The Ridiculous Politics That Slow Down America’s Best BRT Route

Cleveland's Healthline BRT has been named the best in the country. But it runs slower than expected. Photo: Wikipedia
Cleveland’s Healthline BRT is viewed as the best in the country — but the city has declined to make an easy change that would speed it up. Photo: Wikipedia

Cleveland’s Healthline is widely viewed as the best bus rapid transit project in the country — and for many good reasons. Running on dedicated center lanes, the Healthline isn’t bogged down by car traffic on the most congested portions of its 7.1-mile route. With about 14,000 daily trips, the Healthline has increased ridership nearly 50 percent (though some of that is attributable to elimination of redundant routes), and local officials credit it with spurring billions of dollars of development nearby.

But it could run much faster if officials fixed one small thing that is completely within their power to address: the signal timing.

While the Healthline has many hallmarks of good BRT like the center-running lanes and off-board fare payment, it lacks transit signal priority — the technology that turns traffic lights green as buses approach. As a result, Healthline buses don’t travel nearly as fast as they should.

The Plain Dealer reported in 2010 that it takes an average of 44 minutes to travel the seven miles from downtown’s Public Square to East Cleveland. That’s only three minutes faster than the bus line it replaced, and more than ten minutes off the 33-minute pace that project planners promised. Despite some tweaking around the margins, not much has changed since 2010, according to sources familiar with the project.

The frustrating thing is that the Healthline could easily run faster. But the city of Cleveland simply hasn’t activated the transit priority technology for most of the route, according to advocates.

“We all know it takes 10 more minutes than it should because of the light issue,” said Marc Lefkowitz of GreenCityBlueLake, a Cleveland-based environmental think tank that has been active in trying to resolve the issue.

John McGovern, current chair of RTA’s Citizen’s Advisory Board, said shortly after the Healthline began operating, the city turned off the transit priority technology for most of the traffic signals.

“I recall hearing a line from the city that ‘important people in cars’ were pissed that they had to wait for a bus to make their left turn into work,” he said. “The city’s course of action was to turn off all the expensive sensors so one man could control the whole thing so as to be accountable to the needs of these very important people.”

The Greater Regional Transit Authority would not confirm or deny that the transit signal priority has not been activated, saying that question could only be answered by the city of Cleveland. Officials from the city of Cleveland did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.

Speaking at a meeting of RTA’s Citizen’s Advisory Committee this week, RTA CEO Joe Calabrese said travel times have improved on the Heathline since 2010, but he couldn’t give an exact run time for the route.

“I don’t know what it is set at,” said Calabrese, referring to the signal timing system. “We bought the system. We tested it and it worked. Based on the contract, we turned it over to the city traffic department. It’s under their control.”

Brad Chase, one of Lefkowitz’s former co-workers at GreenCityBlueLake, made it a personal project years ago to try to resolve the signal timing issue. The effort resulted in a news article and several meetings with city staff but little progress, he said. Ultimately, the city chose to leave signal timing to two officials in its traffic division: Andy Cross, a traffic engineer, and Rob Mavec, commissioner of traffic engineering and streets. (Mavec did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.)

Cross and Mavec reportedly toyed with the signal timing to an extent. They lengthened the green phase on Euclid and shortened the turn phases and crosswalk phases. Since 2010, the city has also raised the speed limit for buses on Euclid Avenue from 25 to 35. But for the most part, the signal technology that RTA and the Federal Transit Administration paid for has been deactivated, according to advocates and a public official with knowledge of the situation who asked to remain anonymous.

“In [the city’s] minds, there was never a need for this complicated system in the first place, and things seem to be running pretty smoothly, ridership is up, RTA isn’t really complaining, so why make it more complicated?” said Chase.

UPDATE June 13, 2014 at 11:52 a.m.: According to the Federal Transit Administration, $5.8 million in federal money was budgeted for this project for station improvements, signal timing and lighting. FTA officials said only the city of Cleveland knows the exact amount spent on signal timing.

29 thoughts on The Ridiculous Politics That Slow Down America’s Best BRT Route

  1. Paying for speed and not getting it is a good way to hamper public transit. How much money was spent on this system?

  2. Good question. For some reason, the Federal Transit Administration couldn’t provide that information. They referred me to the city of Cleveland which was, of course, ignoring my calls and emails.

  3. Does RTA still have an advertisement touting that the HealthLine will get riders from Public Square, a starting point of the HealthLine, to the tomb of
    the “twentieth president [located in Lakeview Cemetery, which is off of
    the HealthLine just beyond University Circle, approximately 5 miles east of Public Square] in twenty minutes flat”?

  4. is the Federal Transit Administration planning to recoup the money that was spent on the signal prioritization or was federal money involved in the project?

  5. “Important people in cars” If you’re driving a car on Euclid for any length of time you’re doing it wrong. There are two roads that are way way way faster for cars a quarter of a mile away. Also, FWIW, I bike Euclid every day and I’ve never been beaten from start to finish by a bus, and I’m not a fast bicyclist.

  6. Seems to me that when they signed a FFGA, there are likely some provisions in there that mandate a certain level of service

  7. While I’m not a big fan of ‘speed’ I am a proponent of restricting personal automobiles from a reasonable portion of the shared urban environment.

    This is just another example of how Cleveland’s 100% car access policy trumps all.

  8. When I do drive, I often take Euclid home, West from University Circle precisely because I can drive slowly without being harassed.

    Nevertheless, I always have some a-hole riding my ass, eventually screaming past me in the bus-only lane.

  9. The big story from the re-design of Euclid Ave is the extremely poor quality concrete used by a corrupt contractor. This concrete is particularly bad in the bike lane around the E 30 Streets.

    It has never been repaired properly and the city seems to have forgotten about it, though they did get a court judgement forcing the contractor to address it.

    A similar thing happened on the Abbey Rd Bridge sidewalk, which likewise remains pitted.

  10. This is the same problem which has happened in Toronto, where the city Department of Streets refuses to turn on signal priority for the streetcars.

  11. You may be able to FOIA some documents and find out whether Cleveland needs to pay money back.

  12. Was signal prioritization included in the HealthLine’s citation when it was named a Sliver-Level BRT by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy? Putting that designation at risk might cause some action.

  13. Interesting that they’re so secretive about it. If I’m not mistaken, in LA we lack signal timing even for some street-running light rail segments.

  14. If the FTA paid for this, wouldn’t they want their money back if it’s the system isn’t being used?

  15. I assume they mean “important people” in cars trying to *cross* Euclid, not driving along it.

  16. Looks like Cleveland and other cities still have the “Buses are for poor people” and “If you are worth anything, you drive your own car” attitudes.

  17. This bus line did not spur development. If it did, it would be unique in America because investors don’t spend millions of dollars when the transit service is easily moved or cancelled …I’m sorry, I meant to say when the transit service is flexible.

  18. Everyone seems to think signal priority is some magic bullet.
    Because of pedestrians in the crosswalks, the system can only stretch a greenlight as the vehicle approaches. This averages only 1/4 of the signal interactions, and is of dubious value anywhere the bus is already picking up passengers on the upstream side of a signalized intersection.

    A quick map check shows roughly 24 signals along it’s route, so, figuring 30 second reds, they might save 3 minutes on the run.

  19. So, since 2010, by increasing the speed to 35 mph from 25mph,, has any of the lost 10 minutes been made up without tinkering with the signals? I would think it would have to. One would think four years later the data would be available, making all points moot.

  20. I was wondering why they changed the schedule to only have 2 time stamps, used to have more like E105th and E55th on the schedule. When I asked RTA why they were removed since people need this info to plan transfers to other lines, RTA told me to use their “nextconnect” real time system, which is flawed and doesn’t help when planning future trips. What about people who don’t have smart phones. They probably got complaints that none of the buses are on time and just removed all the time stamps.. great! At least the old route had time stamps.

  21. I love that Calabrese is like, “Who? Me? Sorry y’all, I just snap up awards.”

    People who actually care about tranportation need to start dedicating themsevles to…sane transport policies instead of BRT and other car-centric policies.

    While some are working to keep the BRT dream alive, UberLyft is removing the last bit of mainstream political support for mass transit.

    Richie Riches are taking over the cities, and they don’t need mass transit — they got cars parked in their secured garages, and when necessary they’ll call UberLyft. We could see some transit service continue if it remains a handout to Business, but otherwise it’ll disappear.

    Planning needs a voice of reason, a rethink, a new direction.

    Here’s to hoping that someone, somewhere says something different in the not-too-distant future.

  22. What are good examples of BRT lines in the US that use signal priority well? It still seems to be some abstract concept that is forgotten and downplayed in actual implementation once service begins.

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