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What's Really Happening on Euclid

There has been talk of revitalizing Cleveland's Euclid Avenue for as long as I can remember. It took a while, and now it's been about a year since the big transit project itself has been officially considered "complete". Hows it turning out? Depends who you ask... Michelle Jarboe's recent front-page Plain Dealer article points to $3.3 billion in new investment along the corridor as evidence of forward progress. Roldo counters that such logic is post hoc ergo propter hoc and that most of the $3.3 billion in development was inevitable, without or without the transit development.

(from Wikipedia)

Before I go on, let's back up a bit. Last year I wrote that the Healthline represents a big missed opportunity in Cleveland. Instead of routing the BRT into East Cleveland, project planners should have continued the line from University Circle into Cleveland Heights. Instead, we have redundant transit service in East Cleveland (which is served by both the Healthline and the parallel Red Line) and a lack of good transit service in Cleveland Heights, an otherwise dense and urban inner-ring suburb.

I've also argued that the Healthline is very slow as far as rapid transit goes. By my calculation, Cleveland's BRT travels at an average speed of about 10.6 mph. Although faster than a typical local bus, it's still significantly slower than the Red Line and notably slower than both the at-grade sections of the Blue and Green lines in Shaker Heights.

Admittedly, I'm not an expert on this topic. I travel the Euclid corridor several times per week, either on my bike or via public transit. What I can share is based on those experiences.

Midtown, loosely defined as the part of town between the Cleveland Clinic and Cleveland State, is still a pretty depressing place. I would describe it as: vacant lots and parking lots. It's especially disheartening to ride in the evening, after dark. Not only are there virtually no people, but there are not even many cars on the street, either. Don't get me wrong, there are some businesses in the area, but far fewer than one would expect in an up-and-coming urban area. This could change, no doubt; I've seen evidence of miraculous turnarounds in urban neighborhoods that people thought could never occur. There's no reason to think it's not possible, but right now, from the ground, it's really a stretch to say it's been a major success.

One metric we can use to gauge the effectiveness of the Healthline is to look at how many people are using it for the purpose of getting to the places that are supposedly beneficiaries of the transit project. For example, on a Friday or Saturday night, how many of East 4th Street's visitors step off the Healthline and into the restaurants and bars? I think the answer is: very few. This is in contrast to cities where you often spot folks on public transit who are obviously going "out on the town."

The key to analyzing the dynamics of the Healthline requires an understanding of both the destinations it connects and the people who live along the line. This is where a disconnect exists. For instance, who typically spends time on East 4th Street? From my experience, young(ish) professionals and people with a decent amount of discretionary income. I suspect that a decent number live in one of Cleveland's gentrifying neighborhoods (downtown, Ohio City or Tremont) or in the inner-ring (Lakewood or Cleveland Heights). The likely reason why few people use the Healthline to go to East 4th Street is that few of the people who would go there actually live along the line.

The same applies to the cultural institutions. Who goes to see the orchestra? or to the art museum? While it's true that the Healtline connects people to these destinations, it doesn't necessarily connect the right people. This isn't meant to be a discriminating point. Anyone could theoretically go to the orchestra if they had the will to buy a ticket and go. But the orchestra doesn't market itself randomly, they target the people they know are likely to enjoy that sort of thing.

How about the universities? Between Cleveland State and Case Western Reserve, there are about 30,000 people who attend or work at these places. In the case of Cleveland State, I've already noted that the school has very few students who live "on campus" and suggested that its growth strategy focus on housing for its students. Regardless, many live off-campus, drive, and park in CSU's (relatively) inexpensive parking lots. Some CSU people live along the Healthline, but fewer than the ideal.

University Circle is interesting as well. I would argue that Case Western students typically live in one of four locations: north-side of campus dorms, south-side of campus dorms, Little Italy, and Cleveland Heights (this may be difficult to visualize if you don't know the area, unfortunately, my attempt to make this into a map ended in utter frustration).

If people want to get from University Circle to downtown, how are they going to do it? It's reasonable to suspect that everyone who lives on the south-side of campus to use the Red Line. It's closer and faster to where they live. The people who live in Cleveland Heights might take the Red Line, although having to take a bus first and then transfer could be a deterrent for some (and no such connection to the Healthline yet exists). The folks in Little Italy might use the Healthline, but once RTA opens it's new Little Italy Red Line station, I'd expect folks in the neighborhood to use it. That leaves everyone who lives on the north-side of campus. The Healthline is the most convenient, but the new Little Italy station won't necessarily be inconvenient, and it will be quite a bit faster...

On the other hand, a recent article in Case's student newspaper noted that 27% of the schools' undergrads never even bothered to pick up an unlimited-ride transit pass, already paid for by"student fees".

Ultimately, that's a lot of words to make this point: building a bunch of destinations along a transit line only goes so far if you don't have the right kind of complementary residential development. There is definitely a ton of potential along Euclid Avenue. There's plenty of opportunity to convert some of those vacant lots and parking lots into something valuable. It's a matter of getting it done, which is a lot easier to say than to do.


catfood said…
The thing is, Rob, when you talk about "complementary residential development" that's yet another big, speculative, public capital investment. And we've been tapped out for years.

I think the big motivation for the Health Line, honestly, has been that it's largely federally funded so it feels like free money to RTA. I don't think that's a bad thing, actually, because Clevelanders certainly send a lot of federal tax money elsewhere and it's fair that we get some back. And capital-intensive transit projects are kind of cool.

One population you neglected as potential Health Line riders is at that Church Square development around Euclid in the high 70s and low 80s. It seems to be a relatively middle-class and professional area that would tend to work or play at University Circle, the Cleveland Clinic, Playhouse Square, East 4th, and Public Square.

Still, your main point? Yeah.
Rob Pitingolo said…
Don't get me wrong, catfood. I'm not trying to argue that the transit project is at all "bad" or that it shouldn't have been built. What I'm trying to figure out is: thus far, has it been a wild success like the boosters would have you believe? or has it been a big bust like others would have you believe?

One issue I'm still stuck on is with regards to the Clinic. A med-school friend tells me that doctors will always drive fancy cars to their offices for the sake of their egos, no matter how convenient you make transit service to where they live and work. I imagine nurses and administrators might not behave in the same way, nevertheless.

I assume you area you’re referring to is the newish rowhouse-type gated housing development (I don't know the name)? That would be an interesting case study. If, for instance, some of those folks wanted to head to East 4th for some weekend fun, how do they get down there? Healthline? Cab? or drive and park?
catfood said…
Oh, I'm not saying it's bad either. I think the Health line is pretty cool, but I agree that the development benefits have been sparse so far, and for good reason.

Not a wild success. Not a big bust. Perhaps not worth the nine-figure (mostly federal) capital expense.

Yes, that semi-gated area is the Church Square I'm talking about.

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