Transit alone cannot solve the systemic problems behind job inaccessibility

cleveland job sprawl 2000-2012
bus stop at route 237 & Eastland Road

An actual stop for the #86 bus alongside Route 237 in Cleveland (courtesy of Google Maps).

In my last post, I dug into the debate over which approach is better – bringing people to jobs or jobs to people – by examining case studies from San Francisco and Minneapolis-St. Paul. But, as I noted, the studies I examined assume that the relationship between transit and job accessibility occurs in a vacuum. Things are not that clean in the real world.

Furthermore, one can argue – as Peter Truog and others have – that, while it may make sense to invest in transit-oriented development (TOD) and the “jobs to people” approach on paper, it is impractical. Planning and building fixed transit assets can take a decade or more. Encouraging businesses to relocate along existing transit lines and form new, transit-rich clusters also takes time.

In the meantime, people of color in high-poverty neighborhoods will continue to struggle to access jobs in far-flung suburbs. It must be better then to connect these neighborhoods with existing low-skill, entry level jobs with buses in order to give them a leg up and not keep them locked out of the job market.

There is merit to this argument. Shifting transit systems from hub-and-spoke (radial) networks focused on the central business district (CBD) to a grid system focused on multiple destinations is one effective alternative. The success of Houston’s redesign bears this out.

Research supports the benefits of moving away transit systems away from a radial service orientation to a multi-destination one, as well. Jeffrey Brown and Gregory Thompson, researchers at Florida State, have published several studies illustrating this point. In a 2008 paper (paywall), they found that metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) with multi-destination transit systems outperformed those with radial systems for ridership, service productivity, and cost-effectiveness.

With this in mind, I want to examine the economics – both financial and political – of connecting people to jobs with transit in Northeast Ohio. Ultimately, when we explore these broader factors, it becomes clear that, while busing a low-income worker from Central to a manufacturer in Solon may help that individual, it remains insufficient to the problem at hand.

Are we bringing people to jobs or just chasing jobs with transit?

While improving system performance is an absolute good that all transit agencies should pursue, it does not necessarily mean that a city will see improvements in job accessibility for low-income people of color.

Moreover, system redesigns are useful, but transit systems still require minimum levels of population and job density in order to deliver high-quality service and remain cost-effective. According to Robert Cervero and Erick Guerra, job density is more important than residential density. These minimum thresholds of job density simply do not exist in most metros any more, particularly Cleveland.

In a 2009 paper, Elizabeth Kneebone from Brookings traced the outward shift of jobs in American cities. She examined the location of jobs in the 98 largest MSAs from 1998-2006, focusing on three bands around the CBD: a 3-mile radius for the central city, a 10-mile radius for the “beltway,” and a 35-mile radius to define the metro’s sprawl area.

Her analysis showed that just 21% of employees work within 3 miles of downtown, while a plurality (more than 45%) work between 10 and 35 miles away from the CBD. Additionally, she found that jobs were growing fastest in these outer areas; jobs at least 10 miles from the CBD grew 2.5 times faster than those in the beltway ring and 57 times faster than those in the central city.

We may have heard much since the end of the Great Recession about the revival of cities and the shift away from suburbia, but this shift has not occurred for jobs.

Another 2015 report from Kneebone and colleague Natalie Holmes makes clear that the suburbanization of people and jobs quickened during the 2000s. As a result, “by 2010 in the nation’s largest metro areas, the majority of every major ethnic and racial group and the majority of the poor lived in suburbs for the first time.”

The rate of outward growth was faster for jobs than people, though. Kneebone and Holmes concluded that the number of jobs within a typical commute for a resident of 96 major MSAs fell by 7% from 2000 to 2012. Nowhere was this change greater than in Cleveland, which saw a 26.5% decrease in the number of jobs available within a normal commute.

Given these trends and the realities facing GCRTA, trying to bring low-income workers from neighborhoods like Central to employment centers like Solon would be less about bringing “people to jobs” and more about chasing jobs with transit. What’s the likelihood that a new bus route to a suburban job campus will still be useful in 3 to 5 years?

cleveland job sprawl 2000-2012

No city saw a larger decrease in the number of accessible jobs from 2000 to 2012 than Cleveland (courtesy of The Brookings Institution).

Whither the job hubs?

And even if you know the jobs would remain stationary in the short-term, which locations should GCRTA prioritize?

Jobs have sprawled to such an extent in Northeast Ohio that few actual job hubs remain. NOAcA has found that fewer than one-quarter of all jobs in Northeast Ohio are concentrated in the region’s 6 largest job hubs, and only one such hub – Cleveland’s CBD – contains more than 10% of jobs. Most parts of the region simply lack the job density needed for new transit investments to secure funding and be cost-effective.

Given GCRTA’s well-documented and ongoing budgetary crisis, shouldn’t it be on the employers in places like Solon to step up and address their own workforce recruitment challenges?

There are several options that they could pursue, on their own or in concert with GCRTA. They could join GCRTA’s new vanpool program, which can help up to 15 people get to work in one vehicle. They could run their own shuttle service, like many companies already do in the Bay Area. They could invest in first-mile/last-mile initiatives like carshare or bikeshare programs to make it easier from employees to get from a bus stop to the worksite. (Because, yes, the 41 and 41F buses already run to Solon)

Each of these options provides some of the benefits of car ownership without placing the steep financial burden upon the low-income worker. Research suggests that owning a car doubles the odds of low-income person finding a job and quadruples the odds that s/he keeps it. Transit, on the other hand, only seems to help people keep jobs they already have.

And if these employers are, in fact, committed to bringing new transit investments to their doorsteps, why don’t they approach GCRTA with public-private partnership options? Perhaps employers in a hub like Solon could use tax increment financing (TIF) and take advantage of the increased property values that fixed transit investments would generate to cover the capital costs.

We can’t fix systemic issues with “imagination”

The problem is not just a lack of imagination and creative solutions, as Peter Truog suggests. In reality, it is much larger than that.

As I’ve illustrated, employers have known for at least 20 years that their outward migration was creating a spatial mismatch between them and potential employees, yet they continued to sprawl regardless. Hell, public officials were discussing this in detail during the 1990s, and GCRTA even created a vanpool program to address it at the time.

Some observers have argued that employers may be relocating to suburbia and exurbia in response to residential sprawl. If that was the case, perhaps facilitating the suburbanization of low-income residents and people of color could actually address spatial mismatch.

Unfortunately, that argument does not hold up to even the slightest scrutiny. In a 2007 paper, Michael Stoll and Harry Holzer of Brookings examined population and job growth rates in central cities, low-income suburbs, and high-income suburbs.

Residential populations grew at a faster clip in low-income suburbs than in high-income – 36% and 16%, respectively – reflecting the suburbanization of poverty in recent years. In contrast, jobs grew 30% faster in high-income suburbs, suggesting that jobs are shifting towards these more exclusive locales, where few low-income workers live. These location decisions are likely exacerbating spatial mismatch.

Stoll also tackled this topic in regards to race in an earlier study. In this analysis, he examined the relationship between job sprawl and spatial mismatch in 300 MSAs in the year 2000. He found that, while there is no statistically significant relationship between job sprawl and spatial mismatch for whites, one exists for blacks and Latinos.

Each 10% increase in the job sprawl index score was associated with a 3.1% and 1.7% increase the spatial mismatch index scores for blacks and Latinos, respectively. The link between job sprawl and spatial mismatch for blacks was especially significant in large Midwestern metros, like Cleveland and Detroit.

Transit alone won’t solve civil rights issues

But, perhaps all of that is in the past. What if you had a particularly woke set of employers who wanted to address that mismatch by encouraging low-income black workers to move closer to available jobs?

Well, you’d likely just run head first into systemic questions of housing discrimination and exclusionary zoning. Dozens of studies and reports from several cities – including Cleveland – have documented our job accessibility crisis for years now. And yet, not only has the problem persisted, it has gotten worse.

Susan Turner, a researcher at Wayne State University, provided a valuable insight into this question with her 1997 study (PDF) in Detroit.

Turner interviewed a number of employers in suburban Detroit who faced comparable workforce challenges. What she found was revealing. Instead of relocating to the suburbs to follow workers, Turner’s interviews suggested that many employers were intentionally moving to such locations in order to avoid black workers and keep their workforces white.

She noted that, while every predominately white suburban firm cited poor transportation as the reason why they couldn’t hire black workers, the firms that hired black workers not only faced these same challenges, they were often located in more remote sites. But they and their employees still managed to overcome these barriers.

Turner argued that her study “challenges the assumption that merely removing physical barriers to places of employment would improve the labor market outcomes of blacks.”

Instead,

Negative racial attitudes aided the creation of the spatial mismatch. Thus, spatial mismatch, while partly due to economic factors related to finding cheaper land for new production processes, also results from persistent racial animosities and discrimination that find their expression through spatial variables.

One anecdote in the study was particularly eye-opening. Turner recounted a story that an urban planning official in Detroit told her. The planner’s agency attempted to set up a vanpool program for low-income Detroit workers in the mid-1990s, but they could not find any interested in employers.

According to Turner, when the planner asked the employers why they would not take part, “most indicated that they did not want to hire black workers, stating ‘Why do you think we moved out here in the first place?’”

Transportation (and the provision of public transit) may be a civil rights issue, but it is not sufficient to overcome these sort of systemic civil rights abuses.

Truog and those who support his view have not engaged with this massive topic. The fact of the matter is, Solon has pursued and continues to pursue exclusionary zoning policies that harm low-income people of color. When developers proposed a multi-family housing development in 2014, residents created the committee against rezoning Solon (CARS). (Side note: that acronym is a little too on the nose.)

These opponents tried to couch their opposition to the apartments under the guise of zoning, but the group’s leader, Don Gallo, was more explicit. He told reporters that the apartments “will not attract the wealthier young people…They will attract riff-raff.”

The ever-present specter of racism, which has only grown more ominous in recent months, continues to plague these discussions.

Conclusion

Ultimately, in my view, a problem this large requires a multifaceted approach.

  1. In the immediate term, employers with workforce challenges in suburbs like Solon should step up and tackle their own problems by implementing the sorts of programs I outlined earlier. Spatial mismatch is a problem that warrants the attention of the public sector, but that does not mean the private sector can wash its hand of it. We’ve spent more than enough public money to subsidize sprawl and then clean up its consequences.
  2. In the short- to medium-term, GCRTA should pursue a system redesign, moving from a radial to a multi-destination service orientation, like Houston and Columbus. This approach would be beneficial for the agency and the region, even if it fails to address job accessibility.
  3. And, in the long-term, the region’s elected officials and planning agencies should devote their attention and resources on TOD in order to take advantage of the benefits that it creates. Not only will it reduce the financial and environmental burdens of sprawl and chip away at job inaccessibility, it can also help firms take advantage of the benefits of industry agglomeration, which would increase their productivity and output.

Fortunately, there is no inherent conflict between 2 and 3. On the contrary, Brown and Thompson, in a 2012 paper analyzing transit in Broward County, Florida, wrote,

Contrary to what many planners believe, developing a multi-destination transit system does not necessarily work at cross-purposes with the planning goal of clustering urban development. One consequence of a multi-destination grid is the emergence of a number of strong routes. Planners develop transfer centers along such routes, and these centers can develop into strong development nodes.

We can begin to address Northeast Ohio’s overarching job accessibility issues. But we cannot do it if we ignore the systemic challenges behind them, and we cannot do it if we fail to take a regional approach. Both of these will require much more than just running another bus to Solon. It will require us to acknowledge and begin to ameliorate the 800-pound gorilla in the room.

Which approach is better: ‘jobs to people’ or ‘people to jobs’?

healthline health tech corridor
healthline health tech corridor

A GCRTA Healthline bus rolls down Euclid Avenue past the MidTown Tech Park campus in Cleveland’s Health Tech Corridor (courtesy of the Anchor District Council).

Back in September 2015, I was fortunate enough to take part in a focus group discussion at the Fund for Our Economic Future on a report they were finalizing that examined access to jobs in Northeast Ohio.

On the whole, I found the report, The Geography of Jobs, to be a valuable first stab at a conversation that desperately needs to occur in this region. While the comments from some of the business community representatives gave me pause, as they did not seem to fully grasp the gravity of sprawl and weak transit for our economy, it was nevertheless a useful discussion.

Jobs to people or people to jobs?

It was with that in the back of my mind that I eagerly read an op-ed on this topic from Peter Truog, the director of civic innovation and insight at the Fund. In this piece, Truog responded to a study out of Cleveland State by Richey Piiparinen and James Russell, which examined whether or not transportation policy is inhibiting the region’s movement towards a “knowledge-based economy.” The authors reached a fairly clear conclusion on job access and transportation in Cleveland, writing:

Specifically, it may not (sic) prudent to advocate for limited transportation funding in the creation of transit connections to disparate areas governed by maturing labor markets. Put simply, will bringing a bus to the likes of Solon fix what is largely structural? Probably not.”

It was this conclusion that Truog took exception to in his piece. He argued that the CSU study “risks encouraging ‘zero-sum’ transit funding discussions where urban centers vie to win a larger share of a fixed transit investment ‘pie.'” Instead, relying on the Fund’s report, he argued that we would be doing a disservice to low-income, low-skilled workers in struggling neighborhoods if we fail to improve transit service to manufacturing job hubs, like Solon.

So who is correct here? Should Northeast Ohio, forever plagued by enormous challenges and insufficient resources, choose to invest in the types of supply-side approaches to addressing job accessibility advocated by Truog? Or should policymakers instead focus on Piiparinen and Russell’s demand-side approaches, which call for concentrating economic development in areas with existing infrastructure and labor pools? To use Truog’s nomenclature – should be focus on bringing people to jobs or jobs to people?

Focus on Central

First, I want to examine the validity of Truog’s claims, particularly as they relate to Central, the Cleveland neighborhood that the Fund focused on in its report. According to Truog, residents of neighborhoods like Central have not benefited from new investments in the City, like the Health Tech Corridor along Euclid Avenue.

Instead, these residents depend upon suburban locations, like Solon, which “have a high concentration of manufacturing jobs” and “will remain important economic hubs with jobs for multiple skill levels.” As a result, Truog asserts that it is ” an economic imperative to include these communities in the transit discussion.”

But what do the data say? To answer that question, I decided to check the 2015 5-year data on commuting habits from the American Community Survey (ACS) for the 5 census tracts located in Central, as illustrated in the map below.

census tracts central

Census tracts from the 2010 Census located in Cleveland’s Central neighborhood (courtesy of NEO CANDO).

At first glance, the data seem to support some of Truog’s claims. Residents of Central are far more likely to take transit to work (35.5%) than Cleveland residents as a whole (10.2%). The share of Central residents who do not own a car (42.7%) is also vastly higher than the City’s (10.2%). But that is more or less where Truog’s claims start to lose merit.

Manufacturing is not as important for Central residents as Truog asserts. Just 11.2% of workers in the neighborhood are employed in the manufacturing sector, compared to 13% for all city residents. In contrast, a plurality (40.6%) of workers in Central are employed in educational services and health care/social assistance – more commonly known as eds and meds – nearly double the citywide rate (26%). And, contrary to what Truog may claim, manufacturing sector employees are not more transit-dependent than other workers. In fact, a larger percentage of eds and meds workers take transit both within Central (28.6%) and citywide (8.35%) than manufacturing workers (24% and 7.5%, respectively).

Interestingly, not owning a car does not necessarily seem to make one totally transit-dependent. Nearly 12% of Cleveland residents who live in a zero car household drove alone to work, while another 10.8% carpool. Just over half (54%) take transit.

Now, none of this discussion is to say that the status quo represents the ideal situation for every worker or would-be worker. In a perfect world, I imagine that we would see people travel differently, but the end result would likely be a higher drive alone rate among low-income Clevelanders, regardless of the location of their jobs. Car ownership remains a major aspiration for many low-income workers, though one that is largely too expensive to obtain.

When it comes to length of commutes, 15.2% of workers in Central spend more than 60 minutes traveling to work each way, more than twice the city average of 6.2%.  Of those Central residents with commutes shorter than 30 minutes, roughly one-third drive to work, while just 10.8% take transit. For those with hour-long commutes, these numbers are 7.4% and 85.9%, respectively.

These numbers may suggest that those who already have lengthy commutes – perhaps to suburban job hubs like Solon – are already able to utilize transit. More likely, it reflects how much longer it takes transit riders to get work, limiting the number of jobs they can access. According to the report from the Cleveland Fed, just one-third of all jobs in Northeast Ohio are accessible via transit.

Examining the evidence from the Bay Area

While the latter explanation seems far more likely, the ACS data do not tell us the direction of the relationship. To get a better sense of whether the “jobs to people” or “people to jobs” approach is better, we need to dig into the literature.

In a 2003 study (paywall), Harry Holzer from Georgetown and John Quigley and Steven Raphael from Berkeley looked at the results of a natural experiment in the Oakland area to parse this issue.

Voters approved a sales tax increase in 1986, allowing the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) to expand its network into the Oakland suburbs. Two new stops – the Castro Valley in the Oakland urban core and Dublin/Pleasanton in its eastern suburban ring – opened in May 1997.

 

To examine how the transit expansion may have affected job access and employment opportunities among blacks and Latinos, the authors conducted two surveys of employers in the area. The first occurred in April-May 1997, while the follow-up survey was done in April and July 1998, after the lines had been fully operational for a year.

They broke employers into two groups: those who were located within 6 miles of one of the new transit stations were part of the treatment group, while those outside of this radius were part of the control. This allowed the authors to determine whether proximity to the new stations influenced an employer’s propensity to hire people of color.

Interestingly, the authors found a strong, statistically significant relationship between an employer’s distance from a station and its odds of hiring a Latino worker. The likelihood that an employer would hire a Latino declined by 1.5-2.% for each mile of distance that an employer is located from the station, increasing the demand for Latino labor by roughly 8%.

But no such relationship existed for black workers. On the contrary, there was a slightly higher chance – though not statistically significant – that employers located more than 6 miles from a station would hire black workers.

The authors suggest this may stem from the fact that, while Latinos were more evenly dispersed throughout the Oakland area, black workers were heavily concentrated in urban core neighborhoods. Latinos were also employed at nearly double the rate of black workers to begin with. These conditions may have made it easier for them to locate and take advantage of jobs opened up by the new transit service.

Ultimately, Holzer, Quigley, and Raphael concluded,

Given some of the extreme distances between urban neighborhoods and suburban employment centers in modern metropolitan areas, along with the low-density sprawl development that characterizes many suburban employment centers, these patterns indicate that the potential of transit policy to foster large increases in reverse commuting is limited.

What about the Midwest though?

But that’s just the Bay Area, so perhaps the study has limited applicability to Northeast Ohio. Fortunately, we can draw from another study by Nebiyou Tilahun of the University of Illinois at Chicago and Yingling Fan of the University of Minnesota, focused on Minneapolis-St. Paul.

In their article, Tilahun and Fan consider the effects of long-range transit plans (PDF) from the region’s metropolitan planning organization (MPO), the Metropolitan Council. In their plans, the Council calls for adding 14 new transitways by 2030, which would ramp up transit connectivity in the metro area.

By modeling various scenarios, Tilahun and Fan are able to examine the “jobs to people” or “people to jobs” debate in a Midwestern context. They model the effects of four separate scenarios:

  1. Transitway-focused centralization: people and jobs cluster along transit lines; closest to transit-oriented development (TOD)
  2. Decentralization scenario: people and jobs continue to sprawl outwards
  3. Reference scenario 1: jobs cluster along transit lines, while people continue residential sprawl
  4. Reference scenario 2: people cluster along transit lines, while jobs continue to sprawl

To examine the impacts of these scenarios, the authors consider the accessibility of jobs in the Twin Cities via transit, including walking time, waiting time, and transfers. If a person can reach a job via transit within 30 minutes, it is considered accessible to her/him.

In 2010, a randomly chosen person in the Twin Cities could access 117,611 jobs within 30 minutes via transit. Under the transit system envisioned by the Metropolitan Council, this number would grow by 7.5% through 2030. Considering the alternatives, the authors note,

Results from the scenario analysis show that the highest gains in accessibility result from a policy of concentrating both jobs and population along transitways. Given the current (and anticipated base) patterns of population and jobs, if one had to choose between centralizing population or jobs, the accessibility gains suggest that one should focus on centralizing jobs along transitways.

Reference scenario 1, in which jobs but not people locate along transit, increases accessibility by 4.5%. This is more than double what can be achieved by centralizing people only. Even if residential sprawl continues, focusing on TOD for jobs significantly improves accessibility.

Ultimately, Tilahun and Fan conclude,

Under these scenario analyses, we show that centralizing housing and jobs along transitway corridors is the best strategy to follow if increasing regional accessibility is the goal. Particularly a strategy that focuses on targeted jobs centralization along transitway corridors would have significant payoffs…

By bringing jobs closer to public transportation corridors, higher accessibility gains can be achieved than can be by the provision of the transportation service alone. This can move forward broader access equity questions among the region’s population by enhancing access to car-less or other transportation disadvantaged groups.

Taken together, these results throw cold water on Truog’s advocacy for the “people to jobs” approach to Northeast Ohio’s serious accessibility challenges. They also lend support to Piiparinen and Russell’s findings, which call for more coordinated regional investment in TOD projects like the Healthline.

Nevertheless, each of the articles and studies I have considered here treats transit as an exogenous variable. In other words, they act as though the provision of transit and its effects on job accessibility occur in a vacuum, free from larger institutional questions. That is simply not the case (though it makes sense in an academic sense, as you want to isolate your independent variable).

But, given that this post is already absurdly long, I will punt that issue to a second piece. There, I will examine the broader trends of job sprawl in Northeast Ohio and how larger, systemic issues like racism and exclusionary zoning influence the impact of transit on job access for minorities in Cleveland.

When it comes to Public Square, where have all the bollards gone?

public square drawings bollards
public square drawings bollards

If you look closely, you will see retractable bollards on Superior, running parallel to West and East Roadways in this rendering from Field Operations (courtesy of Cleveland.com).

Last week, Mayor Frank Jackson and Chief of Police Calvin Williams sent separate letters to the Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx and Federal Transit Administration acting head Carolyn Flowers, respectively, in which they asked the two agencies to extend the deadline for GCRTA to pay the $12 million fine for closing the Public Square bus lanes.

Both letters emphasized the city’s safety concerns, particularly the threat that someone may use the 600-foot stretch of Superior Avenue to drive a large truck into a crowd of people, as we saw unfold in the tragic attacks in Nice and Berlin.

Chief Williams’ letter, in particular, echoed earlier statements from Public Safety Director Michael McGrath:

Of particular concern is the recent and continued use of motor vehicles by terrorists to attack citizens attending public events. Ohio is one of a few states to receive particular attention by federal authorities in the past few months. Opening Public Square to cross traffic allows a determined individual to gain speed traveling on Superior Avenue and divert directly into a crowd gathered on the square.

The threat of terrorism should always be accounted for, as it is an all too common reality in today’s world. But, while Mayor Jackson and his public safety officials keep hyping it time and time again as a justification for closing the Square, they have failed to even discuss alternative options to – say it with me – mitigate this risk.

Let’s ignore, for a minute, whether or not GCRTA or the FTA has any regulatory obligation to address this question, as Mayor Jackson keeps insisting, and take him at his word.

I’ve met the Mayor on a few occasions, and I’ve always found him to be a polite man who is generous with his time and seems to legitimately care about the people he is supposed to serve. So I am willing to believe that he honestly worries about the safety risks. That said, why does he appear so ardently opposed to considering other options, short of closing the Square entirely?

The threat from vehicles is not new

As Chief Williams noted in his letter, there is “particularly concern” stemming from “the recent and continued use of motor vehicles by terrorists.”

But we should not be ahistorical and pretend that this trend is somehow new. Quite the opposite. Terrorists have been using vehicles as weapons for decades now, stemming back at least to the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993.

In response, cities around the world have installed barriers to prevent individuals from getting their vehicles close enough to buildings to cause the type of devastation we witnessed in this attack. As New York University professor Marita Sturken described in her book Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero:

The 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing both had high destructive impact because trucks were able to get into or next to the buildings. This has produced and industry in the construction of such devices as bollards and NoGos. Steel or concrete bollards, which now surround the vast majority of government buildings, are designed to stop a truck going fifty miles an hour. Sleek bollards are a now a key feature of security design…While Washington, D.C., has been the site of the most obvious barriers for federal buildings, there are now many projects to situate bollards around tourist sites such as the Washington Mall in ways that are less intrusive and more aesthetically pleasing.

So why did the City of Cleveland and its partners in the Public Square redesign not include concrete bollards, NoGos, or some other form of vehicle barrier along the curbs on Superior Avenue to – you guessed it – mitigate these terrorism concerns?

Vehicle barriers already exist in Cleveland

It’s not as though, like contemporary fashion, these design features have stayed on the East Coast and not yet filtered over to Cleveland yet. On the contrary, we already have bollards, barriers, and planters installed outside of buildings throughout downtown, including City Hall, the Federal Reserve Bank, the Federal Building, and Key Tower, which sits just steps from the newly redesigned Square. We already had the foresight to install them at other sensitive locations, so why not Public Square?

 

Moreover, we have already installed bollards curbside along other public green spaces in Cleveland! East and West Mall Drives run parallel to Mall B downtown. As you can see below, in order to lower the risk that a car could jump the curb from those streets and crash into a gathering on the Mall, officials installed bollards. We’re already doing this.

bollards west mall drive

Bollards, both permanent and removable, abut West Mall Drive, protecting Mall B from vehicles.

We need to talk about the Malls

But, unlike Public Square, not every public green space in downtown Cleveland has raised the same breathless specter of terrorism. Venture just across the street south to Mall A, and you can see that the bollards disappear. The same thing happens when you head north to Mall C. Hell, even if you just go around the corner on Mall B, there are no bollards abutting St. Clair.

 

Each of the Malls runs along wide avenues – St. Clair and Lakeside – that can hold high volumes of traffic moving at high speeds. Each of them includes curb cuts that could allow someone to drive up off the street without being slowed down.

These Malls have been the sites of many large public gatherings, from protests to yoga classes to art installations to the Gay Games Festival Village and the Cleveland Orchestra’s Fourth of July concert. Where was the administration raising terrorism concerns when they were redesigned on the public dime, also to much fanfare? What makes Public Square so uniquely vulnerable?

I understand that the Square has a street bifurcating it, but similar conditions exist just a stone’s throw away.

What happened to the retractable bollards?

More galling, the original design of the Square, which starchitect James Corner unveiled in 2014, actually included retractable bollards at the intersections of Superior and East and West Roadways, which could be raised to close the street for special events. The City and its partners included these bollards in the plan, but scrapped them somewhere along the way.

Whose call was this? What was the justification?

So what’s really going on here?

Even if you take the administration at their word and assume their motives are pure, their arguments don’t hold up to scrutiny. This raises the question – what is their actual motivation?

Is it the Mayor’s assertion that the City was shocked by how popular the new space was? Are we honestly supposed to believe that the City spent tens of millions of dollars on a new Public Square, under the assumption that a few dozen people would maybe use it sometimes?

Or could it be, as Councilman Zack Reed suggested and Chief of Staff Ken Silliman perhaps accidentally admitted on November 30, that the businesses in and around the Square (including those who helped fund its completion) don’t want “those people” hanging around, waiting for the bus? If this is your real motivation, I urge you to reconsider.

Ultimately, each of these arguments falls apart when you actually hold it under the microscope.

We never should have gotten to this point, where GCRTA is facing a potentially crippling fine. Our elected and appointed officials should be able to demonstrate even a modicum of foresight and planning on issues such as this.

Public Square is an outstanding public space, and everyone should be able to utilize it. But, despite its many excellent features that make it unique in Cleveland, it is not uniquely vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

If you want to mitigate this risk, by all means do so. But that does not require closing the Square to buses.

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 Cleveland.com 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.

Don’t listen to NEOMG – closing Public Square to buses leads to more air pollution

public square bus protest
public square bus protest

Protestors, including Councilman Zack Reed, call for the opening of Public Square to buses on December 3 (courtesy of Cleveland Scene).

One can generally count on Advance Ohio/NEOMG/Cleveland.com/The Plain Dealer/whatever they are going by nowadays to defend vigorously the interests of the entrenched powers-that-be. This outcome particularly holds true when it comes to shiny, big ticket megaprojects.

Regardless of whether or not said megaprojects actually have merit, Cleveland’s largest media conglomerate and newspaper seems all too happy to eschew logic or internal consistency in their quest to carry the water for the region’s political and business elite.

One need look no further than their breathless coverage last week of the “transformation plan” for Quicken Loans Arena. Cleveland.com even created a helpful landing page for the proposal, complete with 13 separate stories. Erstwhile good journalists twisted themselves into knots trying to defend a plan that will cost taxpayers some $160 million over the next two decades to bring up to snuff an arena that just hosted the Republican National Convention, in the hopes of “boosting the city’s ability to attract major events, such as political conventions.” Check your logic at the city limits, folks.

With all of that in mind, it is really no surprise that NEOMG/the PD/whatever would happily defend Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson’s inexplicable decision to close Superior Avenue through Public Square to buses. A lot of ink and words have been spilled on this issue, and I’m not here to relitigate this fight. Instead, I just want to focus on a relatively narrow issue.

Two weeks ago, just days after a contentious City Council hearing on the issue, the PD published an editorial that dutifully parroted the Jackson administration’s talking points on the subject, right down to the hyperbolic fear-mongering about terrorist acts and bus drivers mowing down children in the street.

Putting aside those claims for a minute [which, honestly, we shouldn’t, because hoo boy], there was one particular part that really caught my attention,

Public squares were designed in a quieter time before terrorist considerations and wheezing block-long buses were prevalent.

When I read that sentence, I think my eyes damn near rolled out of my head and onto the floor.

Forget the absurd claim that “public squares were designed in a quieter time before terrorist considerations,” which is, obviously, insanely ahistorical. One can easily date terrorism back the first century CE, and the word itself has its origins in Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, which took place two years before Moses Cleaveland even established this city.

Leave aside the assertion that GCRTA employs “block-long buses,” which is preposterous. The average block in downtown Cleveland is roughly 500-600 feet long. GCRTA’s longest buses are…not.

About those “wheezing” buses…

But that’s still not what I want to talk about. While you may want an analysis of the merits – or lack thereof – of the arguments put forward by the administration and its water carriers at 1801 Superior Avenue, I gotta be me. And, as Area Air Quality Nerd, I cannot get past the “wheezing” part of that ludicrous sentence.

Read literally, the PD’s editorial board argues that allowing GCRTA buses to use the dedicated bus lanes on Superior Avenue through Public Square would allow them to belch out diesel exhaust, fouling air quality and damaging the lungs of passersby.

Except that is prima facie absurd. Perhaps the members of the editorial board don’t quite understand how mobile emissions work, but that isn’t it. On the contrary, forcing buses to travel around, rather than through, the Square should produce more emissions, as the buses are forced to drive farther and sit in traffic as they compete for road space with other vehicles. But how much?

Fortunately, I do this sort of thing for a living, so I can estimate the additional bus emissions associated with closing Superior Avenue through Public Square to buses.

The method to my madness

Let me briefly lay out my methodology. According to GCRTA data, roughly 1,445 buses drive through/around Public Square on a daily basis. Because those buses are not able to access their dedicated lanes on Superior Avenue, they are forced to transit another 0.1 miles around East Roadway/West Roadway/Rockwell, adding some 52,754.5 miles per year. Additionally, because the buses are now in traffic, they must travel at reduced speeds and idle as they wait to get back on Superior Avenue.

Below, I lay out the additional emissions that result from closing the Superior Avenue bus lanes through Public Square. In one scenario, I assume each bus trip is delayed by 2 minutes – the lower estimate which the administration provided at the Council hearing. In a second scenario, I assume each bus trip is delayed by 4 minutes, which, while double the administration’s estimates, is still below observed delays of 6 to 10 minutes from GCRTA riders. The former scenario leads to 17,851 idling hours per year, while the latter adds up to 35,162 hours.

I utilized MOVES2014a, the most recent version of the U.S. EPA’s mobile emissions modeling software, to develop emissions factors per mile and for each additional hour of idling for the GCRTA bus fleet. I then converted total emissions into additional metric tons per year. The results are shown below.

additional emissions public square

Additional emissions from closing Superior Avenue through Public Square to buses (authors estimates using MOVES2014a).

Closing Superior generates more emissions

As you can see, the additional distance the buses must travel (0.1 miles per trip), leads to de minimis emissions. But when you add in the idling emissions, those numbers climb significantly. Carbon monoxide (CO) emissions total 0.71 and 1.13 tons, respectively, based 2- and 4-minute delays, while nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions total 1.96 and 3.16 tons, respectively. Closing the Square also leads to an additional 535.98 and 860.96 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per year for each scenario, respectively.

And those emissions have real costs

On the whole, these are not particularly eye-popping numbers. But they do carry real costs and consequences. When the City of Cleveland and GCRTA initially sought federal funding for the Healthline BRT project in 2001, they estimated the emissions savings the project would generate. As the table below shows, the additional emissions from closing the Square to buses nullifies a portion of those emissions.

costs from additional public square emissions

Costs associated with additional emissions from closing Superior Avenue through Public Square to buses (authors estimates).

The additional CO emissions only takes away slightly more than 1% of the estimated savings; that said, vehicle CO emissions have plummeted nationwide since that point due to new vehicle emissions controls, so that’s not surprising. But the additional NOemissions could wipe away almost half the estimated savings under a 4-minute delay scenario.

These extra emissions carry real social costs. I have also estimate the social costs of the additional emissions, using damage estimates from the Federal Highway Administration. Again, the numbers are not staggering, but they do amount to tens of thousands of dollars in additional social costs tied solely to the Mayor’s decision to close a 600-foot piece of road.

Don’t forget those unknown unknowns

Furthermore, I cannot calculate any additional emissions that may result from the ripple effects of this ill-conceived decision. GCRTA has already cut more bus revenue miles than any other major transit agency, and it recently enacted a two-step fare increase. Add to that a potentially catastrophic budget hit from the loss of sales tax revenues on managed care organizations, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Tacking on another $1.6 million in operating expenses and increasing delays will make the experience worse for riders, possibly driving those who can afford it off the bus and into private cars. Given that GCRTA buses release 19% fewer average emissions per passenger mile than single-occupant vehicles (320 grams vs. 396 grams of CO2e, per my estimates), this outcome would just add even more emissions.

So while I expected the PD to support the Jackson administration’s choice, they should tread more carefully when it comes to verifiably inaccurate statements. There are no block-long buses hurtling through Public Square, belching out emissions. Just the opposite, in fact.

Employers play a major role in shaping commuting behavior

miami rush hour traffic
miami rush hour traffic

Rush hour traffic along I-95 in Miami (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

For sustainable transportation advocates, changing people’s commuting behaviors can seem like our white whale.

While commutes account for just 19% of total personal trips in the US, they play an outsized role in our transportation system, accounting for 27.8% of total vehicle miles traveled (VMT).

Their timing is also critical. The concept of rush hour revolves around our commute patterns. In cities like Washington, DC and Los Angeles, rush hour congestion can make life hell commuters, costing them time, money, and sanity. But in cities that are not growing and have no real congestion issues normally, these rush hour periods are particularly important.

For a city like Cleveland, commuting patterns directly influence the transportation infrastructure we end up with. The influx of drivers heading to and from work each day provides justification to expand our already overbuilt road system, which has serious impacts on development patterns, travel choices, and mobile emissions. If we could smooth these demand spikes by reducing the number of single-occupant vehicles (SOVs) on the road, we could potentially upend this vicious cycle, which justifies the continued addition of freeway lane miles to the system.

Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that we’ve made little, if any ground in this area. In 1960, the Census Bureau reported that 64% of Americans drove to work; they did not differentiate between driving alone and carpooling at the time. Another 12.1% of commuters used public transit, while just under 10% walked. By 1980, thanks to OPEC oil embargo, 19.7% of Americans carpooled, and the drive alone number stayed at 64.4%, even as public transit use fell.

But by 2014, these trends had reversed; 76.3% of Americans drive alone to work, while just 5% take transit, and 3.4% walk or bike. To date, our efforts to get people to stop driving alone to work have failed spectacularly.

Commuting: What is the role of employers?

Part of the problem with these efforts is that we have focused far too much on the individual. Commute mode decisions are a two-way street (pun intended). They depend not only on the whims of the individual, but also on employers’ decisions. People don’t just decide to drive to work in a vacuum. Their universe of choices are shaped by a number of endogenous and exogenous factors, including things entirely in the control of their employers.

This thought really crossed my mind recently while I was reading an article on electric vehicles (EVs) by Christopher Mims in the Wall Street Journal. Mims noted the vital role that employers can play in normalizing EVs for their employees:

Placing charging stations at workplaces, where cars spend much of their time, will be uniquely powerful. When a workplace installs a charging station, employees are 20 times as likely to buy a vehicle with a plug, according to a survey from the U.S. Department of Energy.

In light of this fact, it’s important to consider what, precisely, employers can do to influence the commute patterns of their employees.

Earlier this year, the City of Cleveland Office of Sustainability and NOACA partnered together to launch what they called the Commuter Choice Challenge. The goal of the program is “encouraging Northeast Ohio organizations of all shapes and sizes to take action in sustainable transportation.”

While some people may scoff at the idea that we should reward organizations that provide pre-tax transit passes to their employees, there really are a number of steps employers can take to foster mode shift. Collectively, this effort to provide alternatives and enhance the efficiency of our transportation system is known as transportation demand management (TDM).

Changing jobs and the importance of signalling

One of the simplest things that an employer can do is to act as a knowledge broker and paragon for their employees. For most people, commuting is a habit – once people start driving to work everyday, it becomes very difficult to shake them out of it.

Because commuting is a habit, there are only so many potential points at which an intervention is likely to succeed. But habits become weaker when your personal circumstances change. This context tends to shift most abruptly after major life events, such as moving or changing jobs.

In a study published earlier this year, Ben Clark, Kiron Chatterjee, and Steve Melia from the University of the West of England explored how these life events affect people’s commutes. They found that, while one-fifth of all British commuters change their mode from one year to the next, car commuting is far stickier. Just 8.6% of car commuters changed away from driving, and the mean duration of their commute mode was 6.3 years, twice as long as those for public transit (3.0 years) or active transportation (3.2 years).

Targeting new hires can be a highly effective way to disrupt the stability of car commuting. The odds that a person will switch from driving to alternative modes increases 2.5-fold when people change jobs. This highlights the importance of providing new hires with comprehensive TDM options and information, not just a parking pass. Demonstrating from day one that your workplace acknowledges and supports non-SOV modes helps to normalize them for employees. Signalling is an important part of behavioral change.

Pull factors matter…

If employers wish to reduce their SOV share, they need to provide a suite of incentives to get them out of their cars. These pull factors can come in a variety of forms, from reduced health insurance premiums for people who use active transportation to subsidized transit passes.

Considerable evidence suggests that these sorts of TDM packages can go a long way. In a 2005 study, researchers from the U.S. EPA examined the impact of the Agency’s Best Workplaces for Commuters (BWC) program, which recognizes employers that encourage, educate, and incentivize their employees to try alternative commute modes.

The researchers compared the commute patterns among employees using the BWC programs to the average commuter in these same Census blocks. They then modeled the impacts of these commute patterns to see the associated reductions in gasoline use and mobile emissions. According to the authors:

The results of this survey indicate that where employers provide employees with incentives to commute by means other than driving alone, significant percentages of them take advantage of these benefits. Comprehensive benefits packages such as those enjoyed by commuters in the BWC group, with financial incentives, services (such as guaranteed ride home, carpool matching, etc.) and informational campaigns, appear to produce reductions of trips, VMT, pollutants, and fuel consumption of around 15 percent even under conservative assumptions.

Another 2012 paper from Virginia Tech professor Ralph Buehler found that providing bike parking, showers, and locker rooms increases the odds that employees will bike to work nearly 5-fold. Clearly pull factors, such as financial incentives and facilities investments, play a central role in this equation.

But push factors – especially parking – matter more

But, as with anything else, changing commute behaviors requires both push and pull factors. And the latter are particularly key, as the single most effective strategy that an employer can use to reduce SOV share is to remove parking subsidies.

In the US, some 95% of US commuters receive free parking at work. The provision of this benefit can increase the SOV rate for commutes by up to 50%.

UCLA professor Donald Shoup, the godfather of parking research, has explored the effects of curbing this parking subsidy. In a 2005 report, he outlined the benefits of implementing a parking cash out program, by which employers provide commuters with the option of receiving a cash incentive equal to their parking subsidy if they don’t drive alone to work. Such programs allow employees who really want to drive to work to continue getting discounted parking, but it also incentivizes alternatives for those who would rather try them.

Shoup’s research in California found that cash out programs can cut SOV share by 17%. A separate study from Daniel Hess, also of UCLA, concluded that by charging $6 per day for parking, Portland was able to cut its SOV share by 16%.

Getting parking right is even more important than these numbers show, however. The lure of free parking so strong that if an employer rolls out a TDM program but fails to price parking, the latter will simply crowd out the former. As Dr. Shoup put it, “Advocating ridesharing while offering free parking is like denouncing smoking while offering free cigarettes.”

A separate paper Buehler and his colleague Andrea Hamre explored this issue. Their research showed that providing free parking increases the share of commuters who drive alone, regardless of what other incentives the employer may provide. Without free parking, 75.9% of Washington, DC area commuters would drive alone. Free parking increases that share to an astounding 96.6%. Providing subsidized transit and incentives for active transportation, while also supplying free parking, only takes that SOV share down to 86.8%.

As the authors concluded, their research “suggests that benefit combinations that include free parking either overwhelm or render insignificant the positive effects of benefits for public transportation, walking, and cycling.”

Location, location, location

But even the most comprehensive TDM packages will struggle to overcome another factor that employers can control – their location.

Often times, sustainable transportation advocates focus on the negative effects of residential sprawl, but neglect workplace sprawl. Just as people in the US have spread farther and farther outward, so too have employers.

Consider Northeast Ohio. The region boasts five major employment hubs, like downtown Cleveland and University Circle. Yet, combined, these hubs only account for less than one-quarter of all jobs in the region. The rest are distributed broadly across the five counties.

This outcome poses a major challenge to TDM. Transit ceases to be viable when households and destinations are sprawled out. The same holds true for active transportation. No one is going to choose to walk 10 miles to work in an exurb without sidewalks.

The Clark, Chatterjee, and Melia study illustrates this clearly. If a worker’s commute increases from less than to more than two miles, the odds that s/he will switch from active commuting to driving increases 30-fold. The research seems to indicate that two miles is a key threshold; most people simply will not bike to work if their commute is longer than that.

According to the National Center for Transit Research, location may be the most important variable in the commute equation. No matter how strong the TDM package or how much the organization supports alternative modes, locating your office in the middle of an exurban office park locks in your employees’ commute options.

Ultimately, I think we have focused our attention too narrowly on the individual commuter for too long. Research has shown time and time again that the most effective TDM strategies target the employer first, as that is the critical leverage point.

Large institutions that claim to support sustainability need to back up their words through their actions when it comes to commute options. It’s not enough to simply post an annual sustainability report or get your buildings LEED certified if you subsidize parking and locate your office in exurbia. The transportation sector is now the largest source of carbon pollution in the US. It’s time for employers to act like it.

Fun with Cleveland bike lanes!

ontario bike lane after

I don’t even know where to begin with this one.

Earlier this summer, shortly before Republicans invaded Cleveland, the publicly-funded downtown Hilton Hotel opened to much fanfare and self-congratulatory praise. The hotel’s completion coincided with the repaving and restriping of Ontario Avenue – which runs adjacent to the structure – from St. Clair to Lakeside. The project included the addition restoration of an on-road, striped bike lane, the first and only one located in downtown Cleveland (unless you include the stretch on the north side of Superior from around West 6th to the Detroit-Superior Bridge, which, don’t).

Here’s what the lane is supposed to look like, courtesy of bike messenger and Twitter-er-er-er Dave Schalmo (@Courier429). You can see the valet parking signs conveniently placed in the middle of the lane, perhaps suggesting that the people at the Hilton weren’t too thrilled about the placement of said lane.

ontario bike lane before

The bike lane on Ontario Avenue along the Hilton Hotel (courtesy of Dave Schalmo).

Well, that was then. The below is now. I guess that someone decided downtown didn’t need that pesky bike lane any more, because Dave posted this picture earlier today:

ontario bike lane after

In Cleveland, we buffer our curbs and our valet parking zones (courtesy of Dave Schalmo).

But that wasn’t even the best part of all of this. No, for that, you have to check out the response from the Hilton’s official Twitter account:

hilton response ontario bike lane

Yes, painting over a bike lane magically turns it into 2 bike lanes! Also, down is up, and left is right (courtesy of @HiltonCleveland).

If I had to distill the Dadaist shitshow that is Cleveland’s transportation planning into one tweet, you better believe that’s the one.

Update: Yes, I think that the Hilton is trying to claim that, by adding sharrows to Ontario, the City has doubled the number of bike lanes. Of course, that’s nonsense. It painted over the actual bike lane and added the sharrow, which is not a bike lane. Where I’m from, (1 – 1) x 0 = 0, not 2.

Everybody loves protected bike lanes

doo dah parade bike
doo dah parade bike

The not remotely funny entry in question from the Columbus Doo Dah Parade (courtesy of the Columbus Dispatch).

It’s generally taken as an article of faith that drivers and cyclists don’t get along. I can’t count the number of times that I have been buzzed, honked at, or sworn at by people in passing cars or that I have seen it happen to other cyclists. And, if I’m honest, I’ve responded to drivers in kind.

If you’ve ever read the comments on almost any article about biking issues or project (pro tip: don’t), you quickly discover that, in the darkest reaches of society, certain drivers harbor homicidal fantasies about running down cyclists in the streets.

These secret perversions came into the light of day during Columbus’s Doo Dah Parade on July 4, which featured a supposedly “satirical” participant driving an SUV with a damaged bicycle, a mangled dummy, and a sign that read “I’ll share the road when you follow the rules.”

Despite that fact that, as Bike Cleveland rightly points out, the overwhelming majority of cyclists also drive, the world is simply a different place from behind a windshield than it is from behind a set of handlebars. And people tend to act accordingly.

But what if it didn’t have to be that way? What if driver sand cyclists could actually get along? Well, maybe not get along per se, but at least see eye-to-eye on certain things. Like bike infrastructure.

Maybe protected bike lanes are the path to peace

Typically, this isn’t the case. Cyclists push for more investment in bike infrastructure, while drivers, in turn, demand more spending on road construction and maintenance. It’s all too common to hear drivers swap down suggestions for bike infrastructure by claiming it’s a waste of money because no one bikes anyways. Or that it’s diverting money from gas taxes that should be spent on roads. Sure, both of these arguments are misguided, but I’m not going to relitigate those fights here.

Instead, I want to focus on a recent study (paywall) from Rebecca L. Sanders, a transportation researcher at the Toole Design Group, which appears in the September issue of the journal Transportation Research Part A.

According to Sanders, hers is the first study to ask drivers about their preferences for roadway design when it comes to sharing the road with cyclists.

She and her colleagues sent out a survey to 1,177 people in the San Francisco Bay Area in July 2011, asking respondents to rate their level of comfort on a series of different commercial road designs when driving near cyclists or cycling near near cars going 25-30 miles per hour. The various road designs included no bike infrastructure, sharrows, on-road bike lanes, and separated bike lanes. Sanders then followed up by holding a series of focus groups with respondents to get additional information.

The results of the study were clear.

There are only two roadway designs for bicycling that evenly appeal to all groups, regardless of cycling frequency: the two barrier-separated bicycle lane designs…

In other words, while drivers and cyclists disagree on almost everything, they can both agree on the value of investing in separated/protected bike lanes. More than 80% of respondents in every user group agreed that separated lanes make cyclists more predictable on the road, which “runs counter to the idea that bicycle lanes only benefit bicyclists.”

This design is also key for attracting potential cyclists, as their level of comfort drops precipitously once you remove separation from the road design.

Majorities of both casual cyclists and non-cycling drivers were uncomfortable with sharrows, in turn. And contrary to the belief that just striping a bike lane is sufficient to ending driver-cyclist conflicts, nearly 40% of non-cyclists and potential cyclists think that traditional, unprotected bike lanes signal to drivers that cyclists don’t belong on other streets. This result would seem to undermine the arguments of vehicular cycling advocates.

Sanders concludes,

The findings presented here suggest alignment between drivers and cyclists for roadway designs that can meet the needs of both user groups while sharing the road, with both groups preferring greater separation on multi-lane roadways.

So, maybe drivers and cyclists really can get along, at least if we have barriers between us. I get that Robert Frost was being ironic, but maybe good fences do make good neighbors, at least on the roads.

Do ‘ozone action days’ actually inspire people to act?

robert wyly cleveland pollution
robert wyly cleveland pollution

Industrial pollution obscures Cleveland’s cityscape in this 1960 photo from Robert Wyly (courtesy of Elvin Wyly).

“Ozone: Good up high, Bad nearby.” So goes the U.S. EPA’s catchy (?) refrain to help people distinguish between (good) atmospheric and (bad) ground-level ozone.

Fortunately, we have gotten some good news on the former in the past few days. A team of researchers has concluded that we are finally building up more good ozone; that is, the massive hole in the protective ozone layer over Antarctica is finally beginning to heal thanks to the phasing out of chlorofluorocarbons under the 1987 Montreal Protocol. It seems like the ozone layer may be on course to fully recover by the middle of the century.

Unfortunately, the news is not as great on the latter front, as we are also seeing an increase in ground-level ozone. On Tuesday, NOACA issued an ozone advisory, warning residents of Northeast Ohio that ambient levels of ground-level ozone may reach harmful levels, which U.S. EPA defines as those above 70 parts per billion (ppb).

As I’ve documented before, the number of these advisories has dropped significantly over the past decade; however, this summer’s hot, dry weather has stymied that downward trend somewhat. Tuesday marked the seventh time this year that ozone levels in the region exceeded 70 ppb, and NOACA encouraged people – particularly sensitive populations like the elderly and those with respiratory conditions – to limit their time outdoors during afternoon and evening hours in order to minimize their exposure. These types of warnings are commonplace; officials in some 230 metropolitan areas release similar advisories.

Air quality alerts as a call to action?

In a number of areas, these advisories are dubbed action days, highlighting the fact that the agencies see them as a call to arms around ozone pollution. Air quality officials are pushing citizens to not only limit their personal exposure to pollution but also to take steps to reduce the amount of ozone precursor emissions within the region. NOACA, for instance, encouraged people to carpool and take public transportation on Tuesday.

It was with all of this in mind that I read a recent post from the Tri-State Transportation Campaign (TSTC), a non-profit group in the New York City metro area that promotes sustainable transportation and alternatives to car dependency.

In a post titled “Air Quality Alert Days Should Be a Call for Better Streets, Not to Stay Indoors,” Emma Kilkelly, TSTC’s Communications Assistant, chided the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) for telling residents to limit their time outdoors, rather than changing their transportation modes away from cars. Kilkelly wrote that “this type of messaging addresses only the symptoms, not the cause of air pollution.”

It’s worth examining this argument further. Do ozone alerts focus on minimizing exposure at the expense of promoting sustainable transportation? Is it actually harmful to tell people to avoid high levels of air pollution? And, if you assume these two points, would using ozone alerts to promote active transportation and public transit actually work?

Now if all of this seems like unnecessary semantics, that’s because it is. But I’m a huge nerd who did all of this research, and this is my website God damnit, so I’m going to write about it.

But air quality agencies are already doing just that

First, it’s pretty disingenuous to claim that air quality agencies are not already encouraging people to change their transportation patterns on ozone action days. The very agency that Kilkelly critiques, DEEP, does this. To be fair, she acknowledges this in her post, so the argument rings a bit hollow, prima facie.

Second, there does appear to be value in encouraging people, especially those most vulnerable to the deleterious impacts of high ozone levels, to limit their exposure. We know that short-term spikes in ground-level ozone levels can have significant impacts on public health.

In a landmark 2004 study, Michelle L. Bell and colleagues from Yale University studied the changes in mortality rates tied to daily fluctuations in ozone levels across 95 U.S. cities. They found that for every 10 ppb increase in daily ozone levels, all-cause mortality rates jump by 0.52% during the following week. That number goes up to 0.67% for a 20 ppb increase, which is quite common on ozone exceedance days. And this effect is even more pronounced for elderly Americans. Mortality rates for Americans aged 65 to 74 go up 0.7% for each 10 ppb spike in ozone.

Do air quality alerts benefit public health?

Accordingly, limiting the amount of time that people from higher-risk groups spend outside during the late afternoon and early evening hours can benefit their well-being. But does encouraging people to shift the time that they exercise or go outdoors – so-called avoidance behaviors – actually work?

This answer appears to be yes. Economists Alison L. Sexton Ward and Timothy K. M. Beatty published a paper (paywalled) last year studying this very question. They found that, on air quality alert days, individuals do engage in avoidance behaviors.

Overall, people limit the amount of time they spend outdoors engaged in vigorous physical activity by 18%. The number is even higher among the elderly, who reduced the amount of time by 59%. A similar study (PDF) from Australia noted that cyclists reduce the amount of time they spend biking on air quality alert days by 18.2% for commuting and 38.2% for recreation, respectively.

But can they drive mode shift?

Third, the question of efficacy remains. If air quality agencies devoted all their public outreach efforts to promoting mode shift on ozone action days, would they suceed?

Unfortunately, the evidence suggests they wouldn’t. Several agencies have tried this approach for years. San Francisco, for instance, operates the Spare the Air Program, which encourages alternative commute modes and subsidizes transit passes on exceedance days. The problem is that it doesn’t work.

Multiple studies cast doubt on the effectiveness of Spare the Air. A 2009 study from W. Bowman Carter and Matthew Neidell noted (PDF) a small increase in transit ridership on ozone action days, but it was statistically insignificant. Stephen Sexton, in turn, argues (paywall) that ozone alerts may actually push some transit users to drive to work in order to limit their exposure to higher pollution levels. His review of the program found an increase in both transit trips and VMT.

As a result, Spare the Air apparently “has the perverse effect of increasing car trips,” making it, essentially “a pay-for-pollution program.”

Studies from other cities back up these results. Calvin Tribby and colleagues, for example, looked at the impact of air quality alerts on traffic volumes in Salt Lake City from 2001 to 2011. They concluded (paywall) that “messages regarding air quality and voluntary reductions in vehicle trips are not only ineffective at reducing traffic but apparently increased average daily traffic levels.” Their work again suggests that normal transit users shift to driving in an attempt to limit their personal exposure to pollution.

All told, the weight of the available evidence contradicts Kilkelly’s central argument. While ozone action days may drive people to take certain actions, they are not necessarily the actions she (and I) would like to see. Instead of criticizing air quality officials for encouraging people to take avoidance behaviors on exceedance days, we should acknowledge the limits of what their pleas can realistically achieve.

While ozone alerts are highly unlikely to cut down on VMT, they can and do provide a clear public health benefit. Let’s focus our attention and advocacy on those actors who can actually influence the nature of our transportation system in the long-run. Criticize the underlying system that forces your friendly area air quality planner to issue these advisories in the first place, not her/him for doing so.

Raising the sales tax is not the answer to GCRTA’s funding woes

joe calabrese town hall
joe calabrese town hall

GCRTA CEO Joe Calabrese prepares to speak at the Clevelands for Public Transit town hall meeting on June 23 at Antioch Baptist Church (courtesy of Clevelanders for Public Transit).

Pragmatists have long invoked the phrase “Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.” Generally speaking, that’s solid advice. And, as a card carrying incrementalist sellout™, it’s something I can get behind. Most of the time, that is.

Some issues are so substantial, so systemic in nature, that tinkering on the margins is unlikely to remedy the problem. And that’s one of our major pathologies here in Cleveland. We seem to try tackling these big, hairy problems with the same tired toolkit of solutions, despite the fact that they haven’t worked yet. There’s only so many times you can run headlong into a brick wall.

The problem isn’t that we make the perfect the enemy of the good. It’s that, in Cleveland, we tend to make the facile the enemy of the good.

In other words,  I mean that we almost always fall back on old ideas, regardless of whether or not they have worked or are the best tool for the job.

Our ongoing transit funding dilemma

Take public transportation. For years, transit boosters here have offered up exactly one solution for our system’s funding woes: make the State of Ohio pay its fair share. And, for the love of God, of course it should! But it’s not going to happen anytime soon.

Yet, even when we finally start talking about local funding options, we fall into familiar trap. At a town hall meeting last week, Newburgh Heights Mayor Trevor Elkins – the only member of the GCRTA Board of Trustees to vote against the new suite of fare hikes and service cuts – suggested that we raise the county sales tax to fund the agency.

Now, I’m not saying that there’s anything prima facie wrong with funding transit with sales tax revenues. Cuyahoga County voters approved a 1% sales tax to find GCRTA when it was established back in 1975, and this tax – still the most generous in Ohio – has been a resounding success. The fact that it continues to provide a majority of GCRTA’s revenue 41 years later, despite not being altered, is a testament to the fact that sales taxes can be useful policy tools.

The problem is that, while the transit tax itself hasn’t changed since 1975, the overarching conditions in the region have. Cuyahoga County’s ceaseless population loss has slashed the revenue generating potential of this tax by some $68 million.

Why is the answer always “raise the sales tax”?

Moreover, over the past two decades, Cuyahoga County leaders have turned consumption taxes into a veritable slush fund for bad ideas, many of which have degenerated into little more than thinly veiled corporate welfare. Want to build an oversized convention center and Medical Mart Global Center for Health Innovation? Let’s raise the sales tax! The Browns want a free, new scoreboard? Sin tax! The Republicans need hotel rooms? Bed tax!

Eventually, when you keep throwing tens of millions of good tax dollars after bad into these sorts of projects, people get wary. And, to be fair to Mayor Elkins, he said as much at the town hall meeting. But he still fell back on sales tax hike, perhaps because we lack the policymaking creativity to try something new. Cleveland’s leaders have no incentive to come up with good ideas when they can get away with the same old facile ones.

The problem is, just because something is easy to understand doesn’t make it an effective policy. Cuyahoga County already has the highest county sales tax rate (2.25%) and combined sales tax rate (8%) in the state. Franklin County is second at 7.5%. While we are no longer at the statutory sales tax cap (the state raised that to 8.75%), continually raising consumption taxes is not a long term recipe for success in a county that has been treading water, at best, for nearly 50 years.

Wait, you may say, didn’t you just say that sales taxes could be useful for funding transit? Yes, I did; but I don’t support this idea for a number of reasons, a few of which I will expound upon here.

The problem with raising the sales tax — again

First, as I already mentioned, Cuyahoga County residents already bear the single highest sales tax rate in the state. Raising it further will simply stress a shrinking tax base further.

Economists typically prefer consumption taxes to income taxes, because the latter tend to generate larger distortionary effects. But that’s not to say that consumption taxes don’t do this as well. By raising the relative costs of goods, sales taxes alter the equilibrium between supply and demand by decreasing the amount that people consume. This creates a market inefficiency, known as a “deadweight loss,” which reduces social welfare. It’s wonky as hell and seems weird, but it’s at the heart of economic theory.

Such deadweight losses have clear effects. According to a recent study by researchers at the Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA) in Germany, sales tax increases in the US harm localities. The study, which considers the effects of changes in combined sales tax rates on business activity from 2002-2011, found clear, negative effects.

Each 1% increase in the combined sales tax rate reduces total payrolls within a county, particularly among retail businesses and smaller firms. According to the authors, “These results show a clear negative and significant association between the combined state and county sales tax rate and total annual payroll.”

These deleterious effects are particularly apparent when a county’s sales tax rate is high in relation to neighboring counties. As the map below illustrates, the four counties bordering Cuyahoga have combined see taxes ranging from 6.5% to 7%.

ohio county sales tax rates

Combined sales tax rates in Ohio by county (courtesy of Ohio Department of Taxation).

Multiple studies have demonstrated that these types of cross-border differences can negatively affect the county with the higher rate. In a 2012 study (PDF), Jeffrey Thompson of the Federal Reserve and Shawn Rohlin of Kent State University examined how sales tax rate differences across state borders affected economic activity from 2004-2009. They found that when border counties raise their sales taxes by 1%, total employment falls by 3.8-5.8%. The bulk of this effect occurs in the retail industry, which sees a 7.6% decline in employment.

Second, it is a well-established fact that consumption taxes are regressive, as lower income residents end up paying a larger portion of their income than wealthier residents. This effect is concerning in Cuyahoga County, where we see extremely high rates of poverty and economic inequality in many areas. But this issue is even greater, in this case, as low-income residents are largely concentrated in impoverished neighborhoods within the City of Cleveland and inner-ring suburbs. Wealthier residents, in contrast, have moved out into the outer suburbs and exurbs.

Why does this matter? Because these suburbs are closer to the neighboring counties, making it easier for middle- and higher-income families to take advantage of lower sales tax rates. Consumers are far more likely to cross county borders to make purchases at lower sales tax rates if they live near those adjacent counties. According to Gary Cornia and colleagues (paywall), consumers are more likely to travel 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) a border to take advantage of lower sales tax rates, but that effect essentially disappears when you increase the distance to 30 kilometers (18.6 miles).

Moreover, the low-income residents residents living in Cleveland and the inner-ring suburbs are also far less likely to have ready access to a car. Compare Cleveland, where more than 10% of households lack a car, to Solon or Gates Mills, where that number is just 1.1% and 0.4%, respectively.

As Thompson and Rohlin demonstrate, “cross-border shopping is more prevalent when transportation costs are low.” This essentially guarantees that a sales tax hike will be uber regressive for low-income, transit-dependent Cuyahoga County residents, as they lack the means to avoid it readily. So they would bear an even more disproportionate burden of funding GCRTA, in addition to already shouldering the fare increases.

Third, raising the transit sales tax seems neither seems imprudent from a political perspective. Under Ohio law, county leaders can increase the sales tax by 0.25% to raise general fund revenues without triggering a vote. Our former County Commissioners took advantage of this back in 2007 for the convention center.

That option is not available for transit. Any effort to increase GCRTA’s sales tax rate would have to go before voters for approval. Now, it’s entirely possible that such a proposal would pass. Cuyahoga County voters have approved similar tax increases for far less beneficial purposes in the past. Yet, it’s not guaranteed. Summit County voters rejected this same sort of proposal in 2014 by a convincing 54-46 margin.

Are Cuyahoga County residents that much more inclined to support transit, particularly the type of voters who show up in off-year elections? Does it make sense for GCRTA and local officials to spend considerable political and financial capital trying to get approval for a proposal that does nothing to staunch the winds that have buffeted the transit system for decades?

Let’s choose good policy over simple policy

We know that GCRTA is a fighting a heroic, sisyphean battle against sprawl, population loss, and overbuilt vehicular infrastructure each day. So why don’t we pull policy levers that raise transit funds while simultaneously helping to remedy the underlying challenges?

There are two good options available that serve this dual purpose: a parking tax, which I have already proposed, and scaling up GCRTA into a real regional transit agency by incorporating the collar counties.

Both of these are possible under current law. They will require legislative action and voter approval at the local level, yes. But if we have to launch a campaign to gin up support for local transit funding, we might as well do it right.