Arriving by Bus

After decades of decline, the downtown area of Cleveland, Ohio, is moving toward a renaissance —and its route to prosperity may be a bus line. Somewhat unusual for a midsize American city, its central business and cultural districts are split, with the famed art museum, concert hall, and other institutions located near the leafy campus of Case Western Reserve University, in an area to the east of downtown known as University Circle. This division makes the popular revitalization approach—using cultural institutions as catalysts—particularly difficult. But Cleveland is hoping that an innovative transit project connecting the two districts—the Euclid Transportation Corridor Project—will spur greater density and economic development.

“Cleveland has a true main street, and it’s Euclid Avenue,” planning director Bob Brown says. This historic commercial spine stretches more than 100 blocks, linking downtown, midtown (a growing health-care employment center), University Circle, and beyond. After more than 20 years spent studying transit options for the corridor, the city eliminated subway and light-rail lines as too costly and recently broke ground on a bus rapid transit (BRT) system, similar to the highly effective ones in Curitiba, Brazil. The 7.1-mile, 36-stop line combines the advantages of rail—speed, reliability, and easily identifiable routes—with greater flexibility and lower costs (preliminary estimates put a light-rail line at nearly $1 billion; the Euclid BRT is estimated at $200 million). The custom-designed diesel electric hybrid vehicles are larger than regular buses (62 feet long compared to the standard 40 feet) with a bellow in the center and sliding doors that allow several people to get on and off quickly. Riders pay in advance to enter center-lane platforms that are level with the bus entrance, which speeds up the loading process.

Though other smaller BRT systems have been built or are under construction in the United States, the Euclid Transportation Corridor Project is the first to receive a full-funding agreement for the cost of construction from the Federal Transit Administration through the rigorous New Starts program, which was designed to fund rail projects. And though BRTs have less of a track record in the United States than light rail, supporters remain undeterred. “The existing Euclid bus lines are the busiest in the city, so the new vehicles will only increase the number of people using transit,” says James Haviland, executive director of MidTown Cleveland Inc., an economic-development group that has long championed the project. The organization also recently succeeded in getting new zoning adopted along the corridor that calls for greater density, three-story minimum building heights, and ground-floor retail, which they believe will help to create activity and support ridership for the line.

Construction on the corridor began in March and is expected to be completed in two years. “The health of the avenue is a reflection of the health of the city,” Haviland says. “It’s essential that it be a vibrant street.”

City officials hope that a new bus rapid transit line along a commercial corridor will help unite Cleveland’s central business and cultural districts.

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