Why transit makes headlines in DC but not Northeast Ohio

joe biden rta

Vice President Joe Biden speaks in front of a GCRTA rapid car during his speech in Cleveland last week (source WCPN).

I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about Northeast Ohio’s transportation issues lately (there’s more where that came from), in part because it seems to be a key entry point into discussions about environmental and social issues in the region.

In the past, when I’ve tried to just engage with like-individuals over environmental issues, it has been a bit more difficult to break through. I’m beginning to think that this may be due to the fact that a lot of the traditional environmentalists in this region are older and less likely to engage through new media. The younger, more social media-savvy activists seem to have found transportation as their cause célèbre, given its salience to the region.

The politics of transportation in Northeast Ohio

Clearly, most of the horrors that have befallen this region – out-migration, urban decay, poverty, racial segregation, declining social capital, loss of status – can all find their roots, at least in part, in the sprawl-based development model that has predominated for the last 60-plus years. Transportation and the political economy around it has emerged as a microcosm of everything that is wrong with the power politics of the region. In my post on the sin tax, I quoted Erick Trickey’s description of how the issue reflected Northeast Ohio’s political fault lines:

The best way to understand most Cleveland political debates isn’t party politics. It’s, do you believe in spending tax money on “public-private partnerships” that draw people and business downtown? Or do you thinks that’s corporate welfare, giveaway of money better spent on other needs? That debate has run through our politics for decades, from tax abatement in the ’80s through Gateway in 1990 through the convention center debate in 2007, to the sin tax rematch yesterday.

Transportation battles in this region, particularly the Opportunity Corridor, shake out along these same lines. The powerful, moneyed interests like the Greater Cleveland Partnership come out in support of major highway projects, and dutiful politicians eventually fall in line. The interests of people living within the City of Cleveland (or Akron or Youngstown or Toledo or Canton…) and the surrounding inner-ring suburbs tend to be drowned out by those of people living in the outer-ring suburbs.

These latter individuals frequently seem to believe (and I apologize for being reductionist here) that they have a God-given right to speed through urban centers as quickly as possible. Despite the fact that the Cleveland-Akron metro area has more freeway miles per capita than all but three other metros and that congestion here is almost nonexistent, the answer always seems to be MOAR HIGHWAYS.

freeway miles per capita

Freeway miles per capita for the top 11 metro areas, as of 2007 (courtesy of next STL).

This rift seems to play out most clearly and acutely in the gulf between how we fund highways and how we fund transit. I’ve already discussed Ohio’s utter lack of interest and seeming repulsion towards funding public transportation in this state. But while I can understand (though not accept) the political and economic realities that produce that imbalance, I cannot understand the sheer indifference that seems to exist within the region towards it. How often does The Plain Dealer or the Columbus Dispatch report on this issue? To quote my classmate John Noel, “Where is the outrage?!”

Cleveland vs. Washington, DC

Compare the way that public transportation is covered here to DC. Not to pick on Adam Serwer here, but if you follow a DC-based journalist like him on Twitter, you’ve no doubt seen that person complain on multiple occasions about issues with the DC Metro (particularly the Red Line). There are multiple blogs and sites dedicated to complaining about WMATA with names that range from Unsuck DC Metro to the NSFW “How Fucked is Metro?” In DC, every delay or malfunctioning escalator (and there’s a lot) is potential fodder for the 6:00 p.m. news.

In Cleveland, you’ll hear a couple of groups and read a handful of blogs discussing the issue. And this is not intended to take away from the important work that groups like Ohioans for Transportation Choice are doing or the solid coverage from sites like Rust Wire and GreenCityBlueLake. But can you imagine people in Cleveland unleashing anything like the cluster bomb of outrage that detonated over road closures during the filming of Captain America about problems with the Rapid or HealthLine? I sure as hell can’t.

The devil is in the demographics

gcrta ridership by year

GCRTA ridership numbers from 1978-2010 (courtesy of Cleveland.com).

So what’s the difference? Well, not surprisingly, I would argue that it largely boils down to the demographics of transit riders in the respective regions. WMATA is a major, viable, primary source of transportation for many people in the DC metro area. WMATA riders compiled nearly 344 million trips in 2012 (PDF), roughly 942,383 per day. Greater Cleveland RTA, the largest transit agency in Ohio, had just 49.2 million total rides last year. At its peak in 1980, that number was 129,691,743. Thanks to the great exodus from our cities, transit ridership fell by two-thirds in just 30 years.

According to a 2010 report (PDF), the median income for Metrobus and Metrorail riders swas $68,110 and $103,800, respectively. Compare that to GCRTA and METRO Akron. In Akron 90% of METRO riders reported making less than $20,000*, while roughly half of GCRTA’s riders have incomes below $25,000.

Obviously this gap reflects the broader income disparity between Northeast Ohio and the DC metro area, but it is still striking. Everyone rides the Metro in DC, from homeless individuals up to and including US Senators. While it’s true that a large number of professionals commute to work on transit in Northeast Ohio, the demographics are clearly skewed.

metro akron household income

Source: METRO Akron (via Jason Segedy)

Moreover, transit riders in Northeast Ohio often have few alternatives. Roughly 90% of METRO riders do not have regular access to a vehicle, while 38% of GCRTA riders say they lack both a driver’s license and a car. Just 19% of Metrobus and an astonishing 2% of Metrorail riders reported living car-free. Lastly, transit users in Northeast Ohio are also far more likely to come from communities of color. Seventy-two percent of GCRTA riders are African-American; compare that to Metrorail, where 76% of riders were White.

This is why transit makes the headlines in DC and remains a peripheral issue, at best, in Northeast Ohio. It’s a lot easier to raise an issue when it directly affects people with agency, power, and a voice. That’s not the case here. People continue to turn a blind eye to the appalling lack of safety and amenities for transit here, because they can just drive past it. We obsess over whether or not turning the West Shoreway into a boulevard will add 60-90 seconds to our commutes, and our representatives locally and in Columbus parrot that view.

Until people here are exposed to transit, it will remain the Other. And no one is going to raise hell to get funding for that.

Jason Segedy provided me with a copy of the METRO RTA On-Board Survey from Fall 2013. All Akron data are from this survey.
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