By Conor Morris
In Northeast Ohio, the continuing sprawl of urban and suburban development has placed some major job centers out-of-the-way for many workers.
Meanwhile, local nonprofits and transit agencies are trying their hand at developing smaller, individual solutions to solve this big problem.
Joanna P. Ganning is an associate dean and associate professor of Economic Development at Cleveland State University.
Ganning, who studies patterns of urban development, pointed to a map from the Western Reserve Land Conservancy comparing Cuyahoga County in 1948 and 2002. The map shows a huge expansion of population centers beyond Cleveland itself.
Ganning said that the map presents a problem for the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA) when considering how to quickly get people to their jobs, as well as to grocery stores, hospitals and more
“Without more people, or more revenue (except what the state might provide), they are somehow expected to magically cover much larger expanses of urbanized area than what the system was built for,” she said.
The GCRTA recently redesigned its services to try to improve riders’ connections to work, but there’s only so much that traditional fixed routes can do to get people to every single job center out there. Because of that, Maribeth Feke, director of programming and planning for GCRTA, said her agency is piloting a new “micro mobility” program called ConnectWorkS that could serve as a model for future efforts to get people to jobs at industrial centers through public transit.
“What we found out is… sometimes there was a difficulty in getting from the end of the RTA route to their work,” she said.
Feke said one part of the ConnectWorkS project is in partnership with the village of Mayfield and the city of Highland Heights to provide a new bus route that connects the end of the #7A RTA bus line to a new bus loop. The loop will serve an estimated 12,000 employees of major employers in the area, including those who work at the Progressive Insurance campus.
“It could be an unpleasant walk early in the morning down even a quarter mile of an industrial park that may not be lit,” Feke said, adding that often these roads don’t have sidewalks.
According to a copy of the proposal submitted by the village and city, the bus loop will circulate frequently and will result in a short walk from the bus to the job sites, three minutes at most.
The proposal explains that the city and village are putting together about $60,000 each and GCRTA is putting in $120,000 toward the project. That will fund creation of the bus loop serviced by Standard Parking Plus, a transit company that already operates in the University Circle neighborhood.
The other part of the ConnectWorkS pilot involves the GCRTA working with SHARE Mobility, a rideshare service, to provide workers in the Bedford Heights and Solon area with a quick connection to their jobs once they get off public transit. That project is still in development. Feke provided a copy of a GCRTA board resolution showing that GCRTA agreed to pay SHARE Mobility $300,000 over a period of 18 months for these services.
While ConnectWorkS is just getting off the ground, Feke said she was excited about its potential. Between the two pilots, the GCRTA will be hitting “a third of the high job centers” in the county. She said the point is to address what some advocates call the first- or last-mile issue, where workers can get close to work through public transit, but still face a long walk after they get off the bus or train.
“It also helps us create a stronger relationship with business and industry so we’re more able to meet their needs with public transportation as they grow,” Feke said.
Feke added that the program is partially inspired by the Paradox Prize, a $1 million contest meant to improve people’s connections to work through public transit and other mobility measures.
Solving the “paradox”
Bethia Burke, president of The Fund for Our Economic Future, said one of the main priorities for her nonprofit is job access. In the long-term, that looks like more sustainable, concentrated growth instead of sprawl.