The Downtowner - Episode 02: Our Aggressive Car Culture

Empty seats on the free downtown trolley on a recent Friday at noon in Cleveland. (Amy Eddings/ideastream)
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Thanks for checking out "The Downtowner," about Cleveland's newest, oldest neighborhood.  Downtown Cleveland is trendy.  Are Clevelanders ready for this? That's what we explore in our podcast about the rise in interest in living Downtown, and what the city will need to do to sustain this growth.  Check out all of our episodes on our show page.    

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Cleveland is a car-friendly city, so much so that even residents who live Downtown are choosing to keep their vehicles rather than ditch them.  A survey of 18 Downtown apartment buildings by the Downtown Cleveland Alliance found 89 percent of residents were also renting garage space.  Nearly half, 47 percent, of college dorm-style units like those at The Langston near Cleveland State University have cars. 

Here's a sobering statistic from the Alliance's survey:  57 percent of Downtowners work in the City of Cleveland.  Fifty-five percent of Downtowners drive alone to their jobs, which includes those who work in the health care industry and presumably have jobs in University Circle, a bus ride away, at the Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals or the V.A.  

That tells me that even when we can take mass transit to work, we Downtowners are choosing to drive. 

"It is as if," George says in the podcast, "the plan is to aggressively accommodate as many cars as possible, no matter what. And everything that I have ever read about what makes an effective city says that is not the ticket, and you somehow put a limit on it.”

I have a car. When my husband sells or rents our house in rural Ohio and joins me here in the Warehouse District, he'll bring his car, too.  It feels, as George mentions in the podcast, like excess.

We're trained to think we need a car when we don't.  It's excessive.  We are trained to equate bounty with excess.  As I get older, I'm not trying to acquire more stuff.  I'm actually trying to get rid of things. And really take a challenging evaluation of what I really need, and taking care of my needs before my wants.  A car is not a need here.  It's a want.

In my defense, I currently ride a bike to work.  I own the streets at 4:00 a.m.  I use the UH Bike share program.  It's easy and convenient.  There's a docking station near my apartment building and one right across the street from the ideastream studios in Playhouse Square.  But there's no way I'm going to commute by bike when winter comes.  I'll take my car, even though the studios are just one mile away. 

I feel awful.  Moving to Cleveland has pitched me into a midlife transportation identity crisis.  I didn't behave like this when I lived in New York City.  We had a car there, too, but the weather never kept me from slogging to the subway station.  That's because ice, snow, driving rain and freezing cold were preferable to driving around for 30 minutes, looking for a free and legal place to park, and much better than paying $45 for a space at a parking garage. 

In Cleveland, we've got the big, five-lane Voinovich Bridges funneling people into and out of Downtown.  Finding a spot at one of Downtown's many, many surface lots is pretty easy.  It's a cinch for me, with my 4:30 a.m. start time.  I'm the first car in the lot.  The cost is $10 for the day.  I can get a monthly pass to the garage behind the station for about $100 a month. That's not bad compared to New York, where monthly spots are around $450 a month.  

This ease and affordability is great for the car, but debilitating for mass transit.  It's one of the reasons why Cleveland's mass transit system is languishing, hitting a record low ridership in 2017. "It is as if the plan is to aggressively accommodate as many cars as possible, no matter what," George says of Cleveland's relationship to the automobile.  ("Aggressive accommodation of the car" is one of his pet phrases, as you'll hear in the podcast.)

As a Downtowner, I don't want to fall into the easy habit of driving to work this winter.  My goal is to figure out where the nearest bus stop is and when I can catch a bus there, so I can time my walk to the bus stop and my arrival at work.  RTA has an app for that, and for pre-paying fares, too.  But committing to the trip will require faith that the bus is going to be there when I need it to be there.  I cannot be late to work. Right now, without first-hand knowledge of bus service reliability at four in the morning, I have more faith in Santa Claus. 

I've got a track record with Santa. He came through for me for many years.

What would deepen my faith in Cleveland's mass transit?  Using it and seeing how it works.  Getting over my resistance and first-timer apprehension is a big hurdle.  RTA chief Joe Calabrese tells us in the podcast he's got staff who teach people how to ride the bus.  "We will literally wait at the bus stop in the morning with them," he said.

The last time I had that kind of help, the bus I was riding was big and yellow and full of screaming kids.

"People in this region grow up knowing how to use a car because they watch their parents use it," Calabrese told us.  Mass transit "is a learning experience."

The learning comes so much faster when your back is against a wall and you have to figure out bus stops and train schedules. I couldn't afford a car on the pink collar wages I earned as a waitress and secretary during my first few years as a New Yorker. I took mass transit because it was what I could afford. There's no stigma to that in New York. It's an expensive city, where a $60,000 annual salary still requires living with roommates and eating ramen noodles for most of the week. There is a mass transit stigma in Cleveland, though. If comedy is a kernel of truth wrapped in a joke, then Cleveland-based comedian Mike Polk's goofy Cleveland tourism videos are telling. He suggests one of the sight-seeing highlights in the city is watching "the poor people all wait for buses."

Former Seattle deputy mayor Kate Joncas told the audience at the City Club of Cleveland's annual "State of Downtown" forum that they were able to bring down the percentage of people driving alone into the center city from 50 percent to 25 percent by making alternatives like bus, rail and bike more appealing than car commuting. She said they did that by making them accessible, easy to use and frequent.

While Cleveland's RTA is arguably easy to use, it's not accessible to commuters outside of the RTA's Cuyahoga County service area.  That's too bad, because that's where the people are.  All of the six counties surrounding Cuyahoga County showed population gains last year, according to recent Census figures.  Cuyahoga County, meanwhile, was No. 3 in population loss.  The RTA's fan base is already small.  Population loss is making it even smaller.

As for a high frequency of service, that other pheromone that Joncas said drew Seattle commuters out of their cars and onto mass transit, it isn't scenting the air in Cleveland right now.  Just the opposite is happening.  In March, the authority made service reductions on 15 bus and train routes to save money. This does not encourage ridership, naturally. Those who can afford to drive will.  Those who can't will stay with the RTA and, in my opinion, will reaffirm the perception that mass transit is a transportation mode of last resort.  

Facing all these challenges, how can the RTA attract more riders?  If the app isn't doing it, and increased frequency and outer county accessibility aren't in the makeup kit, what is?

Maybe we start, as George did, with ourselves.  We start with an evaluation of our needs and wants, and what role they play in shaping the kind of city we want. 

I find cities to be very efficient places to life, with walkable proximity to work, play, restaurants, movies, theater, sports, concerts, parks, water and, most important, other people and other ideas. Within the city, I’m constantly looking for ideas and practices that enable me to live more contentedly and more efficiently without being defined or burdened by more and more stuff, including a car.

I want a Cleveland without surface parking lots at its center.  I want a Downtown with 20,000 residents and then some, all piling on board the RTA's buses or the free trolley or riding a UH Bike to work.  I want a Cleveland where residents, workers and visitors alike look forward to strolling its streets, not driving them.

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