By Gennifer Harding-Gosnell
The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority launched its new NEXT GEN RTA system redesign on June 13 by offering a week of free rides for all buses, rails, and Park-N-Rides. RTA’s public transit services have been completely transformed with new routes, service areas, and frequency.
The redesign aims to prioritize services that provide access to work, education and healthcare as well as provide more frequent, direct all-day service along several major routes. Another goal is to offer more “one seat” rides.
The NEXT GEN system was developed as the result of studies completed by RTA in 2019. The studies included public community surveys and a financial analysis, which included fare equity and the replacement of nearly 80 rail vehicles. Survey 1 Results (riderta.com)
The transit authority received 2,987 survey responses online and by phone. They also had face-to-face interactions with RTA representatives, asked Clevelanders to choose between two separate system designs and prioritize expanded service areas versus the frequency of routes in different financial scenarios.
So how does the new NEXT GEN RTA system compare to what the public said it wanted?
The study showed age and race disparities. For example, “Compared to the population at large, seniors were the most underrepresented in the survey population, while people ages 25 to 34 and under 24 were the most overrepresented.” Also, “Compared to the population of Cuyahoga County as a whole, Black or African American respondents were undersampled, as were Hispanic and Latino respondents.”
Only 405 survey respondents were Black (14%), while 1,825 respondents (61%) were white. Nearly 20% of respondents did not identify their race — 377 skipped the question and 190 chose not to answer, totaling 567 respondents. Despite the difference in respondent numbers, Cleveland’s Black and white populations generally agreed on the allocation of resources, with answer percentages no more than 4-to-6 points apart.
The prior RTA service design sought to maintain a balance of 60/40 ridership-to-coverage (frequency/area of service). Survey respondents were evenly split (42% and 41%) between where to shift the focus between ridership and coverage. But when asked what they would think if additional resources (ie. money) were available to RTA, 50% of respondents preferred an increase in coverage, while 41% wanting the focus on better ridership. Only 9% said the system should stay the same. Most survey respondents were comfortable with a 50/50 split between ridership and coverage.
The survey shows that the more adults in a respondent’s household, the more likely they were to prefer more coverage over frequency regardless of resources. The same is true for respondents with no vehicles as well as non-riders. This demonstrates a need for RTA to bring its lines closer to home for those who rely on its services as well as those hoping to use it in the future.
There are notably few changes to overnight service on the NEXT GEN system, which strikes a nerve with those hoping for better transit options for the nightlife scene and for late-night workers. Only a few routes maintain service overnight, and no more than once an hour, despite the system providing the-same-or-more service overall to entertainment districts like Lakewood, Cedar-Lee, Coventry, and Tremont.
“RTA has a very extensive overnight network in place, especially when compared to other transit systems in medium-sized cities, and even compared to much larger cities. People who live in low, medium and high cost dwellings share the same ability to access a 24-hour network of service,” said Greater Cleveland RTA spokesperson Linda Krecic.
“Without new transit funding, adding any new service would mean taking away service from another neighborhood route. RTA has to make tough choices about who can access useful transit unless the RTA board makes it a priority to expand transit with new funding. The current redesign connects the most amount of people to frequent transit and jobs at the expense of not providing coverage in some lower ridership areas.” said Chris Stocking, chairman of the transit advocacy group Clevelanders For Public Transit.
Discontinued routes have also created concerns for commuters who now find themselves out of their walking distance range, including users of the #38 bus through Glenville, some of whom are now petitioning the RTA to return the route. Glenville has a large Black and elderly population, which correlates with the disparity found in the survey results — only 10-to-25 respondents were from the Glenville-to-Northshore area. This also correlates with the “Technology Divide” that plagues so many impoverished areas.
According to Stocking, RTA claims it is providing evening service on Madison Avenue in Lakewood even though the last bus leaves at 6:50 p.m. on weekends. “This is not adequate but they need more funding to run better service without cutting other routes,” he said.
There is a special page on the RTA website devoted to updating the public about the changes. NEXT GEN RTA | Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (riderta.com) RTA also has paper schedules and printed books available to help riders navigate the new system. How does RTA reach out to its riders who don’t use the Internet? Here’s what to look for when RTA wants to speak with you:
- Mail – “RTA maintains a mailing list of individuals who request that we mail them new timetables every quarter when timetables are revised,” explains Krecic. “We mailed a letter and the [NEXT GEN] route reference guide to them in April.”
- In-Person – “The NEXT GEN route books, in print, were distributed by customer service staff at Tower City, by drivers, and by our Service Quality/Customer Service teams,” says Krecic. “The Marketing department also enlisted volunteers to speak with riders directly at various transit centers, train stations, and key stops for two weeks prior to and during the first week of the new service.”
- In-Your-Face – RTA used “car cards,” digital advertisement boards, and posters around the city, on transit vehicles, and in key service areas to notify customers and the general public about the new system. Audio on-board messages were broadcast at stations and on buses and trains notifying customers of the upcoming changes. Krecic says the messages were modified every few weeks to “keep the attention of customers.”
- Media – “RTA also launched a very extensive media campaign, doing in depth, on-air interviews on every major media outlet, including Spanish speaking stations,” says Krecic.
If you need help with RTA services, you can always call customer service at 216-621-9500 for a real person to guide you through. They’re available Monday – Friday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.