I was recently in Cleveland for two days for a Transportation Research Board workshop to view its new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line first-hand. I came away very impressed with what Cleveland has done, and I couldn’t help thinking about the similarities to what Columbus is trying to do with the streetcar.
The $200 Million Euclid Corridor Health Line is approximately seven miles long, connecting Cleveland’s two largest job centers, downtown Cleveland and University Circle. The most important regional destinations are served, such as Terminal Tower, Playhouse Square, Cleveland State University, The Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals, and Case Western Reserve University.
The 2.8 mile long, $103 Million, High Street Streetcar would connect Columbus’ two largest job centers, downtown and The Ohio State University, serving the Ohio Statehouse, the new County Courthouse, several theaters, Nationwide Arena, the Convention Center, the North Market, and the Short North Arts District along the way. Hopefully Columbus will also have it’s own version of Terminal Tower sometime soon to connect the streetcar to a regional rail network.
Euclid has been reconstructed from building face to building face, including roadway and sidewalks. Overhead wires have been buried and utilities relocated. Two of the four lanes of traffic have been converted to dedicated bus lanes. Fifteen inch high rail-like bus stations have been built in the medians. New traffic signals with transit signal priority (TSP) have been installed. This all gives the project a sense of permanency.
I doubt Columbus will be doing as much total reconstruction as Cleveland did, but the installation of rail tracks in mixed traffic lanes and overhead catenary wires to power the vehicles will make it obvious that a large public investment has been made in High Street. Additional changes haven’t been determined, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a TSP system and nicer-looking stations with real-time vehicle arrival information.
One of the arguments against building the streetcar is that High Street is already served by the COTA #2, #8, and portions of several other bus routes. Well, Euclid Avenue is currently served by GCRTA #6 and #9 buses. The Health Line will replace the #6 route entirely with more frequent service on higher capacity, hybrid diesel-electric, articulated buses. Approximately half the stops along the route have been eliminated. Combined with TSP and dedicated bus lanes throughout much of the line, a 25% decrease in travel time is projected. Riders will purchase tickets off board in what is called a proof-of-payment system common on light rail lines. Dynamic message signs already are telling riders when the next bus will arrive.
While details of streetcar service remain to be determined, it is expected that the frequency of service would increase, especially during non-peak hours. It is likely that the streetcar would stop half as often as the existing #2 route, which should reduce travel times markedly. The larger vehicle would help to relieve the overcrowding that has become common on the #2, and could allow COTA to run the existing #2 as an express route between 12th Avenue and downtown, only stopping at major transfer points.
On the outside, Euclid Corridor Vehicles (they don’t like to call them buses) are sleek and futuristic looking, with doors on both sides like a train. It is probably the nicest non-electric bus I have ever ridden, but on the inside it still feels like a bus. The hybrid diesel-electric engine provides for a smoother ride than most buses, but the rubber tires still make the ride kind of bumpy compared to rail, even on brand new pavement. There is a docking arm on the bus that makes the steering wheel vibrate so the driver knows when the bus is in position, and the passengers can feel the vibration.
Modern streetcars, like those in Portland and Seattle, are very streamlined and spacious vehicles. My memory of the Portland Streetcar is a very smooth ride in high-capacity vehicles powered by the sweet hum of an electric motor. The streetcar beats even a fancy bus in comfort, and the drivers don’t need a docking arm in order to position it in the correct location relative to the curb.
This is where The Health Line really convinced me that it was worth the $200 Million investment. The BRT line, along with brand new sewers, sidewalks, signals, and more have given the region a focus for new urban development. If you’re going to build something in the City of Cleveland, you might as well do it on Euclid, because you know all the infrastructure is brand new.
Cleveland has already counted more than $4.3 Billion in investment along the Euclid Corridor, and the line hasn’t even opened yet. Even land values in the depressed mid-town/Fairfax neighborhood have doubled from $5 a square foot to $10. Another major development project was announced in the Plain Dealer last Tuesday while I was there. The amount of new development is especially impressive in a city that is losing population to the suburbs and a region that is losing population to other cities in Ohio and the rest of the USA. There are a number of tax and other financial incentives to developing in Cleveland, but the BRT line seems to have accelerated the process.
I am now convinced the streetcar could give High Street the same kind of boost that the Health Line is giving to Euclid Avenue in Cleveland. The healthier economy in Columbus and momentum of development in the Short North should make the development happen all that much easier. This shouldn’t be surprising, as many other cities have found the same results, but I had always been a bit skeptical. A streetcar is the kind of high-visibility infrastructure improvement that would gives developers a reason to focus on downtown and High Street.
As similar as Cleveland’s Health Line is to a streetcar, I came away feeling like a streetcar is a superior transit service in both quality and perception. If the goal is economic development, perception is what really matters here, not just travel times and number of passengers served. If the Euclid Corridor or the High Street Streetcar were only about improving transit service, articulated buses could solve the overcrowding problem at a fraction of the cost. Removing stops and installing transit signal priority could improve travel times. I still think COTA should take those smaller, incremental steps, but those improvements probably wouldn’t provide a significant change in the public perception of transit.
The streetcar is about changing attitudes and perceptions. In order to get public support for more ambitious regional transit projects in the future, the image of COTA has to change. I now believe the streetcar could be the stepping stone to that change. The vision still needs to be articulated and mapped out by the city’s leaders, but I think I now understand the vision, probably better in my head than I have described it here. I don’t know if you’ll find this post valuable or not, but I’m on board with the streetcar.