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Curious about bus rapid transit? Check out Cleveland

(This is a reprint from the Detroit Free Press about Cleveland's HealthLine, their very successful version of the concept of Bus Rapid Transit. It is one of the models for Albuquerque Rapid Transit (ART).)

Tiffany Augustine has thought about buying a car, but she has other priorities.

“It’s either I get a car or I pay my bills,” she said while riding a bus in Cleveland last week. “I think it’s more important for my (12-year-old) son to keep a roof over his head.”

The 33-year-old takes the same bus route daily to and from her job as a sandwich-maker at a café and bakery near Cleveland’s main drag, Euclid Avenue. On this particular Wednesday afternoon after her shift, Augustine was heading home on a bus full of people, so full that she felt compelled to ask the “young people” on the bus to give up their seat for an older woman nearby who would otherwise have had to stand.

• Related:Commuter rail, bus rapid transit keys to RTA plan

Moments later, the woman had a seat as the bus continued on its route, the HealthLine, the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority’s most popular bus line, serving 5 million riders each year.

For metro Detroiters, Cleveland’s HealthLine offers a well-regarded version of what they will likely be asked to support this fall when voters in Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw and Wayne counties head to the polls. The Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan has made bus rapid transit, with lines on Woodward, Gratiot and Michigan avenues and a separate line connecting Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, the centerpiece of its $4.6-billion master plan. And if, as assumed, the RTA board gives its final approval to the plan in July, voters in the four counties will weigh a 1.2-mill property tax to pay for it.

In addition to being the Cleveland system’s premier bus route, the HealthLine is considered by many to be the best example of bus rapid transit in the U.S.

How it works

Bus rapid transit is often described as light rail on wheels, and Joe Calabrese, the chief executive officer of the Greater Cleveland RTA said that should be a key focus for the Detroit area as it plans its system.

His suggestion for Detroit-area planners was “to do it right or don’t do it at all.”

For Cleveland, that concept means the HealthLine offers a special level of service. Buses generally arrive at each station every 5-7 minutes during busier times of day, they travel on separate lanes for about 80% of the route and get traffic signal preference that is controlled by GPS. Service also runs all day. Level platform boarding makes getting on and off easier. Stations are covered and have seating and message boards, and riders purchase passes ahead of time.

Fewer stops, along with other amenities, are designed to cut travel time, the key benefit of bus rapid transit compared to a standard bus.  Prepaying — fare boxes are only in use for part of the day during off-peak hours — keeps people from “fumbling and bumbling to find change,” as bus driver L. Mandela Jenkins described it, and also helps move things along.

• Related: $4.6B transit plan would connect Detroit, 4 counties

Bus fares vary, with special rates for students and seniors. The regular adult fare is $2.25 one way, or  for $5 a day a passenger can have unlimited rides. A weekly pass cost $22.50.  Transit police can conduct spot checks to make sure riders have purchased passes, but otherwise it runs on the honor system. Riding without a pass can result in a $50 fine.

The gray BRT buses are also distinctive, sporting the line’s name along with those of two key system sponsors, the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals. The articulated (think accordion) hybrid diesel-electric vehicles are 63 feet in length.

Cleveland pays for its BRT with revenue from a 1% sales tax. It also receives federal grants. When it launched in late 2008, the HealthLine replaced the No. 6 bus, boosting ridership over what was then the system’s most popular bus line by about 60%.

The Greater Cleveland RTA says the switch from the No. 6 reduced travel time from 40 minutes to 28 end to end, although it was a bit longer on the day of the Free Press trip.

James Hunt, like almost every other rider the Free Press spoke with, talked up the line’s pluses, even complementing the drivers.
Hunt, 24, a former Cleveland State University student who lives in the city, was making his daily trek hoping for a slot in the latest “Fast and Furious” movie, which was being filmed downtown. He said the “only downside” to the HealthLine is “how full it’ll get.”

• Related:RTA plans aim to fix Detroit's broken transit

Kevin Robinson, 21, a computer science student at Cuyahoga Community College, was headed to the University Circle neighborhood, the city’s cultural center to check out the scene there. Unlike the Detroit area, Cleveland has rail lines, and Robinson rides those as well.

His advice for Detroit on BRT: “I think you all should have that.”

For Josh Galecki, 28, and a group of other nursing students from Cleveland State, the HealthLine connects them to their clinicals at University Hospitals. Galecki, who lives in the city’s Tremont neighborhood, doesn’t own a car, but he does bike. He called the HealthLine “much more consistent” than standard buses because it has its own lanes.

Doris Germany sat with a copy of Christine Feehan’s “Dark Storm” and a pair of ear buds. The 60-year-old resident of Cleveland’s west side was on her way to work at a packing plant in Solon, Ohio. It’s a two-hour trip involving the HealthLine, which she takes to the far eastern Windermere station, and another connection she makes. But Germany travels it every day and enjoys simply looking out the window.

A model for others

Despite its role as a key piece of the Cleveland area’s public transportation network, the HealthLine was envisioned as a way to revitalize Euclid Avenue, which had been in decline for decades but had once housed the city’s famed Millionaire’s Row.

The HealthLine, which Calabrese describes as a $200-million project, is credited with generating $6.3 billion in economic development, and the Greater Cleveland RTA says it returns  $114 for every dollar spent to create and launch it. The system is described as a “clear best practice” by the New York-based Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, which gave it a “silver” designation in its latest ratings of BRT systems around the world.

The HealthLine is the highest-rated system in the U.S.,  with several in other cities — Eugene, Ore., Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, San Bernardino, Calif., and Seattle — reaching “bronze” status. Systems with “gold” ratings can be found in Brazil, China, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru. The ratings are based on a point system that rewards routes for things like dedicated rights of way, off-board collections and platform level boarding and deducts points for overcrowding, poorly maintained busways, having significant gaps between the bus floor and the station platform and other issues.

Curitiba, Brazil, is credited with launching the first BRT system in 1974. Wide acceptance in the U.S. had been slow to build until recently, but plans are now in the works to create BRT systems in a host of cities, including Indianapolis, Albuquerque, N.M., and San Francisco. Michigan’s first BRT line — the Grand Rapids’ Silver Line — began operating in 2014.

Neil Greenberg, the Detroit Department of Transportation’s manager of service development and scheduling, acknowledged that the HealthLine has received accolades, but he considers it to not be a truly regional line because of its shorter route  of fewer than 10 miles.

Still, with a desire to get the most benefit for the least cost, more cities have been looking to bus rapid transit rather than light rail because of the belief that BRT can be launched and operated for a fraction of the price.

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