Groundbreaking for Jax's Bus Rapid Transit on Monday

November 13, 2014 24 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

It's taken over a decade to reach this point. On Monday, November 17, 2014, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx will be in town for the groundbreaking ceremony of the Jacksonville Transportation Authority's First Coast Flyer bus rapid transit (BRT) system.

Cleveland's HealthLine

Many claim bus rapid transit has the ability to make public transportation reliable, attract choice riders, and spur economic redevelopment.  To drive this position home, transportation agencies rightfully point to Cleveland's Health Line and the $4.3 billion in economic expansion along its main thoroughfare as proof.

By all accounts, the $200 million HealthLine is a success.  In fact, it's probably the most successful launch of BRT in the United States. Since its opening in 2008, ridership has grown more than 50% and the route's travel time has been reduced from 45 minutes to 32.  However, is Cleveland's situation applicable to Jacksonville's proposed BRT system? If not, what do we need to be on the lookout for in order learn and apply locally?

The HealthLine complements the RTA's Red Line heavy rail corridor.

Understanding the Context

The HealthLine's station near Playhouse Square in downtown Cleveland.

To answer these questions, we first have to understand the context of the HealthLine. The HealthLine operates on a 6.8-mile stretch of Euclid Avenue, between Public Square (Downtown Cleveland) and East Cleveland. Euclid is a major Cleveland thoroughfare that was internationally known for its beauty and wealth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Travel guides referred to it as the "Showplace of America" and the tax valuation of its mansions exceeded that of New York's Fifth Avenue.  

Major destinations along this stretch of Euclid include downtown Cleveland's theatre district, Cleveland State University, Cleveland Clinic, and University Circle. Home to 30,000 jobs, 13,000 students, and 2.5 million annual visitors, University Circle is known for its world-class cultural, educational, medical institutions, and could be considered a city itself.  The renown institutions include Case Western Reserve University [], Cleveland Institute of Art [], Cleveland Museum of Art [], Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland [], Cleveland Orchestra [], and University Hospitals/Case Medical Center [].

Given the context and adjacent land uses along the Health Line's Euclid Avenue, within Jacksonville, a thoroughfare like Main Street or Riverside Avenue would be the equivalent corridor, as opposed to Philips Highway, Blanding Boulevard or Broad Street.

Imagery of existing context along the HealthLine corridor

Describing the HealthLine

Compared to your average city bus, the HealthLine is impressive. It runs with a fleet of 21 articulated vehicles, each with a seating capacity of 47 and the ability to accommodate 53 more standing. Between downtown and University Circle, dedicated lanes are provided for its buses and service is provided 24 hours a day, running as often as every five minutes during rush hours.

Vehicles contain GPS locators on board, allowing automated traffic signals to give HealthLine buses priority at busy intersections. In addition, the HealthLine's 59 stations feature illuminated text displays that inform passengers of expected arrival times, fare card vending machines, emergency phones, and 24-hour lighting.

While the Health Line is touted as BRT, it's actually much more than that.  Look no further than its streetscape to see why it cost a whopping $25 million per mile to construct. As a part of the project, Euclid Avenue was "right-sized" from a four lane arterial roadway to one featuring wide sidewalks, dedicated transit lanes, bike lanes, landscaping, and pedestrian refuges.  If anything, one could easily consider the HealthLine project as a form of context sensitive street design that includes BRT as the mass transit component. This basically means that all decisions in transportation planning, project development, operations, and maintenance are responsive to the context in which these activities occur.

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 little embellishment.  The majority of new development along Euclid Avenue and the HealthLine has occurred on or adjacent to 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 were counted as TOD. For example, while the HealthLine does certainly improve the quality of Euclid Avenue by providing reliable transit, it's hard to believe that University Hospital would not have built the Seidman Cancer Center on its campus if it were not present.

Furthermore, the RTA's Red Line (heavy rail) 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.

Development project adjacent to proposed Red Line station.

Conclusion Concerning The HealthLine

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. However, without a combination of a well preexisting integrated regional transit system, dedicated lanes, existing anchors of high employment density such as universities and medical centers, don't expect what is occurring in University Circle to happen locally, without a major change in land use policy. As we move forward with our own plans for BRT and how we strive to integrate it with supportive land uses, zoning, and policy, is something we should firmly keep in mind.

Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at

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