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How Northeast Ohio communities are building small transit solutions to solve big issue of sprawl

These maps show how development has sprawled throughout Cuyahoga County between 1948 and 2002.
Cuyahoga County Planning Commission
These maps show how development has sprawled throughout Cuyahoga County between 1948 and 2002.

In Northeast Ohio, the continuing sprawl of urban and suburban development has placed some major job centers out-of-the-way for many workers.

Meanwhile, local nonprofits and transit agencies are trying their hand at developing smaller, individual solutions to solve this big problem.

Joanna P. Ganning is an associate dean and associate professor of Economic Development at Cleveland State University.

Ganning, who studies patterns of urban development, pointed to a map from the Western Reserve Land Conservancy comparing Cuyahoga County in 1948 and 2000. The map shows a huge expansion of population centers beyond Cleveland itself.

Ganning said that the map presents a problem for the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA) when considering how to quickly get people to their jobs, as well as to grocery stores, hospitals and more.

“Without more people, or more revenue (except what the state might provide), they are somehow expected to magically cover much larger expanses of urbanized area than what the system was built for,” she said.

Maribeth Feke, director of programming and planning for the Greater Cleveland RTA.
Greater Cleveland RTA
Maribeth Feke, director of programming and planning for the Greater Cleveland RTA.

The GCRTA recently redesigned its services to try to improve riders’ connections to work, but there’s only so much that traditional fixed routes can do to get people to every single job center out there. Because of that, Maribeth Feke, director of programming and planning for GCRTA, said her agency is piloting a new “micro mobility” program called ConnectWorkS that could serve as a model for future efforts to get people to jobs at industrial centers through public transit.

“What we found out is... sometimes there was a difficulty in getting from the end of the RTA route to their work,” she said.

Feke said one part of the ConnectWorkS project is in partnership with the village of Mayfield and the city of Highland Heights to provide a new bus route that connects the end of the #7A RTA bus line to a new bus loop. The loop will serve an estimated 12,000 employees of major employers in the area, including those who work at the Progressive Insurance campus.

“It could be an unpleasant walk early in the morning down even a quarter mile of an industrial park that may not be lit,” Feke said, adding that often these roads don’t have sidewalks.

According to a copy of the proposal submitted by the village and city, the bus loop will circulate frequently and will result in a short walk from the bus to the job sites, three minutes at most.

The proposal explains that the city and village are putting together about $60,000 each and GCRTA is putting in $120,000 toward the project. That will fund creation of the bus loop serviced by Standard Parking Plus, a transit company that already operates in the University Circle neighborhood.

The other part of the ConnectWorkS pilot involves the GCRTA working with SHARE Mobility, a rideshare service, to provide workers in the Bedford Heights and Solon area with a quick connection to their jobs once they get off public transit. That project is still in development. Feke provided a copy of a GCRTA board resolution showing that GCRTA agreed to pay SHARE Mobility $300,000 over a period of 18 months for these services.

While ConnectWorkS is just getting off the ground, Feke said she was excited about its potential. Between the two pilots, the GCRTA will be hitting “a third of the high job centers” in the county. She said the point is to address what some advocates call the first- or last-mile issue, where workers can get close to work through public transit, but still face a long walk after they get off the bus or train.

“It also helps us create a stronger relationship with business and industry so we’re more able to meet their needs with public transportation as they grow,” Feke said.

Feke added that the program is partially inspired by the Paradox Prize, a $1 million contest meant to improve people’s connections to work through public transit and other mobility measures.

Solving the “paradox”

Bethia Burke, president of The Fund for Our Economic Future, said one of the main priorities for her nonprofit is job access. In the long-term, that looks like more sustainable, concentrated growth instead of sprawl.

In the short term, that meant creation of the Paradox Prize, Burke said, which refers to the idea of people being unable to get a job without a car, and unable to afford a car without a job.

What we found out is... sometimes there was a difficulty in getting from the end of the RTA route to their work.
Maribeth Feke, director of programming and planning for GCRTA

That contest doled out grants of roughly $100,000 each to eight teams throughout Northeast Ohio who were working toward improving job access through transit.

“It’s true that $1 million isn’t going to solve the transportation crisis that people are facing, but I will say I have been blown away by the degree to which several of the pilots have sustained solutions in a really short amount of time,” Burke said.

One of those programs that is now standing on its own after 18 months is Transit GO, operated by LakeTran in Lake County, which received a $95,000 grant from the Paradox Prize.

LakeTran CEO Ben Capelle said the concept is simple. Employers that opt in, at no cost to themselves, receive free bus passes for all of their employees.

“The whole objective is, a lot of employers don’t think of transportation as something they need to worry about,” Capelle said. “There is a general shift happening right now (in that regard).”

Sherri Parris, a Willowick resident, 57, doesn’t have a car and uses the Transit GO program to get to her work at an Arby’s.

“It comes in real handy,” she said. “I don’t make much money and it really helps; my sister’s on it too.”

According to spokesperson Julia Shick, Transit GO has so far provided 27,000 trips to nearly 400 employees across 175 employers.

It’s been such a success that Capelle said LakeTran plans to continue funding the program to the tune of about $100,000 per year.

Burke said the other programs funded by the Paradox Prize are in varying states of progress, with some still gathering data on results and examining how to continue as the prize funding dwindles.

Other examples of prize awardees include Get2Work Now in Cuyahoga County, which transports 50 residents from primarily Black neighborhoods to manufacturing jobs using church vans that sit idle during weekdays, enlisting church volunteers as drivers and mentors.

Burke said it’s going to take multiple partners coming together to address the issue of getting people to work quickly and efficiently, without need for a personal car. She views partnering with employers and local nonprofits and transit agencies – like those supported by the Paradox Prize – as a huge step in the right direction.

“We need to think about not just the fixed-route, big 64-passenger buses we have in our minds, but it means first-mile, last-mile connections to work … it means a lot of different things,” she said.

This story is a part of theNortheast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative’s Making Ends Meet project. NEO SoJo is composed of 18-plus Northeast Ohio news outlets including Ideastream Public Media. Conor Morris is a corps member with Report for America. Email him at cmorris40@gmail.com

Corrected: June 10, 2022 at 1:21 PM EDT
The lead maps in the story were originally credited to the Western Reserve Land Conservancy. While WRLC gave Ideastream permission to use the maps, they did not create them.