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To downtown Cleveland by train

2013 June 21

On my most recent trip to downtown Cleveland, I elected for the first time to leave my car at home and make this journey via the RTA Rapid line. A lot of my observations about the experience amount to design assessment, of some form or other, so I share them here.

Relevant section of RTA Rapid line map

Choo-choooooo…

I’m not entirely certain what prompted me to set out in this way, after nearly five years here in Lakewood during which time I used RTA precisely once, traveling to and from the airport for my 2008 visit to London. As cutbacks to local bus service have since made reaching the Rapid station rather less convenient, I have turned to taxi service for subsequent airport shuttle service… Yet at the same time, I think various things have been nudging me toward the idea of exploring travel on the Red Line in the other direction.

For more than a year, I’ve been working almost exclusively from home; in combination with also moving closer to the YMCA and deciding as a result to get there on two wheels most of the time rather than four, use of my car has fallen sharply. Meanwhile, more frequent reading about transit concepts plus a vague but ongoing pretense toward greater cycling friendliness here in Lakewood further nudge me toward alternative ideas. And, frankly, I’ve simply grown tired of journeys downtown by car. I don’t know that driving in downtown Cleveland is really intimidating for me, but it isn’t fun, certainly when parking is factored in. Possibly the modest revival of downtown activity has also made it less ghostly than when I moved to Ohio eight years ago, possibly I’m just getting old and crabby.

In any event, the June 14 Superman event at Cleveland’s downtown library seemed like the perfect time to try a no-car journey downtown. It was a beautiful day out. In my experience, parking anywhere near the library is usually expensive. And, the timing would involve trying to get out of downtown at rush hour. (I also had some intention of spending all day at the library to do research, though my Macbook recently took sick and scuttled that plan.) How did it go? Short version, most of the experience was probably C+ or even B-, but one issue lowered this particular outing to D-.

To reach the Rapid station, I went by bike. It’s too far to walk in any kind of reasonable time, and while there is parking I had no idea how full that might be in the middle of a weekday, whereas the RTA site assured me that bike lock-ups were offered (as it turned out, a whole six of them, but these were still less than 50% occupied so hey-ho). Plus as noted, it was a lovely afternoon. And, I got there and back safely, even across the moat which is W 117th and even, on my return, amid what rush hour traffic Madison Avenue sees. I still wasn’t entirely comfortable; this is probably another discussion but I tend to feel like bikes and cars, at least on a main thoroughfare like Madison Avenue, just don’t and won’t ever fit naturally (though I’m just as firm in my belief that The Sidewalk Is Not A Bike Path). Whatever; I made it there and back.

The West 117th Street Rapid Station did not exactly make a great first (or, technically, second) impression. Walking in, I was met with a mysteriously stuffy building (it was not remotely hot outside), a closed ticket window directly in front of me, and two machines off to the side, one of them out of order. Nice. The other device worked, and I was able to purchase a single one-way fare ($2.25), but again, for what it’s worth this can’t really be doing much to advance RTA’s marketing.

The ride in was largely unremarkable, which term seems to describe most of the RTA system and resources: nothing really shiny-new, nothing falling apart, just a utilitarian urban train. I was interested to note a couple of riders extending multi-modal transportation by bringing bicycles right onto the train with them, which is presumably of some value to them and at any rate seemed harmless to everyone else given that the train was never really packed, even on my return trip after 5.

Arrival in downtown Cleveland was probably the best part of the experience, and that which contrasts most favorably with driving. It loses a few points to the fact that one essentially exits the station through a shopping mall, taking something away from a sense of “grand arrival” in the city. But once out of the mall, one can stroll out through the more dignified lobby of the Van Sweringens’ great Terminal Tower into Public Square, ringed by other impressive buildings, and feel like one has been properly received into the heart of the metropolis, as opposed to creeping around the constantly disrupted street grid looking for a place to park and trying to guess how badly one will be gouged for it. Quick walk from there through vibrant Public Square to the Library, good deal.

The return trip basically worked much the same except in reverse, but lost a lot of points during what should have been an opportunity to bank them. Satisfied on the whole with my experience so far, upon my return to Terminal Tower with its multiple, working fare card machines, I tried to purchase a five-fare card ($11.25). I bought one of these for my previous RTA trip, and I know it was good for at least a week or more and, I seem to recall, considerably longer. After purchasing a card at the station, however, I looked at it more closely while waiting for the train and discovered that it seemed to be valid for all of about 90 minutes from purchase.

After getting home, I inquired through the RTA web site, essentially to see if anyone could tell me “what goes on here?” As of a week later, no reply; I’m not shocked, given what I know of civil service bureaucracies (and of web sites). I suppose we’ll just write off the expense as learning experience, but again, hardly compelling marketing at work here.

In the larger picture, I still think this experience was a modest success. As noted, it had some compromised but still notable advantages over driving from an aesthetic perspective. Being out on my bike on a nice day has its advantages, too (so long as I’m not mangled by auto traffic). From a pure efficiency perspective, I think any advantage narrows; from my apartment to the library the whole trip took about 50 minutes and (setting aside the fare-card cluster****) $2.25 each way. I’ve not kept track, but I’m pretty sure that in theory I could cut well into that time by car… On the other hand, based on past experience I also know that I can spend rather more than $4.50 on parking near the library, waste 10 minutes or more circling in the attempt to avoid doing so, and still end up paying a hefty ramp fee anyway. In rebuttal, there’s the fact that in leaving downtown by car I just go, and the fact that, as one moves away from the library, parking availability and affordability increase relatively quickly. As does the walking distance from the train station…

Final verdict? I don’t know. Right now the case for bothering with RTA, for a car-owner living in Lakewood but not right near the station, seems plausible but still weak, at best. In certain circumstances, such as going someplace very near the station, going to an event scheduled near rush hour, and/or to some special event likely to mean major traffic/parking congestion, I can see value in repeating this. Otherwise though, the case breaks down rapidly (sorry), and moreso for someone who might not attach much value to things like an aesthetically superior “arrival” downtown, or to an excuse to bike across town (which would potentially include me when it isn’t a lovely long June day).

Still, there’s potential. Simply fix the fare card machines (in multiple ways) and again, I think we’re up to a C+, maybe even a B-. That’s certainly not bad, given the many circumstances working against a good transit infrastructure in a region like this. I would submit that greater ambitions for future development don’t seem, just on the surface, wildly delusional.

2 Responses
  1. June 22, 2013

    “Right now the case for bothering with RTA, for a car-owner living in Lakewood but not right near the station, seems plausible but still weak, at best.”

    I can’t comment on your grading of the RTA experience (haven’t used Cleveland public transport in over 20 years) but I might sugest the case for bothering with it could be increased considerably if you add in the environmental factor. Biking to the station and taking the RTA consumes effectively no more fuel than if you hadn’t made the the trip at all, whereas the same trip by car would consume some (admittedly modest) amount of additional gas. That wouldn’t impact your grading at all, but it does strengthen the RTA case if you’re concerned about that type of thing.

  2. Matt permalink
    June 22, 2013

    Yeah, worth mentioning certainly.

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