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Cleveland rally brings residents, local officials together to discuss transit equity needs

Clevelanders for Public Transit member Nat Zeigler holds a megaphone as they speak to attendees of its Transit Equity day rally on Saturday, February 4, 2023.
Zaria Johnson
Ideastream Public Media
Clevelanders for Public Transit member Nat Zeigler holds a megaphone as they speak to attendees of its Transit Equity day rally on Saturday, February 4, 2023.

Cleveland residents and elected officials gathered at Public Square Saturday, to raise awareness for equitable public transit improvements needed in the region.

Transit Equity Day took place on Feb. 4, Rosa Parks' birthday, to honor her contributions to the civil rights movement and the year-long Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Clevelanders for Public Transit members wanted to find a fun and interactive way to recognize the day and promote transit equity in the city, said Nat Ziegler who sits on the organization’s coordinating committee.

“We've been thinking about doing more education about our policy platform, which is called ending the transit death spiral,” she said. “We were thinking, ‘how can we combine Transit Equity Day with a good way to grow membership, [and] hopefully do some education and outreach?’”

The rally began at Public Square where organizers held signs reading “Transit Justice Now,” “Buses Not Jails” and “Keep Fares Fair.” Ziegler began with a reading of the organization’s Transit Bill of Rights.

Afterward, the crowd heard speeches from Greater Cleveland RTA riders and members of local activists’ organizations.

The speakers emphasized the need for accessible mass transit and how a lack of public transportation can create disparities for people of color, those with disabilities and the working class.

Many disabled people rely on public transit as a way to get around, Co-chair of Clevelanders for Public Transit and disability rights activists Shalida Dobbins said.

Dobbins uses a wheelchair and relies primarily on RTA paratransit buses to get around the city. But RTA’s paratransit website is not ADA compliant, she said as it lacks a screen-reading system for visually-impaired users.  

Dobbins mentioned concerns with the paratransit website with RTA board members at its January meeting. RTA CEO and General Manager India Birdsong Terry said the transit agency is currently in the process of redesigning the website, and will ensure the paratransit webpage is tested and vetted before being unveiled to the public.

In her speech, Dobbins emphasized that no rider should be left stranded, out in the elements waiting for a bus that would never show up. This part of the speech, she said, was personal.

Dobbins said she was left stranded outside of City Hall when a RTA paratransit bus didn’t pick her up for her scheduled ride.

“I looked into my account and it said that I was a no show,” she said. “I wasn't a no show because I was out there, so I would've known if they were there.”

Dobbins is unable to board other RTA buses in the downtown area because she said many of the sidewalks are cracked or damaged which can make it difficult for wheelchair users to get to and board buses. She used Uber to get home that day.

“It makes us feel like we're not important, and we are. Our time is valuable as well,” she said. “You can't leave your passengers stranded when they're disabled. It's not right.”

In her speech, Ohio Political Director for the Working Families Party Aleena Starks said RTA should work to find creative solutions that would allow for transit improvements without raising the cost for its working-class riders.

“Creativity comes from active engagement in our community,” she said. “Creativity is fostered with the people, and if you can't be with the people, you must prioritize listening to them.”

She went on to say that the need for cars in the city of Cleveland is promoting inequity.

“Jobs are pushed further outside of cities, making getting for your job, that usually pays less than a living wage, even more expensive,” she said. “Cars cost over $1,000 a month, especially if it's older. Remember, being poor is expensive and being poor is criminalized.”

Clevelanders for Public Transit member and Cleveland State University professor of Law Matthew Ahn said the RTA board members and local policy makers alike should consider how public transit changes affect marginalized communities.

“Transit equity is a meaningful goal in of itself, but it also aligns with economic justice, racial justice, environmental justice and plenty more,” he said. “It can only exist when car-less transport is frequency effective and accessible to all. Not just out-of-town residents, not just able-bodied riders, not just park and ride commuters, but all residents.”

Additional speakers included Clevelanders for Public Transit member Chris Stocking, Transit Riders of the United States Together board member Akshai Singh, Black Spring Cleveland member Josiah Quarles and Bike Cleveland Policy and Advocacy Director Jenna Thomas.

Clevelanders for Public transit invited Greater Cleveland RTA board members and local elected officials to the rally, and challenged them to rely only on public transit for the rest of the week.

Among those attending was County Executive Chris Ronayne who said he accepted the challenge, and intends to work to make public a reliable alternative for transportation in the region.

“We have dislocated from our center core through urban sprawl over the years, and we've really dislocated people from jobs in [doing so],” he said. “I want to be a partner at Cuyahoga County to the GCRTA with the mobility division that helps with those final miles goes offline trips, and I do want to make sure that, for those online bus trips and rapid trips, that people have the ability to pay to get to where they're going.”

Cuyahoga County Councilman Martin J. Sweeney also attended, along with Greater Cleveland RTA trustees Lauren Welsh, Luz Pellot, Shaker Heights Mayor David Wiess and RTA Transit Police officers.

Sweeney, who is transportation chair of the County Council, said he attended the rally as a public servant to Cuyahoga County residents.

“The citizens pay my salary, so it's an obligation of mine,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for the voice to be heard and a dialog to begin, and we'll see what comes out of it.

Sweeney said he intends to continue to engage RTA in dialogue around mass transit.

“We do have true partners at the RTA,” he said, “and we're just going to try to figure out how we can improve the quality of life of the people of Cuyahoga County.”

After the rally attendees boarded the #26 bus and road to Happy Dog where they engaged in more public transit discussion.

Clevelanders for Public Transit's Chair Chris Martin said the turn out was fine numbers-wise but didn’t accurately represent the demographic of GCRTA riders.

“I'm happy with the turnout, but the reality is … the turnout for the rally today did not match the demographics of our... ridership in general,” Martin said. “We were an awfully white crowd and the typical RTA rider, according to RTA anyway, is a Black woman. And so, I wish we had had more representation.”

Martin said he was happy to see attendance from some public officials, but he added that he hopes to see them continue to put work into implementing equitable changes to the transit system.

“I do hope that they don't take this day as a fait accompli, that they can say that they attended a Transit Equity Day rally and therefore, they care about public transit,” he said. “I would like to see action from people that have the power to take action.”

Zaria Johnson is a reporter/producer at Ideastream Public Media covering the environment.