As a kid growing up in Ohio, I was fascinated with railroads and transportation. The first passenger train I ever rode was a PCC car on the Shaker rapid (short for rapid transit) which is a light rail line that ran in the median in front of my godparents' house in Shaker Heights into downtown Cleveland. This rail line first opened in 1913 and was expanded and improved throughout the 1920s. Unlike many other U.S. cities, Cleveland never dismantled their light rail network and this line still runs today along with the "red line" heavy rail line.
My interest in tranportation continues and during my Thanksgiving trip back to Ohio to visit with family, my 6-year old son Miles and I spent an afternoon trying out Cleveland's new 9.4 mile "silver line" that opened a few weeks ago. I've ridden many commuter rail, heavy rail, light rail and conventional bus lines over the years. But this was my first experience with Bus Rapid Transit. Here in Maryland, several new transit lines are under consideration and I wanted to see for myself whether BRT might make sense. The lines under consideration in Maryland include the Purple Line, the Corridor Cities Transitway, and County Council Member Marc Elrich's thoughtful new proposal for BRT lines on suburban arterial roadways. Local blog sites Maryland Politics Watch, Just Up the Pike and others have been contributing to a lively debate of transit policies.
Bus Rapid Transit is very different than conventional bus service.
BRT uses a number of design features to gain many of the speed and efficiency characterics of light rail but at a much lower cost. Instead of bus stops and climbing steps up onto the bus, there are enclosed stations that allow you to enter onto the bus across a platform. The fare is paid in advance at a machine in the station instead of placing money in a farebox on the bus. The vehicle travels in dedicated lanes so that it does not compete with other traffic. Traffic signals are specially equipped so that they sense an approaching vehicle and remain green a little longer to let the vehicle pass through the intersection. Instead of a printed bus schedule, there is a frequency of one bus every five minutes at peak times. Cleveland's BRT vehicle use hybrid diesel-electric technology and low-sulfur diesel fuel to reduce emissions.
The silver line runs along Euclid Avenue which is one of Cleveland's main east-west thoroughfares. The eastern terminus of the new line is in East Cleveland at the Windermere/Stokes transit center and it runs through University Circle and on to Public Square in downtown Cleveland.
In addition to light rail, Cleveland has had a heavy rail line for many years. The heavy rail line is called the red line and it already runs between Windermere, and the two main hubs of activity at University Circle and Public Square (before continuing on to the airport). So why create a new transit line that runs between these same hubs?
The reason is that the current red line route bypasses many important points of interest because it follows an old freight railroad right of way. In a sense, the silver line is a do-over to correct missed opportunities from the past.
By following a direct east-west route down Euclid Avenue, the new BRT is able to directly serve many more points of interest such as Case Western Reserve University, Severance Hall, museums, Playhouse Square, Cleveland State University and the burgeoning healthcare institutions of University Hospitals and Cleveland Clinic (birthplace of your humble Delegate). The hospitals bought the naming rights which is why it is referred to as the "healthline". It is also designed to serve as a catalyst for revitalization along the entire length of this once grand avenue of commerce and culture.
Since Cleveland had existing light and heavy rail lines, why was BRT chosen as the mode for the new line?
The planning for the line began in the 1970s. George Voinovich (R-OH) was one of the proponents throughout his career path as a Cuyahoga County Commissioner, Lieutenant Governor, Mayor of Cleveland, Governor of Ohio and finally, U.S. Senator. It was originally envisioned as a rail line. But over the long period, changing federal transit funding rules and decreasing density in the City made the cheaper BRT mode emerge as the winning option.
The construction of the silver line provided an opportunity for the complete rebuilding of the avenue with enhancements to the form and function. Underground utilities were replaced, sidewalks were widened, street lights were upgraded, public art, benches and street trees were added all using sleek urban design features. Bike lanes were added along much of the route. As my mom pointed out, even the defunct 19th century coal chutes in front of many older buildings were filled in.
We began our trip near the eastern end of the line at 118th street. This is also a station on the parallel red line. The glass and metal station is sleek, open and airy. There is an overhead information display to let you know when the next bus will arrive. At the eastern end of the line, the stations are placed along the side of the road.
The vehicle pulled up and we got on board. It is longer than a regular bus with an accordian section in the middle. It holds about 50 seated passengers and around 100 total including standees. It is fully ADA accessible and even has storage space inside for bicycles. The low sulfur diesel electric propulsion system is quiet. It emits 90% lower emissions and gets much better mileage than a standard diesel bus.
After we reached the end of University Circle, we observed that the stations move to the median.
According to Deputy General Manager of Operations Michael York, the vehicles have some unique design features. There is a precision docking system with an arm on the vehicle which connects to the station. The planners had seen it used in on a European BRT line and had to reverse-engineer it and get special permission from the feds to use it in the U.S. Also, there are doors on both the right and left side to accommodate the different station placement configurations.
The vehicles travel mostly in dedicated lanes with a 35 mph limit compared to a 25 mph limit in the adjacent automobile lanes. Car drivers are still getting used to the new lane markings and rules of the road. The picture below shows a lane configuration with bike lane along the curb, then a lane for cars and dedicated bus lane on the left. You can see the driver's hesitation to turn left from the right lane across the bus lane. This is a temporary problem that will correct itself as residents get more experience with a lane configuration that is different from what they knew for many decades.
We passed playhouse square where the narrowest right of way posed some design challenges. Median stations here serve vehicles going in both directions and passengers enter through the left side doors.
We enter the loop through the public square area downtown and remain on the bus for the ride back. At each stop, passengers are able to board quickly and efficiently.
Our travel time from downtown to University Circle is about 25 minutes. We spent more time than expected stopped at red lights. This should be addressed once the transit signal priority system (manufactured by GTT under the Opticom brand name) is fully activated shaving about five minutes off the trip.
Down the road in Washington D.C., a stimulus package is being debated that promises to invest in our infrastructure across the nation. We all hope that this results in smart transportation investments instead of more bridges to nowhere. Although the kinks are still being worked out, Cleveland's new transit line appears to be the former.
I came away convinced that BRT is a practical, efficient and cost effective transit option. Giving buses priority at traffic signals seems to be a key factor in achieving its full potential for fast trip times.
Here in Maryland it would be unwise to rule out BRT for the any of the new transit lines being considered. In a time of fiscal constraints, we need to keep all options open.
For Maryland's purple line, there is a lesson to be drawn about the choice of route. Cleveland made the mistake of bypassing a world class medical institution and other population centers when the original red line was built. An old freight rail line initially was the the path of least resistance but did not prove to be the best route over the long-term. We would be wise to learn from their experience.
Transit Signal Priority (TSP) is a system that can greatly benefit the capacity of conventional buses as well as potential new BRT lines. This seems to me like something that the Washington region should have implemented years ago. Maryland appears to have invested very little to date in testing or implementing such a system on our roadways. This stems from outdated policies that seek to maximize the movement of cars instead of the movement of people.
It is regrettable that Maryland's lack of experience with TSP is reflected in the planning and analysis for projects such as the purple line. The alternatives analysis/environmental impact statement is biased in that fails to adequately analyze TSP. This tends to make BRT appear slower that it might actually be. It also makes it harder to coordinate with the planning of transportation improvements for the BRAC expansion of the nearby Bethesda Naval Medical Center.