The Future of Public Transportation Has Arrived – and It’s in Cleveland

Commentary, Transportation, Steve Lafleur

Support for public transportation has grown significantly over the past decade in North America. Major transit expansions were key issues in the recent Toronto, Vancouver, and Winnipeg elections, and ambitious plans were green lighted by voters in each of those cities. In some respects, Winnipeg’s plan is the most ambitious. The incoming administration plans to expand the embryonic rapid transit system across the city. It also might be the most feasible of the three plans, in part because the system will use buses rather than rails. Rather than taking its cues from Portland or Phoenix, Winnipeg is looking to replicate the surprising success of bus rapid transit systems in Cleveland and Kansas City.

Bus rapid transit (BRT) is an increasingly popular method of providing rapid transit across North America. While the concept is somewhat fluid, BRT is a bus system that mimics the service provided by light rail trains, but at a lower cost. Aside from construction cost savings, there are other advantages such as flexibility, faster acceleration and deceleration, and the ability to use existing infrastructure and maintenance facilities. The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) categorizes BRT systems as bronze through gold based on a point system, which focuses on five key features: dedicated right of ways, busway alignment, off-board fare collection, intersection treatment, and platform level boarding. Not all of those features are essential for a high quality transit corridor, but each helps with ridership and rider satisfaction.

While many BRT critics once charged that it is merely a half-measure for cities that don’t want to invest in transit, the debate has shifted dramatically over the past few years. The received wisdom was that light rail transit was the most appropriate option for rapid transit in mid-sized cities. The debate wasn’t just about service levels, but about the ability of light rail transit to catalyze adjacent real estate development. Transit has increasingly been seen as a tool for reshaping the travel patterns of entire neighbourhoods. Portland, Oregon was considered the model for transit-oriented development, since the City’s LRT system was credited with revitalizing iconic neighbourhoods such as the Pearl District.

While Portland has had some success with transit oriented development, the question that hadn’t been asked was whether light rail was the most cost-effective way of getting these results. The ITDP sought to answer that question. In a study of 21 rapid transit expansions, the top two projects were bus rapid transit lines in Cleveland and Kansas City. Each attracted over $100 in nearby development for every dollar spent on transit construction. Portland’s MAX Blue line attracted less than $4 per dollar invested in transit. The LRT with the most success at attracting TOD, Denver’s Central corridor, attracted $14 per dollar spent, well short of Boston’s Silver Line bus, and Las Vegas’ SDX, which garnered just over $20 and $40, respectively.

Cleveland isn’t the first place that people think of when discussing urban revitalization. The City, often referred to as the “Mistake by the Lake,” is still recovering from a protracted urban decline. To get an idea of how far the City had fallen, Euclid Avenue was wealthier than New York’s Fifth Avenue up until the 1920s. The Great Depression put an end to that. Various transit schemes were conceived to revitalize the neighbourhood over a period of decades, but it wasn’t until 2006 that the City broke ground on its BRT system, the HealthLine, which runs down Euclid. The $200 million route is the first Silver Standard BRT system in the United States. It has attracted over $4.3 billion in nearby development. One can easily see parallels to Winnipeg’s once vibrant Main Street. The same potential is there.

Kansas City provides a more modest example. Its MAX system doesn’t score high enough functionally to meet BRT Bronze Standard, but the Main Street MAX reduced travel times by 20%, doubled ridership, and brought in over $100 of development per dollar spent. While a Gold Standard system would be nice, Kansas City shows us that even a scaled down system can have a major impact.

With several bus rapid transit and light rail transit systems proposed or under construction in Canada, municipal officials should give serious thought to what they can learn from the American experiences. While LRT makes sense in some cases, most mid-sized Canadian cities should invest in BRT now, rather than waiting around for federal largesse for light rail somewhere down the road. That road may be longer than they think.