Visionary Transpo Bureaucrats, Part 3: Joe Calabrese and Ryan Gravel

This is the third part in Streetsblog’s series profiling 11 officials who are bringing American cities and towns into the 21st century when it comes to transportation and planning policy. Read the earlier profiles in part one and part two.

Joe Calabrese

General Manager, Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority

Joe Calabrese, head of Cleveland's RTA, is an American BRT pioneer. Photo: ##

In 2007, Greater Cleveland’s Regional Transit Authority (RTA) was named best public transit system in North America by the American Public Transit Association. And it wasn’t because this struggling Ohio city has the best trains and buses in the nation — clearly it doesn’t have the resources of New York’s MTA or DC’s Metro. The award recognized RTA’s management, which is truly world class. And no one deserves more credit than Joe Calabrese, the organization’s long-time general manager.

Calabrese has a reputation, inside Northeast Ohio and out, for getting the job done. He’s resourceful. He’s politically astute. And thanks in part to its legacy rail system, greater Cleveland has managed to maintain a respectable transit network despite its dependence on an auto-centric state bureaucracy.

That’s all background for the real reason we chose Calabrese for this list.

Perhaps you’ve heard of Cleveland’s six-mile bus rapid transit system? With dedicated, center-running bus lanes; elevated, pre-paid boarding; and extra-large, frequently-running hybrid buses, Cleveland’s HealthLine is the most advanced BRT corridor in the U.S.

It’s been a big success despite slower-than-anticipated run times. The New York Times swooped into Cleveland recently to remark on the relative bonanza of development taking place along the BRT corridor, which links the city’s two major job centers. Euclid Avenue, the site of the project, once heavily blighted and dangerous, also underwent a road diet. It now includes bike lanes and wide, landscaped sidewalks and medians. The project has led to half a billion dollars in new development.

Pushing this project forward in a region not known for embracing change was no small feat. But with Calabrese spearheading the effort, the Federal Transit Administration gave Cleveland the resources to become a national innovator in bus rapid transit. Calabrese built a broad political coalition in support of the project, including the regional chamber of commerce, the metropolitan planning agency and the state of Ohio.

“Joe was the key to making that project happen,” says Ryan McKenzie, a Cleveland-based sustainability consultant and advocate who helped shape the HealthLine. “The idea of building something in that corridor had languished for decades [though] voters had approved funding for a subway at least 60 years ago.”

Now the project is inspiring other cities. When Detroit made its shift from a light rail plan to BRT, city leaders were quick to point out the success of Cleveland’s system.

Ryan Gravel

Perkins+Will, Design Manager for Atlanta’s Beltline Corridor

Ryan Gravel, architect of the Atlanta Beltline. Photo: ##

Ryan Gravel was a graduate student at Georgia Tech when he started going for hikes on an abandoned rail line that circled Atlanta. Thanks to the time he spent studying in Paris, he was intrigued by the role of infrastructure investments in shaping urban design.

For his master’s thesis, Gravel made plans to resurrect this corridor as a trail system and passenger rail line that would make vast new sections of notoriously car-centric Atlanta accessible to the unmotorized masses.

A little over 10 years later, the Atlanta region is thrillingly close to making those plans a reality, and Gravel is leading the charge as a key member of the design team for Atlanta’s Beltline Corridor with design firm Perkins+Will.

Previously, Gravel worked on the Beltline project for eight years as a volunteer and then as an employee with the Atlanta Planning Department. (Hence, we stretched the eligibility rule for the “visionary bureaucrats” list to accommodate him and his current private sector position.)

The Atlanta region is currently in the midst of implementing the trail and greenway portion of the project. More importantly, the region is preparing for a historic tax referendum that would dramatically expand the money available for transit, putting construction of the rail elements within reach.

More transportation options truly can’t come soon enough for this region. Atlanta is drowning in traffic. Last year this city was ranked fourth in the country in road rage incidents.

But the Beltline could be revolutionary. Atlanta is carved up by highways and industrial parks. The very basic rail transit system, MARTA, operates on a hub and spoke model that can’t serve many trips. The very concept of a belt-like rail system is new for the U.S.

Already the trail work is transforming the way people experience the city, Gravel told the local blog PurgeATL.

“I was really surprised at how fast we could get to certain parts of the city,” he said. “I don’t think the general public realizes the convenience that the BeltLine will bring.”

3 thoughts on Visionary Transpo Bureaucrats, Part 3: Joe Calabrese and Ryan Gravel

  1. First it was $4 Billion in development for Cleveland, then it was $3 Billion, now it’s $500 Million. Where does it end?

    The Healthline has not been a success — it’s been a disaster — ask anyone who has ridden it. Calabrese doesn’t ride the Healthline buses, so he wouldn’t know:

    “I dread taking the Heathline bus” 

    The bus and car companies and the transit agency officials they love want us to believe that beautifying a street requires that we install a massive bus highway in the middle of it — just the opposite in fact — as if a bus highway is somehow a benefit to the community because instead of running mostly cars, it runs mostly buses — makes no sense. For starters, it ruins the pedestrian experience — why would anyone want to do that?

    Cleveland could have left existing bus service in place, added full cycletracks, widened the sidewalks, beautified the street, and not only would the street be much safer and pleasant, but it would have brought in a lot more development dollars — if that’s what you happened to be after.

    Of course, if you wanted big development dollars, you could have built light rail.  

    And, regardless of what infrastructure and direct and indirect subsidies cities provide to developers, cities will continue to see development and corresponding gentrification and displacement — this is all by design. Streetscape beautification just concentrates new development around the redeveloped corridors — there’s little to no proof that big project spending actually spurs development that would not have occurred on its own, as many reports over the years have shown, and most recently alluded to in Next American City’s piece on the demise of the California redevelopment agencies.

    I’d rather transportation officials concentrate on:
    1) allowing people to get where they want to go under their own power, and
    2) providing dignified motorized transport when 1) is not an option, and
    3) see 1).

    Instead of selling off all the property adjacent to publicly-funded transit, how about capturing some of the value of those properties to fund ongoing operations and capital expenditures? Through taxes or rent, close-in properties should fun transit operations — obviously.

    Most importantly, though, not placing a massive bus highway in the middle of Euclid would have allowed people to bike along that most important of corridors — instead, we’ve continued to force everyday people to ride the bus instead of giving them a real option to ride their bikes.

    Now, with buses taking up most of the pavement on Euclid, biking will never happen there in significant numbers — there’s simply no room for buses and cars and bikes, and we know that bikes are always the last to be considered.

    The criticism of the Healthline, and BRT in general, is pervasive, but it’s not polite to point out that idea of bus rapid transit has been a failure since its very inception — not polite to point out that working class and poor people deserve dignified transit. It’s like trying to tell people that electric cars will not save us from global warming — how could any green/progressive possibly believe that? Except that it’s true.

    More Healthline criticism from another Streetsblog member: 

    And, just to point it out again, speed has little-to-nothing to do with the reason people choose to take transit. Internally, there are two major factors that transit agencies can control regarding the number of people who ride — fares, and reliability — neither of these is ‘speed’.

    There were more protests yesterday against Transmilenio, the most famed BRT system in the world (Bogota, Colombia) — this just weeks after riots destroyed several buses and stations, with scores injured. 

    People are fed up — they want real transit. The streets are choked with cars because the buses take up all the available roadspace, and people who have a choice will do anything to avoid buses — it ends up in a boiling rage of frustration. We’ve yet to see outbreaks of protest and violence in Cleveland and other cities that have been shafted with BRT, but people will only tolerate being treated poorly for so long.

    People deserve to be able to walk and bike, and after that, they deserve dignified motorized transport.

  2. @ JayStar There may not be any current plans to widen I-75 northwest of Atlanta to 23 lanes; but that is only due to the efforts of Ryan Gravel and his fellow smart transport and smart growth advocates to kill it, and because GDOT never had the money to take such a project on… However, in 2007, they made their intentions to expand I-75 to the twenty-three lanes well known… I remember well that I couldn’t believe that they were proposing this with w straight face. The fact that it resulted in a public outrage seemed to befuddle them…

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