In the leadup to the arrival of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in 2016, a local film project known as “The Fixers” sought to highlight the challenges faced by low-income Clevelanders that otherwise would have been missed by the thousands of journalists who came to town to cover the convention.

One of the short films – The Fixers: Marvetta Rutherford (thefixerscleveland.com) – featured a Cleveland resident describing her experience as a regular user of public transportation. While this film is critical in nature and focuses on the flaws of our current system, I find it to be a moving and helpful lens through which to see the challenge of delivering effective public transit services in Cleveland.

Challenges Facing Greater Cleveland RTA

The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (RTA) is a crucial community resource and should be a policy priority for the City of Cleveland. It is true that the City appoints just four of the 10 board members (three by Cuyahoga County and three by the Cuyahoga Country Mayors and Managers Association).

Having said that, it is also true that here is an untapped opportunity for the Mayor of Cleveland and the City Administration to take a more active role to ensure the future success of RTA and greatly improve transit and transportation policy in our community.

In recent years, the organization has engaged in a thoughtful and painstaking assessment of where it stands, the challenges it faces, and potential improvements in the short- and long-term.

Like transit systems around the country, RTA is encountering major barriers to success. In a November 2020 Urban Institute report, Yonah Freemark summarizes the problem:

Poor-quality transit is common, particularly in low-income and Black communities. American transit options are notoriously poor, less frequent and less reliable than comparable systems abroad. That’s one reason only about 5 percent of US commuters use buses or trains.

Freemark also speaks to the variance in quality in different parts of the country – while the average New York City region resident takes 224 transit trips annually, the average Cleveland area resident takes about 10% of that amount. He also notes that transit resources are “subpar” and “unfairly distributed” for low-income people and people of color. For example, transit service in the areas with the highest poverty rates is 37% less comprehensive as compared to the wealthiest areas.

RTA faces its own unique set of obstacles, including:

  • Ridership in the system has decreased 75% since its peak in 1980 and fell 31% between 2007 and 2017 (WSP report, October 2019);
  • Population loss and outmigration have been major factors, as well as the dispersion of jobs and residents – particularly our residents who are dependent on public transit; and
  • With Cleveland having one of the lowest percentages of car ownership – almost 24% of households do not own a car – there is a large group with this need, particularly to reach jobs that are further removed from the core city.

RTA also can point to strengths – including the success of the HealthLine Bus Rapid Transit project, and generally being in line with peers in relation to several industry benchmarks. However, new approaches and improvements are needed to reverse both the local and national trends facing urban transit systems.

Action Steps

As Mayor, I will commit to making transit policy an integral and routine priority of my Administration. RTA completed a thorough and meticulous strategic planning process in 2020 – and priorities and objectives for public transit in Greater Cleveland have been set forth.

I intend to support these objectives – particularly in relation to our community’s rebound from the Covid-19 pandemic – and our overall public transit system through the following actions:

  • The city, county and other municipalities need to work in concert to support transit priorities most effectively. While broader regional collaboration is also important, I will start with a more collaborative approach among local governments in our county who make up the membership of the RTA board.
  • This coordination is possibly most important in aligning economic development strategy with transportation policy – including a focus on transit-oriented development projects.
  • We need a more effective local-advocacy strategy for federal policy makers and funders. With the intention of the Biden Administration to “provide every American city with 100,000 or more residents with high-quality, zero-emissions public transportation options,” we need to ensure that our local voices are unified and heard in Washington – and that Greater Cleveland is seen as a prime candidate for any pilot activities or projects.
  • “Public transit” and transportation is much broader than the services provided by RTA. Any work we do in the transit sphere must incorporate complete and safe streets – including cycling and broader micro-mobility strategies – so that our transit and transportation systems are connected and aligned with all the ways that our residents make their way around Greater Cleveland. We have made some amount of progress in this domain, and as Mayor I will provide a more explicit focus on these and related challenges.
  • I also pledge that equity will lie at the center of our work in transit and transportation. As noted above, the central challenges of our transit system relate to serving low-income and Black residents – and thus equity will guide and govern this work.

A Focus on Results

The challenge and promise of being Mayor include a nearly unlimited list of priorities that all need new, special, and creative attention. As Mayor of Cleveland, I will draw on my experience throughout my public service career of getting concrete things done. Simply floating ideas or discussing alternatives is not enough. Public transit and transportation is a good example of an area where concrete improvements are needed.

But addressing this problem is also an example of the formula I will use as Mayor – establish the issue as a priority in my office, put attention and resources toward the issue, seek collaboration outside of city government itself, and set goals and benchmarks to measure progress.

I have worked in government and politics long enough to see the interplay between campaign promises and real outcomes – and my intention is to make real promises that will result in meaningful improvements. Public transit and transportation policy needs real progress, and I intend to deliver on that promise as Mayor.