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RTA Refocusing On Low- to Mid-Income Riders, New CEO Says

India Birdsong of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority wants to build partnerships with emerging transporation modes such as scooters. [Justin Glanville / ideastream]
India Birdsong of GCRTA gives a speech.

The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA) will refocus on serving lower-income riders first, while better integrating with other forms of transportation such as electric scooters and car-sharing services, according to India Birdsong, the agency's new CEO.

Birdsong outlined a rough agenda for the agency during a speech Oct. 17 at the  city's annual sustainability summit. It was her first public address to Northeast Ohioans since taking office in September.

As the transit agency loses riders, she said, it needs to remember who's still relying on buses and trains now – and rebuild from there.

"Our goal will be to make sure that we give back to the community, we connect communities, and the end goal is to really understand the lower-income to mid-income resident is our bread and butter," Birdsong said.

An analysis conducted over the summer shows 63 percent of RTA bus riders were from low-income households, defined as those with incomes of $27,000 or less. Another 34 percent of riders were from middle income households, with incomes between $24,000 and $63,000. And 3 percent were from high-income households, those with incomes of $63,000 or more. Buses account for 63 percent of the agency's total ridership.

A 2019 analysis showed GCRTA riders were predominantly low- or middle-income. [Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority]

Birdsong also wants the agency to work more closely with other transportation providers. For example, RTA could coordinate with private scooter companies on schedules and drop-off locations, she said. And building closer partnerships with car-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft could help riders determine total fare costs from bus drop-offs to their final locations well ahead of time.

"We have to work to make it part of the unified system," she said. "So maybe that is, you know, getting off of your train or your bus and knowing that a scooter is going to be available for you to take you that last mile."

Another part of her agenda, Birdsong said, will be to oversee a review of the agency’s advertising policy. She wants to limit ads on buses and trains that perpetuate what she calls negative stereotypes about who rides transit – for example, ads for bail bondsmen and personal injury lawyers — or at least counterbalance them with more positive messages.

"If you only have [that type of ad], I can't blame someone for having a negative view of RTA," she said.

Cleveland RTA's 2019 ridership stood at 25 million as of October, compared with 35 million for all of 2018.

Justin Glanville is the deputy editor of engaged journalism at Ideastream Public Media.