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What Happens When You Ask Public Officials To Give Up Driving For A Week

Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb waits for the bus. Photo: Twitter

A campaign to get public officials in the Cleveland area to attempt a week without driving didn't get many electeds to go totally car-free — but it did make a powerful statement about automobile dependency that could spur change and inspire other activists to issue similar challenges.

On National Transit Equity Day on Feb. 4, the grassroots group Clevelanders for Public Transit dared transportation leaders in the Ohio city and surrounding Cuyahoga County to rely on local light rail, buses, and their accompanying walking and biking connections for a full week — and post about their experiences, good or bad, on social media.

The effort drew a flurry of local news coverage, particularly after Mayor Justin Bibb tweeted about his "smooth ride" on a local bus rapid transit line ... and after Council Member Rebecca Maurer shared that her own local bus had skipped her stop entirely, forcing her to drive to work instead.

Clevelanders for Public Transit certainly aren't the only advocates who want leaders to get out from behind the wheel. Disability Rights Washington issued a similar call to residents statewide in September, with particular outreach to state lawmakers, and researchers have long warned that "windshield bias" can affect the worldview of decision makers who rely almost exclusively on private automobiles. One study found that transportation officials who drive were more likely to over-estimate the impact of "distracted walking" on pedestrian crash rates, which experts say is actually a negligible factor (or not a factor at all).

"I remember once during a meeting a year or so ago, the transit agency was presenting a new contract for bus wrap advertising, and one trustee asked, 'Can the riders see out the window through that?'" adds Chris Martin, chair of CPT. "And the answer is, you can't, really — and sometimes that means you can't see your stop. But this person didn't know that."

There's no excuse for a transit leader to not know the basics of the bus-riding experience, but it's easy to understand why a person with options wouldn't regularly rely on transit in a city like Cleveland, where roughly 81 percent of the metro area drives alone to work and service is often lacking. Per-capita transit spending in Ohio ranks 45th out of 50 states, despite the fact that in large pockets of it, like predominantly Black East Cleveland, 35 percent of the population doesn't own a car.

"Out of all the people who tried [this challenge], I don’t think any of them were able to faithfully complete it," said Martin. "Since service was cut by more than one-third since the turn of the century, getting around in Cleveland by transit has just gotten harder and harder."

Martin understood why so few local leaders were able to actually ditch driving even for just a few days, though he didn't always accept their reasoning. Some electeds he spoke to cited the lack of intercity transit options to access Cleveland's sprawling suburbs that made it challenging to perform regional roles; others, who live on major light rail lines with service every 15 minutes at rush hour, said they were happy to take the Rapid to work, but picked up the keys for cumbersome midday errands.

And some seemingly just didn't see the point of riding a mile in a straphanger's shoes. (Editor's note: which is unfortunate, especially when they're invited by activists to just tag along, as New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy recently was; he declined the invite).

"I did have one or two conversations with folks who said outright, 'No, I’m not even going to try to do this at all,'" added Martin. "Of course I can't get inside their heads, but I think part of their thought process might have been, 'Well, I’m a councilperson; I don’t work for [Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority]. This isn't my responsibility.' But they’re supposed to be representing everyone, including the 25 percent of Clevelanders who don’t have a car, or the 12 percent of Cuyahoga County residents who don't have a car. I think they’re not doing their job well when they can’t empathize with that group of people."

He also noted that participation was particularly low among the trustees of the transit agency itself, and that the group is actively pushing the GCRTA to appoint regular riders to the board.

No matter why lawmakers failed the car-free challenge, Martin hopes it will inspire Cleveland leaders to take action on behalf of those who have no choice but to rely on the city's underfunded transit network — and stop blaming Columbus for all their problems. The group is urging leaders to "identify new, permanent funding to expand public transit service throughout Cuyahoga County, which could include a special tax on parking lots," among other approaches.

"Something we often hear from local leaders is that it’s really the state of Ohio’s fault that transit is so bad in Cleveland," he adds. "That’s partly true — the state does willfully underfund shared transportation. But that's been the case for so long that it’s way past time for local leaders to step up."

By challenging officials to ride shared transportation — especially if doing so seems difficult or impossible — Martin hopes that policymakers will better understand not just what their currently car-free constituents go through every day, but why it's urgent to make transit an attractive and convenient choice for people who might be willing to drive less tomorrow.

And doing that will take more than just a few selfies on the bus.

"Transit is not just a social service for poor people," he adds. "It’s so important for social cohesion, for economic mobility, for every justice movement that you can name. We need everyone to get on board — literally."

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