Open Public Square to buses, because bus riders deserve nice things, too


Unless you’ve been living under a rock or don’t pay attention to debates about public transit and green space in Cleveland (so, 99.9999% of the world), you probably know that the other shoe dropped in the Public Square bus lane debate late last month, when the Federal Transit Administration sent a Notice of Debt to GCRTA for $12 million in funds for the Euclid Corridor/HealthLine bus rapid transit (BRT) project.

This debate has now really come to a head, as FTA provided just 30 days (starting December 20) for GCRTA to pay the full fine or file a formal dispute.

To this point, the fight over the Public Square bus lanes has taken on a number of forms. There was was Mayor Frank Jackson’s claim that the Square was more popular than they anticipated and his fiery assertions that FTA is using the fine to distract from its legal obligations to ameliorate the City’s continued claims of terrorist threats (of course, as Sam Allard has reported, it appears the Mayor completely made these up, but YOLO I guess).

There were those noted the logistical and financial hardship placed on GCRTA from having to drive around the Square, while others have raised the safety risks inherent in forcing bus drivers to take more than 1.1 million additional turns. Tragically, we saw those risks unfold on December 7. Still others made unnecessarily esoteric arguments about marginal emissions due to the decision; seriously, what nerd did that?

Moving beyond the numbers to the people in this debate

But, for the most part, the parties waging this policy battle have not gone into detail on the impacts of dispersing riders who would otherwise transfer or catch their buses in the Square to outlying bus stops. There are two main exceptions to this. The first was Councilman Zack Reed’s – shall we say – entertaining descent into the comments section during the November 30 City Council Transportation Committee hearing. The second was a story from WEWS, which relayed safety concerns from riders about being displaced from the bus stops on the Square to others which were poorly lit and located.

It’s to this issue that I want to turn now, in light of a recent study (paywall) from the Transportation Research Board, which focuses on how the physical environment can affect people’s perceptions of bus waiting times.

In their introduction, authors Marina Lagune-Reutler, Andrew Guthrie, Yingling Fan, and David Levinson (herein Lagune-Reutler et al) point out that the amount of time transit users spend waiting to ride is vital for shaping people’s perceptions of public transit. Research event suggests that time and service quality are more important for influencing people’s transportation mode choice than financial costs. Accordingly, if a transit agency makes efforts to cut waiting times, or even the perception of waiting times, they can enhance their public standing and potentially increase ridership without undertaking major capital investments.

A wide array of previous research demonstrates that several variables can influence how long people feel they have waited for their bus or train to arrive. A 1993 study from global consulting behemoth Parsons Brinckerhoff – which, coincidentally, GCRTA is paying $60,000 to conduct a study to find alternatives to opening Public Square – in the Twin Cities showed that access to clear, reliable information on waiting times affects riders’ sense of time. According to the study, a lack of reliable service and unpredictable delays can increase the perceived amount of time spent waiting among transit users. Given that GCRTA has continued to cut service, and CEO Joe Calabrese has reported that 43% of buses that transit Public Square are delayed due to the closure, this issue clearly affects bus riders.

A separate 2016 study (paywall) from Fan, Guthrie, and Levinson found that women, in particular, report perceiving longer waiting times at transit stops and stations located in unsafe environments. “At a simple curbside bus stop, a 10-min wait seems to take nearly a half hour.”

In contrast, a 2014 study conducted in Naples, Italy (paywall) by Ennio Cascetta and Armando Cartenì reported that high-quality waiting environments can not only reduce perceived waiting times, they can actually provide “hedonic value” – a sense of pleasure or happiness – among riders, especially women. This research again applies to the case at hand, as women constitute a majority of GCRTA riders, overall, and they account for even larger shares of bus and BRT riders.

gender rta riders

GCRTA riders by gender, by mode. Women account for a majority of all riders, as well as a majority of riders for all modes, other than heavy rail, which is the Red Line Rapid (courtesy of GCRTA).

Capturing the impacts of the transit waiting environment

Lagune-Reutler et al build upon this earlier work to examine how transit waiting environments influenced perceived waiting times at 36 stations in the Twin Cities. The stops were classified according to several variables, including: type (transitway station, transit center, improved curbside stop, or unimproved curbside stop); location (residential or commercial, urban or suburban); and a pleasantness score (low, medium, or high). They analyzed the influence of a number of independent variables, using measures of traffic safety and neighborhood security like posted speed limits, traffic volume, sidewalk characteristics, streetlights, vacant properties, noise and air pollution levels, and tree cover.

The authors conducted surveys from 822 transit users to capture the amount of time they felt they spent waiting for the bus or train during July-August 2013 and February-April 2014. They then compared these self-reported times to video footage, which provided actual waiting time for these same participants.

The waiting is the hardest part

Their results showed that, on average, transit users tended to overestimate their waiting times by roughly 18%, stating they felt they waited for a mean of 6.45 minutes, when the actual value was 5.48 minutes. Air pollution and heavy traffic combined to cause riders to significantly overestimate their waiting times. A 2.5-minute wait was seen as 3.88 minutes, while a 10-minute wait grew to 12.13.

Tree cover, in turn, can alleviate this effect, particularly for longer waits. Riders perceived their 10-minute waits as lasting just 7 minutes when surrounded by mature trees. According to the authors,

Generally, the results suggest that the more trees present, the shorter the wait time is perceived by riders, whereas the more polluted and exposed to traffic, the more transit users tend to overestimate wait time. These findings advocate for high-quality urban environments surrounding stops and stations.

This finding provides an important point that has largely been ignored in the Public Square debate to this point. It’s not simply a matter of whether closing the Square to buses will cost more or whether a unified square is more aesthetically appealing. What matters is that transit riders have every right to take advantage of this outstanding public green space, which their tax dollars helped finance, and that doing so will make them more inclined to enjoy their transit experiences.

Mitigate for me, not for thee

Throughout his 20-minute rant against the FTA and GCRTA on December 30, Mayor Jackson kept repeating one word: mitigate.

He was trying to mitigate the risks of terrorism. FTA has an obligation to mitigate safety concerns. The City and GCRTA can mitigate service disruptions. There was no way for him to mitigate the pain and suffering Joan Keundig’s family is experiencing. Mitigate, mitigate, mitigate. But one thing the Mayor did not focus on was mitigating the burden placed upon bus riders who have been forced off of the Square.

The types of transit waiting environments that Lagune-Reutler et al outline, which can mitigate this burden, perfectly describe Public Square.

The bus stations are new, well-lit, largely protected from the elements, and include a transit system map. Bus riders on the Square are surrounded by other pedestrians – both transit users and non-users alike – and, frequently, police, providing additional eyes on the street, which can mitigate security concerns. The stations are flanked by new trees and vegetation, helping to address the tree cover variable. And Superior itself is dedicated for buses and bikes exclusively, mitigating concerns about traffic, noise, and air pollution. (The current arrangement, as I’ve demonstrated, exacerbates those issues.)

Honestly, if you read the description of the ideal transit waiting environment from the study, it just sounds like they’re describing Public Square to you:

First, creating exclusive transit lanes or streets reserved for transit, bicycles, and pedestrians (where feasible) is likely to reduce waiting time perceptions by increasing distances between waiting areas and automobile traffic. Second, the alignment of transit routes and the location of stops avoiding highly polluted areas where possible without affecting travel demand can also contribute to shorter perceived wait times…

The ability of the presence of trees to compensate for the negative effects of pollution and traffic suggests that planting trees or moving a problematic stop to take advantage of existing tree cover can significantly improve the user experience at a reasonable cost. This cost should be compared with other costs of measures able to enhance customer satisfaction such as higher frequency, transit information, and stop amenities.

As I’ve discussed more times that I care to count, public transit in Cleveland is in a crisis. Closing Public Square to buses exacerbates that issue, not only by imposing financial and logistical costs on GCRTA itself, but by making transit less desireable to users.

We spent $50 million in public and private financing to build a new Public Square that, by all regards, is a wonderful public space. Then our Mayor unilaterally decided to kick out the people who have historically used that space the most – bus riders. There is no longer any good argument to retain this status quo, and this study simply adds more weight to this conclusion. Bus riders deserve nice things too.

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