Some Cleveland Leaders Took the Transit Week Challenge and Rode RTA Instead of Driving. What Now?

Selfies galore, but also critical (and common) observations about frequency and funding

click to enlarge From a transit rally on Public Square in 2018. - Sam Allard
Sam Allard
From a transit rally on Public Square in 2018.

Hour-and-a-half commutes. Missed buses. Buses that should have stopped but didn't. Waiting idly in the mid-February rain for routes that come once an hour. Deliberately planning out their day to the minute to accommodate childcare, work meetings, and errands. Foregoing all flexibility in their schedule.

Last week, a handful of city and county officials opted to say yes to five days without—or somewhat without—a car, taking up a challenge from Clevelanders For Public Transit to bring attention to struggles RTA riders face on a daily basis.

The effect, judging from reactions from those who took the challenge, was a mix of PR-friendly selfies, cold-hard takeaways from riding the bus full-time, and some calls that echoed CPT's long-time cries for better-funded service.

Which was precisely what Chris Martin, CPT's director who led the challenge for dozens of officials, saw coming.

"I wish more of us would say more often how we love public transit," Martin told Scene.. "On the other hand, I am gravely concerned that local leaders, elected officials, will take their selfies as a sign that their job is done."

He clarified: "I would hate to think a politician shows up to a rally or posts a pretty picture of a bus, but doesn't actually then have the political will to do the necessary hard work of getting more buses on the streets and more trains on the tracks."

Assorted city and county officials shared their thoughts during the week.

Councilwoman Rebecca Maurer noted, for instance, how she missed her morning ride to work on the 16 after the bus driver "drove right past me."

"Things happen and maybe the driver didn’t see me," she wrote on Twitter on Monday. "I have backup options but not everybody does. High frequency matters!"

Other participants, like Kate Warren, special assistant to the chief of integrated development, found that being bus-reliant meant forgoing certain long distance trips on time—like Old Brooklyn to Detroit Shoreway, or from Downtown to Mentor— that are nearly impossible with RTA's current route structure.

Her musings, like several other city officials, mimicked what RTA advocates have been saying fo years.

"My biggest barrier to transit generally is time lost and #2 is flexibility lost," Warren wrote. "More frequency would improve the [latter]."

Mayor Justin Bibb made at least one photo-op trip on RTA (but apparently doesn't have the Transit App on his phone?).

Councilman Charles Slife, meanwhile, was the most diligent in logging his day-to-day in a long Twitter thread filled with observations about how some of the city's poorest west-side areas are hamstrung by RTA's current operations. (Click through for his full thread.)

But, it's obvious to ask, could Transit Week's lessons to the true city stakeholders actually lead to more bus stops or bus lines to the suburbs?

"I doubt it," Martin said.

Since 1975, RTA has relied on a one-percent sales tax to fund 80 percent of its service. And, despite attempts to buff up that revenue source with a possible levy vote in 2018 and 2019, efforts have fallen mostly flat.

Due to both Cuyahoga County's dwindling population and the pandemic, ridership is still nowhere near 2018 levels.
Which Ronayne, who will be hiring the county's first transportation director, said he's all too aware of.

Choosing to ride RTA's Red Line with "regularity" last week, Ronayne insisted that the myriad of selfies by county or city officials can equal change in actuality. (Like, for example, reaching the county climate action plan's goal of 60 million rides a year.)

"Yes, I think that anything we can do to heighten awareness for the importance of public transit is a good thing," he told Scene by phone from a weekend trip to Washington, D.C. It's "helping public officials better understand the system, helping them understand some of the funding challenges.

"Personally, I had a great week taking transit to work."

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