A Look at BRT: Cleveland's HealthLine

June 20, 2013 10 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

As the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) looks into investing our hard earned tax dollars into Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), Metro Jacksonville takes a look at what many have called the most successful recent BRT rollout to date: Cleveland's HealthLine.

Spurring Transit Oriented Development

In its purest form, a Transit Oriented Development (TOD) is development-designed with transit serving as a major central focal point and reason for the development being there in the first place. Across the country, many bus systems have failed to stimulate TOD at similar rates to fixed transit because of their routing flexibility. This sentiment was expressed by JTA CEO Nat Ford in 2010, while serving as the executive director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency:

"Streetcars do more for economic development than buses.  Rail projects are very expensive but tend to be permanent. And you get the economic development around stops that you normally don't see with bus operations."
--Nathaniel Ford - Executive Director of San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency

However, many well respected entities from the Congress of New Urbanism to the CEO For Cities have touted the HealthLine as one of the country's best examples of BRT spurring Transit Oriented Development (TOD). Now transit agencies across the country point to the HealthLine as a reason to believe that their proposed BRT lines will bring similar results to their communities. According to Maribeth Feke, Director of Planning at the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, the HeathLine is responsible for $4.3 billion in TOD. However, Feke admits that the caluculation for this number was based on a half-mile radius.

This is a critical admission because the the surrounding land uses and transportation infrastructure suggest a different story.  The majority of new development along Euclid Avenue and the HealthLine has occurred on the campuses of Cleveland Clinic, University Hospital, Cleveland State University, and Case Western Reserve University. Thus, recently built dormitories, student centers, medical offices, and even a cancer center at an existing hospital are being sold to the outside world as TOD. For example, it's hard to believe that without the presence of the HealthLine, University Hospital would not have built the Seidman Cancer Center on its campus in 2011.

Furthermore, the RTA's Red Line runs within a half-mile radius of the HealthLine and includes two University Circle stations of its own. In an effort to create a central focal point of vibrancy in University Circle, plans are underway to upgrade and relocate Red Line stations. MRN Limited's Uptown arts and entertainment district, one of the most notable infill mixed-use developments along the HealthLine, falls within 1/4 mile radius of the Red Line.

To get residents and visitors to and from the arts district, the Regional Transit Authority is planning to move two existing rail stops on the city’s 19-mile Red Line closer to Uptown, nearby Little Italy and Case Western Reserve University at a cost of nearly $30 million.

At Next City's June 2013 Vanguard Conference, Ari Maron of MRN Limited, highlighted their vision for a transit oriented district centered around the Red Line, as opposed to the HealthLine. His comments were also reflected in a recent New York Times article quoted:

“All of this new construction is enhanced by international design,” said Ari Maron, a 33-year-old partner in the family-owned MRN Ltd. “The focus is the street. You provide the right mix of assets. You fill the buildings with people and open the storefronts to the sidewalk. You create a place where people want to be which didn’t exist before.”

Development project adjacent to proposed Red Line station.


Waiting for the HealthLine during rush hour traffic.

Understanding the HealthLine's context is critical for a community such as Jacksonville, where BRT is being proposed. The HealthLine works well for what it is, which is a context sensitive streetscape that includes reliable and efficient bus service.  This is something that JTA and all transit agencies should seek to achieve, even without the help of federal dollars or at the expense of community building and job creating mass transit projects. However, without a combination of preexisting heavy rail, dedicated bus lanes, existing universities and medical centers, don't expect what is occurring in University Circle to happen elsewhere. As we move forward with our own plans for BRT, this is something we should firmly keep in mind.

Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at edavis@moderncities.com

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