The future of Northeast Ohio rests with how well we can move goods and people in the 21st century. A transportation summit was recently held called "Moving Toward 2025." Among the topics covered at the conference was public transportation. The experts say the area is in relatively good shape. But the ability to move around is actually a problem in itself. How we travel is also having a big impact on the way we behave outside of our cars. Mike West has this report.
Mike West- Here at the Cleveland State University Convocation Center, about 200 business, government and political leaders gathered to go over all aspects of transportation. One of the top priorities of some of the planners and agency leaders is getting more people off the road and onto trains and busses. There are more reasons than ever to do this.
Frank Polivka is the general manager of Laketran, Lake county's transit agency. He says there's now proof, the more time people spend in traffic, the less time they have for becoming involved with civic groups, schools and other neighborhood activities.
Frank Polivka- The new data that has come out of Harvard has found a correlation between the amount of time that people spend in their cars on the way to work and the percentage of decrease in community involvement.
MW- According to the latest census numbers, Northeast Ohio is not growing. But more people are moving out of the city and using up land, causing sprawl. Polivka feels many suburbanites are now discovering they are making a big trade off, and it's not a good one.
FP- People (who) typically move to the suburbs to seek a better quality of life find out that they're spending more time in their cars and they don't really have the opportunity to enjoy that quality of life because they spend their hours commuting.
MW- But if workers do have to travel, Polivka says they will find their quality of life improves on public transit. Not only do they save money and driving expenses, he says people start talking to each other every day at bus stops and train stations. Friendships can develop or at least conversations and ties to the neighborhood.
FP- It's communal, I mean, you share seats. Public transportation used to be called mass transportation because you become involved with people, you make new friends. Our situation on a couple of our busses the people all know each other by their first name. I think it's phenomenal to see that kind of closeness.
MW- But how do you get more people to take the public transportation? Joe Calabrese is the head of Cleveland's RTA. He says for a city of our size we actually have it pretty good. You can get from most areas into downtown in about 20 minutes. The only time your likely to run into problems is during rush hour. But ease of mobility also hampers his efforts to increase rider ship.
Joe Calabrese- We are blessed here, for a city our size certainly in terms of growth and development we have some of the best transportation and the least expensive parking of any city in the country. That's a real advantage to the people who live here. It's a real difficult time when you are trying to promote public transportation.
MW- Business leaders feel another good reason to invest in Cleveland's public transportation is the Boeing example. The Seattle-based company recently moved to Chicago. Boeing leaders say they wanted to spend less time at the airport and flying to meetings in other cities. Laketran's Frank Polivka says they were also driven out by traffic problems. He insists if we want to attract more companies and retain others, our transportation systems must to continue to improve or we will have our own Boeing stories.
FP- They were tired of the gridlock and what that did to their employees, you know, getting to work every morning. So they moved, they're in Chicago by a transit station. They're looking at how they can improve the quality of life for their employees. Another perfect example is Bell South in the Atlanta area. It took three suburban offices and consolidated them into one at a major transit stop in Atlanta.
MW- Every day RTA serves over 200,000 passengers, eliminating 30,000 cars from the road. Joe Calabrese of the RTA says they could do better. But he cites several roadblocks - they include discrimination in the workplace against people who choose to ride the bus or train.
JC- We need to work with employers. Right now there is an unspoken and really unrealized process where many transit riders are discriminated against because their employers provide free parking for them. Yet if I decide to use public transit and not free parking I have to pay for that. If you provide free parking for your employees, provide a free bus pass. You very often go to a store or restaurant downtown and say, "did you drive, I'll validate your parking," but how many are saying, "I'll validate your bus pass"?
MW- Another problem facing planners is the aging baby boomers. In only a few decades more drivers than every will be too old to get behind the wheel. But they will still have to find a way to get to the store, doctor's office and other destinations. Transit leaders say if we don't expand service now we will be in big trouble in the years to come. Again, Laketran General Manager Frank Polivka.
FP- It's a big issue. In Ohio, it's typically been, let's build roads, let's build roads - the philosophy is changing because we know we can't build our way out of congestion, it's far too costly. Plus once we make the investment, (that) investment only lasts about 8 years because you induce demand and in 8 years you're back to where you started from. Meaning you have to make another investment. With transit now if you put that kind of investment in a rail line your investment is going to pay you back for year.
MW- Plans are already in the works to extend locals rail lines and increase bus service. But a lack of money plagues all efforts. However, public transportation is becoming more popular. In fact, the use of public transportation is now growing faster than auto use. That means growth can help fund itself. In Cleveland, I'm Mike West, 90.3 WCPN 90.3 FM.