Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Bus Rapid Transit in Cleveland

During a recent trip to Cleveland, your author rode on the city’s new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line. The experience leads us to conclude that BRT is vastly superior to normal bus service and should receive serious consideration in the Washington area.

The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (RTA) operates a system including rail, bus and trolley options. In 1997, RTA began work with the City of Cleveland on the “Euclid Corridor Transportation Project,” which called for BRT on one of the city’s main arterials. Euclid Avenue connects downtown’s iconic Public Square to East Cleveland, including Little Italy, the Cleveland Clinic and Case Western Reserve University. RTA and the city made transportation and development on this corridor one of their priorities. RTA received a federal funding agreement and broke ground on the $168 million project in 2004. Service began on the 6.8 mile route, now known as the “Healthline,” in October 2008.

A downtown BRT station.

Your author boarded a Healthline bus at Public Square. The stations are larger than conventional bus stations but much smaller than WMATA Metro stations. They consist of covered areas that include metal benches and fare machines. While passengers can pay one-trip fares inside the bus, they can also buy one-trip, all-day, five-day or month-long tickets at the fare machines. An all-day ticket costs five dollars. Passengers do not have to pay to board the bus, but roving transit police sometimes appear to check for tickets. The stations are open at either end to let wind come through and the benches are short, both of which are intended to deter homeless people from sleeping in them.

A view from the middle of the bus facing the driver’s seat.

The buses are as large as the biggest WMATA buses. They have accordion joints in the center to aid in turning and have skirts on the center and back wheels to dampen noise. The interiors are roomy and have plenty of space for wheelchairs, bicycles and strollers. The buses are equipped with small metal wheels that protrude outward from their bottoms. As the driver approaches a station, the wheels make a grinding noise against the high curbs on the platforms. That noise enables the driver to pull up to the platform so that the distance between the bus doors and the platform is just two or three inches. The bus floor and the platform are at nearly equal height, facilitating ease of entry. The bus has a clanging bell that is reminiscent of a train. RTA claims that the buses use hybrid technology that promote lower particulate emissions and better fuel economy.

The bus door-platform gap is minimal.

The truly distinctive characteristic of the BRT system is not the bus design, but the street design. Your author saw Euclid Avenue under construction in early 2008. Much of it was destroyed and rebuilt from scratch. That part of the avenue that functions as a BRT line has four lanes: two in the center that are dedicated to buses, and two on the outside dedicated to cars. At many intersections, a left-turn lane for cars is added between the bus lane and the outer car lane. Cars attempting left turns cannot make them on a green light; they must wait until they receive a green arrow. Your author saw one car violate that rule and make a left in front of an oncoming bus moving in the same direction. A bus driver verified that car drivers sometimes continued to make that mistake even though the line has been in operation for over a year.

Two bus lanes in the center with a car lane on each outer edge. The station here is placed in an offset median.

Stations were located in the medians. In downtown, one station in a common median served buses headed in both directions. Outside of downtown, the streets often had multiple medians containing stations serving buses headed in only one direction. The buses had their own traffic signals that had a dramatically different appearance from conventional signals to avoid confusing cars. The bus signals had three lights, all in white: a horizontal bar on top indicating stop, a triangle in the center indicating slow, and a vertical bar on the bottom indicating go. A driver said that the signals were prioritized so that if a bus approached an intersection and the bus signal was about to turn to stop, it would remain go a few moments longer.

Buses use their own lanes and never have to wait behind a line of cars at traffic lights.

About 70% of the way out of Downtown, the street design reverted to normal: no dedicated bus lanes and stations on the outer curbs. The BRT buses operated as normal buses through the end of the route.

BIG buses!

The BRT buses had a speed advantage over conventional buses derived from four factors. First, the fare machines helped passengers board the bus quickly and prevented lines. Second, the dedicated lanes prevented the buses from waiting behind queues of traffic. Third, signal prioritization helped. And fourth, the buses operated in express mode. Passengers could only enter and exit at stations. One passenger said that the new line could travel from Downtown to Case Western in about half the time taken by conventional buses.

Note the four traffic lights at this intersection. The two on the right are for cars. The light on the left is for buses only. The horizontal white line at the top of the bus signal means stop. The remaining light on the second-from-left is for cars making left turns.

The primary difficulty in the system is its network of fare machines. Several passengers complained to your author about the difficulty of using them and a driver said that she heard constant complaints about them. One passenger paid on the bus after telling the driver that the machine ate a dollar. Neither the buses nor the fare machines use Smart Card technology. If they did, it would be difficult for the transit police to verify payment. The driver told us, “If you use these buses in D.C., make the fare machines easier to use.” Finally, the driver indicated that street crime was an issue when passengers used the machines in the stations at night. The BRT line operates 24 hours a day.

For all the criticism of these fare machines, they do prevent lines to enter the buses.

Overall, the Healthline bore a significant similarity to the recently-constructed light rail lines in Phoenix and Houston, both of which your author has used in recent years. All three lines use dedicated lanes at street level. All use fare machines. The light rail stations were slightly larger than the Healthline’s stations, but all were much smaller than WMATA stations. The interiors of the Healthline buses and the light rail cars had similar widths and passenger room, although the trains were longer. All three systems moved at similar speeds in the urban core, but the rail lines probably went faster on suburban straight-aways. Overall, the experience of the three systems had more in common than not.

The special BRT traffic signal can be seen at the top of the picture just to the left of the Bus Only sign.

The Healthline’s final capital cost was $197 million or $29.0 million per mile of reconstructed street, significantly less than the per-mile cost of many light rail lines. Its name stems from the fact that the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals paid $6.25 million over 25 years for the naming rights. The BRT line has enjoyed a 47% ridership increase over the conventional bus line that preceded it, which was itself the most-used line in RTA’s system. That matches big ridership increases on newly-constructed BRT routes in New York City, Vancouver and Eugene, Oregon. Those who believe that BRT cannot support development will find little ammunition for their argument in Cleveland, which is seeing more than $3 billion in investment executed or planned near the Healthline’s route. The massive and expensive street reconstruction associated with a true BRT system guarantees the line will not be uprooted, moved or discontinued.

One of the many projects along the Healthline’s alignment.

The City of Cleveland and the State of Ohio have been hit much harder by the recession than Montgomery County and the State of Maryland. Yet, they have constructed a showcase BRT line that is stimulating badly-needed economic growth.

If they can do it, why can’t we?