around people, not cars or parking lots," he responded in an email, using the familiar talking point. "Using a mix of multimodal options, it's possible for us to retake our cities and ditch our personal cars. Fixing our broken transportation system is the biggest area of opportunity for the public and private sector to work together. Neither one of us can do it alone."

In Lyft's model, all of us obviously can't ditch our cars. They need drivers, after all!

Here are 10 takeaways — some general, some specific — from my month in Cleveland without a car:

1) The Health Benefits are No Joke

For orientation, my typical daily commute was on the Red Line Rapid. I left my home in the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood and got off at Tower City. From there, I walked to Scene's offices on Bolivar Road, near Progressive Field. I worked remotely, in my "home office" or from Gypsy Beans & Baking Co., one or two days per week. "Walking" was my most popular transit mode for the month.

A November report by the local Center for Community Solutions examined the intersection of health and transportation. It cited a recommendation by the Centers for Disease Control that adults average 22 minutes of moderate physical activity each day. That's a target that less than half of Americans achieve.

You'll be no doubt as pleased as I was to learn that moderate physical activity includes "brisk walking." The report mentioned that those who take public transit tend to hit activity targets simply because they're walking to and from bus stops. I can confirm. Having ditched my car, even with four short (sub-10-minute) walks — plus miscellaneous midday strolls and coffee runs — I was averaging far more steps per day, according to my phone's internal pedometer, than I had in any previous month in 2018, including June, July and August, which had been my highest months in previous years for obvious reasons. Like others, I tend to be more active when it's nicer outside.

The most direct financial savings of going car-free are not having to pay for a car and its upkeep. The American Public Transportation Association calculated in June that a Cleveland resident in a two-person household would save $9,873 per year by owning one fewer car, a calculation that factored in gasoline prices and average downtown parking costs.

But the CDC has noted another cost savings: Among physically able adults, average annual medical expenditures are 32 percent lower for those who achieve physical activity targets ($1,019 per year) than for those who don't ($1,349 per year). Taking public transit means walking more, and that's good for the body as well as the spirit.

2) Active Commuting Time is a Psychological Barrier

A study conducted at Penn State University this year found that respondents significantly overestimated the time it takes to walk or bike to work — what's called "active commuting." Respondents who drove to work and had parking spaces closest to their final destination were the furthest off-base.

It's my sense that resistance to walking and biking is much more a psychological barrier than anything else. Once you start doing it, it's not that big of a deal, time-wise. (This is assuming you're physically able and don't need to wear dress clothes to work, or else have access to showers.) I only rode my bike to work twice during the challenge — I admit that cold weather and wind are the biggest barriers for me; barriers that I could solve with appropriate gear — but I try to bike once or twice per week over the summer. I always enjoy doing it.

When taking public transit, the walks to and from the bus stops I find extremely pleasant, if not downright invigorating. By the end of the month, the walk from the office to Tower City had become second nature. I now vastly prefer it to sitting in downtown traffic during rush hour as the parking garages disgorge onto East Ninth and funnel with excruciating slowness onto the highways.

3) Lyft is Great in Certain Circumstances, But Not Cost-Effective as a Primary Transit Mode

I came nowhere close to using my total Lyft credits, burning through only $180 in fares, before tips. Only once did I use Lyft for a ride home from work, on a rainy day when RTA trains appeared to be self-destructing left and right. Images had been posted on social media of lengthy delays and train cars with fluid leaks on the Blue and Green lines and I wasn't in the mood to risk it on the Red.

Otherwise, I used Lyft when public transit times would be inconveniently lengthy: once to the Cedar Lee, once home from Valley View — both of which times I used public transit for the opposite end of the trip — and once from work to a dentist appointment. I also used it in the situations that I've come to regard as its best value: small group outings, generally on weekend evenings, where alcohol will be consumed. As a solo proposition, taking public transit is almost always a better value, but with three or four folks traveling from Detroit-Shoreway to Tremont, say, which happened in my case twice, the $9 Lyft ride, plus tip, is fairly comparable with bus passes.

The thought of using Lyft as a primary transit mode, however, seems outlandish to me, one step shy of having a limo. If I used Lyft every time I took the bus, I would've spent more than $500, maybe more than $600. That will no doubt be the basis of Lyft's pitch when they start selling their $300-per-month subscription service. But a) that baseline fee doesn't include tips, which drastically increase the monthly cost; and b) anyone giving up their car even partially for environmental reasons must acknowledge that ride-hailing services actually increase emissions, congestion and traffic fatalities, as local transit writer Angie Schmitt has noted, because vehicles in the fleet spend 40-60 percent of the time "deadheading" with no passenger in the car.

4) Without Employer Incentives,Transit isn't Necessarily a Better Value than Driving

As I mentioned, both my wife and I have our downtown parking subsidized. When APTA and others calculate the savings of not owning a car, downtown parking costs are included. And while paying for gas and upkeep is still more expensive than a monthly transit pass, it's not that much more. For folks to consider public transit instead of driving, the system itself first has to be convenient and reliable. But it also has to be affordable. In order to make commuting by public transit more popular and attractive, employers should offer equivalent (or even more appealing) incentives than parking.

5) RTA Trains Have SERIOUS Problems

Far and away, the route I rode most often was the Red Line Rapid, often from the west side to downtown, and occasionally out to University Circle. The good news is that these trains were almost always on time. The bad news is that often, the Red Line was running single cars, and during the morning and evening rush hour, they were packed with annoyed commuters. Among other things, RTA is in desperate need of a fleet upgrade.

6) That Said, Tech Upgrades are Appreciated

The mobile ticketing app, which I had to use once when I forgot my wallet at home, and which I use regularly for single trips, is a must-have for multi-modal transit users. It makes buying tickets quick and easy. Tower City has recently installed mobile ticket readers at select turnstyles as well (at last!), which streamlines the boarding there.

The Transit app was also almost always accurate (for the Red Line and #26 bus, which I rode most frequently) and only once led me astray, when downtown traffic for an evening concert meant that routes on Prospect were significantly delayed. Almost always, I was able to plan my trip to minimize wait time.

7) Living in a Walkable Neighborhood Matters

Throughout the promotion, as I mentioned, I'd generally work remotely one or two days per week. My wife and I intentionally bought a home in a walkable neighborhood, and having a coffee shop, a diner, few neighborhood taverns, a convenience store, a library and even a movie theater in walking distance means we don't have to rely on a car for these activities. During my #DitchYourCar month, an even higher percentage of our outings occurred within walking distance. Even when we met friends for a bite or a drink in neighboring Ohio City, we'd walk, which took about 20 minutes and was really not that much of an obstacle.

7.5) Streets should be designed with cyclists and pedestrians in mind

On the aforementioned transit trip to Valley View, I took the 77F bus from downtown Cleveland to Rockside Road, an easy trip that took not much more than 20 minutes. But then I had to hoof it East on Rockside for about a mile. There's a thin sidewalk on the south side of the four-lane road, but I was on the north side, walking in the darkening evening on sloping grass with no opportunity to cross. When I eventually turned left on Canal Road, there was no sidewalk on either side of the street, and I got progressively muddier as I made my way toward the cineplex. I became increasingly distraught over the plight of employees, at the Cinemark or at any of the businesses in Canal Road's various commerce parks, who commute via bus. It'd be hard to cook up a more literal expression of marginalization.

8) 90-Minute Work Commutes Should Horrify Us

As one of Scene's film critics, I venture out to the Cedar Lee, Valley View or Silverspot's Pinecrest at least once per week. The former two I accessed via public transit (both from downtown) in about an hour. I could reasonably get to both in 60 or 75 minutes from my house on the West Side as well. But Pinecrest would be a 1-hour, 50-minute commute, and I wasn't prepared to give up that much of my Friday, with all due respect, for Beautiful Boy. (I walked to the Capitol Theatre to see it the following week.)

In 2015, Brookings released a report which showed that Cleveland, from 2000 to 2012, had lost the highest number of jobs available to the average resident among the country's 96 largest metropolitan statistical areas. Jobs were moving further and further afield, deeper and deeper into more remote suburbs, and low-wage earners (who are disproportionately minorities and females) had no reliable way to get there. After traveling an hour — via Rapid and bus — to get to the Cedar Lee, I was annoyed at how much of my afternoon had been eaten up. The next time out, I split the difference, Lyfting out and taking transit back to save some time.

But for those without a car who commute 90 minutes or more each way every day, that lost time has serious ramifications on quality of life. Not only can a late or absent bus mean penalties at work, it means far less time with family and less time to complete life's other necessities. In Cleveland, there are a ton of people dealing with this situation.

According to data mined by Apartment List, about 12,445 Northeast Ohioans spent 90 minutes or more getting to work each day in 2016. And while 93.8 percent of all commuters in Cleveland travel to work in a car, only 58.3 percent of people with 90-minute or more trips ("supercommuters," as they're called) did so in a car. The disparity between the number of supercommuters in a car versus on public transit is the the second-highest among major metro areas. And, additionally, those public transit supercommuters aren't hopping on a bus or train by choice: 55 percent of Cleveland's supercommuters fall below the area's median income level.

Policy makers should regard with extreme prejudice employers who flee to Solon or Westlake or Mayfield and then complain about an inability to attract a qualified workforce.

9) Car Costs are More than Just Gas and a Monthly Payment

During my car-free month, I'd determined that my trusty Dodge Avenger needed a new battery. I was distraught to discover that even once installed, the car wouldn't start. I called AAA (after buying an annual membership the day before) for a tow, and took it to a mechanic, who determined quickly that the car needed a new alternator: a repair of roughly $360, with tax. The AAA membership was $41. The battery, after my core charge refund, was about $90. Just to get back on the road after the #DitchYourCar festivities, I had to shell out nearly $500. Again, I have no monthly payment at this point, and I pay less than $100 per month for gasoline, on average, but auto repairs are often a jolt to any budget.

10) You Don't Have to Go Car Free to Make an Impact

While the costs mentioned above are often annoying, and sometimes surprising, I generally don't object, or even mind, paying them. Annual registration fees. Car insurance. Periodic oil changes. Tires. Rotors. These are all built into the price of car ownership. And like many others, I like owning a car. My Avenger with the missing handle, broken gas cap and recurring squeal won't turn many heads, but it's my first car, and buying it was a real moment of pride for me, a symbol of financial independence. There are many who work years to save up for a car, and many who, having worked for years, still can't afford one. It's expensive. And owning one is a privilege that makes my life easier.

Like virtually everyone else for whom car ownership is one of adulthood's default settings, I'm not prepared to convert to a car-free lifestyle. As a reporter, I'm often obligated to dash off to press conferences or last-minute interviews at locations across town, and the ability to get somewhere "on a moment's notice" is critical. But this month of Ditching my Car showed me how effective planning ahead can be in order to streamline and reduce my solo car trips. In the same way that planning out weekly meals can save money on groceries and reduce food waste, planning out a week's travel can reduce redundant or extraneous trips. It requires a few minutes of attention, sure, but it's not insurmountable.

As I've come to believe, a radical life change is not the only way to make an impact. Some people are willing and able to go car-free, just as some are willing and able to convert to a fully plant-based diet. But small changes are good, too: things like combining errands, carpooling, and trying to walk or bike to work one day per week. Those are all steps in the right direction. And since human civilization is racing toward extinction, taking those steps has never been more important.