How (Not) to Wreck Your Transit System: Downtown Business Edition

What do you think of these people? Photo by the (great) Bay Area public artist Todd Gilens.

What do you think of these people? Photo by the (great) Bay Area public artist Todd Gilens.

Downtown business leaders! I know how much many of you support transit, and I love working with you folks, but here’s a hazard you need to think about.

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson has announced that new bus lanes that were designed into city’s main square will be closed to buses, thus choking the bus system’s circulation at its very heart.  Citylab has the story.  The local newspaper of record, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, has an editorial in favor of keeping buses out, citing three points:

*The square is far more popular than anticipated. …

*Keeping buses out has greatly enhanced the pedestrian experience. …

*In an age of terrorism, barring large vehicles from being able to drive into crowded public spaces also matters. Cleveland Public Safety Director Mike McGrath has pointed out that if Superior Avenue is kept open through Public Square, a “determined person” could use a truck or other vehicle to drive into crowds gathered there. …


Electric Retractable Bollard, SecureUSA.

(Terrorism is a distraction, of course.  The way to prevent someone from driving a heavy vehicle into a public square is to install retractable bollards, which drop for emergency vehicles and transit.  Fixed bollards are also used to define a transit path across a space, and protect the rest from vehicles.)

But really: Would city leaders be saying this if the service being banned were a streetcar/tram?  Of course not.  Streetcars supposedly attract people that the business community values.  So when I read this …

[City Councilor] Zack Reed, … as reported by Cleveland Scene’s Sam Allard, [suggested] that the mayor is in the pocket of downtown’s corporate interests who view transit riders as “low-lifes” and “thugs.”

… I have to say that sadly, from personal experience, this accusation against downtown business interests is sometimes (sometimes) true, and the blowback against it is understandable.

Business leaders: I know you really want a transit system that a more diverse group of people will use, but you can’t promote transit while insulting the people who use it now.  It doesn’t make sense. Nobody will choose to join a category of people, “transit riders,” that you’re marking as unimportant or even despised.

In the course of my transit planning work in several US cities, I’ve been quietly taken aside by a downtown business leader and told that of course those ugly buses have to be gotten off of the main street, and put out on some back street where the loading docks are.  And sadly, I have sometimes been told the same by advocates of public space, often credentialed New Urbanists, who insist that their aesthetic disapproval of the bus should outweigh people’s need for useful, reliable transit service.   Most of these latter group don’t really understand the impact of those comments, but I see the effects: remote, unsafe and/or inoperable bus facilities hidden from the public eye.

Now and then someone makes the class-segregation narrative explicit.  For example, in one US city where I worked years ago, a downtown business leader explained to me that “those people” waiting for buses on the main street were deterring customers from visiting businesses, and “making people feel unsafe.”  The candor was refreshing: the problem isn’t the buses. The problem is unwanted people who do not deserve to be respected by the design of the city — including, of course, many of the business community’s own employees.

This leader also assured me that women would never feel comfortable walking through these crowds — contrary to the view of professional women who were working with us on the project.  The stops in question did have a lot of people waiting at them.  Like any busy place they attracted the usual diversity of urban characters, including street preachers, small scale salesmen, and self-styled performing artists, and perhaps one or two petty criminals.  But people are rarely attacked in the middle of largely law-abiding crowds.

This problem actually had an easy solution.  Robust real-time information, available by text and voice as well as in smartphone apps, encourages people to come to the stop only a few minutes before their bus leaves. Bus stops have become noticeably less crowded in communities that have rolled these out, as you would expect.  That also means, business leaders, that people waiting for the bus have more time to patronize nearby businesses.

But too often, the business community’s solution is to move the buses onto a deserted street where nobody will see them, and also to “spread buses out” so that no stop would be as busy.  This “solves” a problem of the “feeling of safety” by creating a problem of actual safety.  Bus riders have to walk to an isolated street and wait in a place with fewer eyes to witness crimes against them.  And of course, the other effect is to make the transit system less attractive, so that fewer people with choices will use it.  Connecting from one bus to another, for example, would be harder to figure out and require longer walks.

Now, let’s honor the experience of downtown businesses dealing with this situation.  A crowded bus stop in front of your business can be disruptive, depending on the kind of business you’re in.   Transit agencies do what they can to manage these impacts, but in the long run, a bus stop is an essential piece of urban infrastructure.  There are types of business that do very well next to a bus stop: convenience stores, fast food, and other “quick visit” places.  Good business location decisions always consider infrastructure.  Over time, businesses that value bus stops should locate next to them, and those that don’t should locate further away.

But it’s also true, as any planner can tell you, that some businesses will blame government whenever business isn’t going well.  On a busy street, there’s always something around you that’s not as you’d like, and it’s easy to decide that this is the cause of your troubles.

Downtown business leaders, you have a critical role in shaping your transportation future.  The most critical decision you make is whether to risk letting downtown succeed as a city — a place where everyone has a right to be, and move, and be safe — as opposed to trying to replicate the controlled experience of a shopping mall, where unwanted people can be easily removed.

I know you care about your customers, and about their experience.  But there’s a reason prosperity is coming back to downtowns, and it’s not because all those unwanted people are being hidden away.  Come to my city, Portland (where, by the way, buses run on the most important main streets downtown).  In the publicity photos Portland looks shiny and clean, but the real downtown is full of characters.  A few are irritating, and many are unfortunate.  But very few are dangerous, and people who live here have figured that out.  You might prefer to avoid some people’s company, but then you wouldn’t have a city.  And judging from the cost of locating there, downtown Portland and places like it seem to be what people want.

Remember:  Your businesses are all trained in market segmentation, dividing the society into “your potential customers” and “not your potential customers.”  But as soon as you take that habit into the public realm, segmentation becomes segregation.  The ethics of business and the ethics of public space are not the same.

Have courage.  Welcome the buses and their passengers.  Not every business will thrive, but that’s capitalism.  In the long run, you’ll have a city where people want to be.

30 Responses to How (Not) to Wreck Your Transit System: Downtown Business Edition

  1. Peter Laws February 3, 2017 at 11:59 am #

    Guess you hadn’t heard. The New Colossus plaque on the Statue of Liberty is being updated. New words are “America: where unwanted people can be easily removed”

  2. AJ February 3, 2017 at 3:27 pm #

    Thank you so much for writing this! At least 2 of Ohio’s big cities really need to hear this message.

  3. Andrew February 3, 2017 at 6:22 pm #

    ” Robust real-time information, available by text and voice as well as in smartphone apps, encourages people to come to the stop only a few minutes before their bus leaves. ”

    This is intresting. For this to work, it is very important that the riders can trust that the buses do not depart earlier than the real-time information says. The real-time information must show earliest possible departure time, not the most likely departure time.

  4. MB February 3, 2017 at 7:16 pm #

    ” Robust real-time information, available by text and voice as well as in smartphone apps, encourages people to come to the stop only a few minutes before their bus leaves. ”

    I am sorry, but real-time information is not a valid solution to people feeling unsafe at a bus stop. The bus stop should not be unsafe, and if it has that feeling, then something has to be done about it.

    In terms of Cleveland, the buses should be going through Public Square. One could argue that without the buses in Public Square, the square will be more dead, as it is the bus riders that produce so much of the life in the square during off hours. Regardless of what people are saying, Cleveland’s Public Square has almost no restaurants or other draws surrounding it, to animate it outside of special events. So it really is bus riders creating some of that animation.

    That being said, it does no use to sugar coat the concern people have with the small segment of transit riders that cause trouble. Being a planner myself, I understand the entire diversity of people a city has. However, I have experienced Cleveland’s Public Square first hand, as well as other on-street transit zones in other less prosperous American cities like Rochester, NY. And even I felt unsafe or was totally disgusted by some of the behivour I have seen, which occurs on a regular basis. This included bus riders peeing on bus stop shelters, riders throwing little rocks at people walking by, riders screaming at each other and acting like gangsters, etc. A planner like myself or you may overlook that and just put up with it. But your typical resident is going to have one incidence like that happen to them, and totally be turned off transit. A downtown business is going to see this on a daily basis, and yes ask for the bus stops to be moved.

    The bus stops should not be moved to an out of a way place. But instead, we should also be calling out the small group of transit riders that are acting out in not a good way, and not condone such behavior, which is not seen in most other western cities. If this means increased security patrols, etc, then do it.

  5. asdf2 February 3, 2017 at 11:46 pm #

    There’s another factor here – according to the article, avoiding the square requires every bus to make an around-the-block detour, which increase the commute time of every thru-rider, for a totally needless purpose.

    • Mark Smith February 4, 2017 at 8:45 am #

      I’ve ridden and watched Cleveland RTA vehicles since this policy was enacted. The reality is huge vehicles must navigate a very narrow and traffic clogged perimeter road instead of driving directly through the square. It’s a miracle the drivers are able to navigate this nightmare as safely as they do.

      • ryan February 4, 2017 at 8:47 pm #

        Maybe they shouldn’t be driving a bus then? Really? This is exactly what’s wrong with our country. Way to many more important issues to be concerned about. If it was opened, It would just be blocked by paid protesters for some unknown cause

        • Dave February 5, 2017 at 8:37 pm #

          It used to be open only a few years ago with no protesters (paid or unpaid) in it at that time. Why would you think it’d be different today?

  6. Unloading February 4, 2017 at 12:23 am #

    The New Colossus plaque on the Statue of Liberty is being updated. New words are “America: where unwanted people can be easily go back..

  7. Mark Smith February 4, 2017 at 8:43 am #

    A similar thing has already happened in Canton, Ohio and Akron, Ohio. Both cities badgered their transit systems until the downtown transfer zone was moved far away from the actual downtown. It now requires a second transfer / third ride to reach the actual downtown area in Canton or Akron (unless you feel like walking a lengthy difference in an Ohio snowstorm). Large city mayors in Ohio seem to have a real problem accepting the demographic realities of who actually lives and visits their cities.

  8. Rob Fellows February 4, 2017 at 9:06 am #

    And a similar thing happened here in Seattle, where the business leaders in rapidly-gentrifying Pioneer Square opposed bringing buses into Seattle from the waterfront SR99 freeway because buses would degrade the pedestrian experience. Baloney! Grrr. Transit and pedestrians belong together. Transit and business leaders should not have caved to this pressure.

    As a result, the plan is to bring buses up to the midpoint of the city along the waterfront, creating a massive 8-lane roadway there (including car-waiting lanes for the ferry) in what is also supposed to be a great pedestrian place. And it’s a loss for transit as well, because the south-end buses miss serving the entire south end of downtown. This is something that can still be fixed, and should.

  9. Alex Preedy February 4, 2017 at 1:55 pm #

    As someone who actually lives off near public square in Cleveland. I’m so happy the buses have been removed. The square was never intended to have vehicle lanes and they were only added in the 50s when no one lived in the city and hated Cleveland in general. Now that people have embraced the downtown, how about we get them a usable park to enjoy. A few extra minutes on the bus won’t kill anyone, let’s get back to more important issues.

    • Dave February 5, 2017 at 8:45 pm #

      Sounds great. Except that the city already took federal money to develop a bus lane through the square. Perhaps the city should’ve made a plan for the square that doesn’t involve putting in infrastructure and then ripping it out every few years? Especially since Cleveland received a grant that other cities applied and were denied for – cities that actually wanted buses in their downtown.

    • Rob February 5, 2017 at 9:13 pm #

      Vehicle lanes only added in the 50s? I think you’re off by a few years — Superior and Ontario were CLOSED in the 50s… the 1850s — and was opened by court order in 1867. The vehicles have changed over the years but transit (namely streetcars and buses) have been a major part of Public Square. Also, wasn’t Cleveland about twice as populous in the 1950s as it is today? As far as usable parks, the malls seem pretty usable and have significantly more space than Public Square.

  10. James February 4, 2017 at 6:01 pm #

    Your article is quick to pass judgement for an issue in a city which you have no first hand experience.

    Closing public square has helped pedestrian returns to a revival in downtown Cleveland. For the first time in decades, crowds gather in public square for concerts, Christmas tree lightings, ice skating, farmers markets, political protests, Christmas displays in the windows of the old Higbee Building. Cleveland has been void of these vibrant gatherings for decades, partially due to a disjointed and uninviting downtown and public square.

    The price for a gathering place? Closing no more than 300m of roads to one bus lane, and instead causing them to drive an extra 400 meters around the circle. The circle only goes one way. What roads entering into the circle between the proposed bus lane? A one way road with a two way stop (at the corner), and one other road perpendicular to the proposed bus lane with a stoplight.

    Needless to say, there are bus stops all around the circle, which hardly drive away those riding buses. Not to say there may not be some nugget of truth to your critique (and hearsay); but public square in Cleveland returning to its historical use has only improved the life of residents in Cleveland.

    • Dave February 5, 2017 at 8:46 pm #

      Perhaps Cleveland should’ve thought of all this *before* taking a federal grant that other cities wanted and wasting it on a busway that it would end up ripping out a few years later?

    • Jarrett February 9, 2017 at 10:16 am #

      James. I am using your local issue to make a larger point. My commentary is about the arguments being made, and the consequences of those arguments for cities and transit in general. I have never claimed to know your local issue in detail, but the controversy is a familiar one.

      Having said that, you description, with the goal of making the impact sound minor, makes it sound huge to me as a transit planner. 400m is an enormous distance to add to many bus lines going through downtown. You don’t seem to be describing the actual cost and rider impacts at all, which would require assessing how the plan changes walking distances for connections, passenger travel times, increased costs of operations, etc.

  11. Dexter Wong February 5, 2017 at 12:10 am #

    An old (1910s) postcard of Cleveland’s Public Square suggests it was also a streetcar terminal at the time.

    • Nathanael May 7, 2017 at 7:54 am #

      For most of Cleveland’s history, Public Square was a major streetcar terminal.

  12. 89iq February 5, 2017 at 2:47 pm #

    There is a curious thing that always happen in my city.
    Since it is a very economically unequal place, sometimes community leaders and neighbourhood associations criticize the inauguration of an underground metro stations or a bus line close to where they live, because this will give access to poor people and obviously reduce the overall feeling of security and cosyness. This is very ironical, since wealthy neighbourhoods are exactly the ones which can lobby or have an attraction factor for the government planners, for them to decide to extend mass transit there.

    But I can’t never imagine this happening in a downtown or central area without large scale protest from people who rely in it to work, transfer or study. In this case the mere implementation of the policy leads to its consequence and people learn from their mistakes (or suffer).

  13. Mike Lindblom February 6, 2017 at 12:31 pm #

    Does it make sense for Cleveland to build a bus “cut” under the square, then rebuild the plaza over the busway to retain the pedestrian dominance? (The Rainier Vista project at UW-Seattle undertook this strategy). Such a project would be considered routine by Seattle, Vancouver or Portland standards, though I take it that Cleveland doesn’t have Cascadia-level fountains of transit tax dollars to play with….

    • Al Dimond February 6, 2017 at 3:54 pm #

      The Rainier Vista project in Seattle was a typical Seattle exercise in spending stupid amounts of money to build something that looks great from a helicopter’s vantage but works horribly on the ground. Have you ever used the bus stop down there? You get off the bus and you’re… nowhere. Surrounded by retaining walls with no view of any landmark for orientation and no path to anywhere you might want to go. So, supposing you’ve just exited the 44 at its eastbound terminal, you keep walking in the direction your bus had been moving, and after a curve you see what looks like a stairway up to the plaza near the cool new bridge over Montlake Boulevard, and you walk up the stairs, and then realize it doesn’t go up to the plaza, but to some random maintenance doorway (or something? I have no idea…) and then turn around and go back down and find a way to cross Montlake at-grade. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

      And they managed to make a total mess of the bike route from the Burke to the Montlake Bridge.

      And they removed the cherry trees, apparently because the designer thought this made it look more like the open quads at the centers of other universities, except that its access characteristics and relationships to major buildings are nothing like that, so it’s still essentially a giant promenade like it’s always been (a quad being like a public square, something you access from all directions, a promenade being a more linear kind of park that you’re always walking along), except without its best feature. The grassy lawn is a giant soggy waste half the year. The cherry trees, small trees with nice small flowers, gave some human-scale detail to the place, lent an intimate feel to a long damp walk.

      It’s like people say about Penn Station, about entering the city like kings or scurrying in like rats. Today you scurry from the 44 like a rat, a confused one at that, and you plod to campus from the train like an ant, insignificant against the huge blank monotony of the new design. But someone showed some renderings to a committee of architects and they gave it a national award, proving again the bankruptcy of that profession in the 21st Century.

      • Al Dimond February 6, 2017 at 4:27 pm #

        I’ve only been to Cleveland once and didn’t see much of it then, but I’m trying to imagine a public square that basically works. It’s at street-level on all sides, and the streets leading to and from it are lined with public buildings. There’s a street through it that has been closed, which is the street we’re talking about. To cut under it you’d need a portal on each side, a half-block long gap in the ground where ramps emerge. Chicago has a bunch of these, between upper and lower Wacker, or between surface boulevards like Michigan and Columbus and parking garages. These don’t kill your city outright or something, but they do impose minimum street widths and distances between crossings.

        Then if you put a bus road and stop under the square. Unlike at Rainier Vista, which tapers to bridge-width crossing the roadway, you’re underground for a whole block, which means you need full lighting and maybe ventilation for the bus stop — it’s more like a subway station than a normal street-side stop. The stop is in the middle of the square, and the bus-road portal doesn’t surface until a block outside of it (where you otherwise might have a bus stop), so you’ll need ramps, stairs, and possibly elevators or escalators to the surface from the platforms. Thinking of Rainier Vista, if there was anything actually on Rainier Vista it would need that, too. I think a good manifestation of this idea would look less like an bigger Rainier Vista and more like a smaller DSTT — and that’s a whole ‘nother scale of project.

  14. M1EK February 6, 2017 at 1:16 pm #

    “But really: Would city leaders be saying this if the service being banned were a streetcar/tram? Of course not. Streetcars supposedly attract people that the business community values.”

    Or people have been to cities with both, and associate buses with loud, smelly, diesel engines and streetcars with electric wires and relative quiet. No, it can’t be that simple, can it?

    • Nathanael May 7, 2017 at 7:55 am #

      This is one of the many many reasons cities need to adopt electric buses as soon as possible.

  15. Laurence Aurbach February 7, 2017 at 8:33 am #

    As someone who earned the new urbanism credential when it was first introduced, I think those who oppose conveniently sited bus stops purely on aesthetic grounds are mistaken. Conveniently sited transit stops are a principle of the Charter of the New Urbanism. The Charter says transit stops and land uses should be integrated in ways that permit transit to become a viable alternative to the automobile.

    Some may oppose bus routes on certain streets because large buses are too noisy, polluting, or dangerous. The textbook for the new urbanism credential (New Urbanism: Best Practices Guide) addresses that point. It says most of the disadvantages can be overcome by good planning of streets and adjacent land uses, and possibly by alternative-fuel buses or small buses. I’d also note that many city centers in Europe have transit vehicles going through civic spaces, and those have good safety records.

    Diversity is a key principle of new urbanism, and its Charter opposes increasing separation by race and income.

    There are good arguments for and against the Public Square bus lanes in this discussion thread. Whatever solution the city settles on, it should be one that improves fairness, convenience, and the popularity of the square for everyone on an everyday basis.

    • Jarrett February 9, 2017 at 10:07 am #

      Thanks for chiming in, Laurence!

  16. MB February 7, 2017 at 7:41 pm #

    Everyone has seemed to not want to address rider behaviour. Until we address the serious issues seen at bus stops in Cleveland and other American cities, even though it is a minority of riders causing the trouble, it is going to be hard for planners to get the public and municipal leaders on their side.

    I noticed MARTA started a campaign telling riders they need to be respectful.

    European cities don’t have problems with transit in public squares and spaces, because they don’t have issues American cities have. And pretending that there are not issues does not help the situation.

    • Jarrett February 9, 2017 at 9:51 am #

      MB. Nobody is pretending that there aren’t issues of rider behavior. Rider education problems are great.

      But many of the issues that motivate businesses to shun transit are the result of national policies that are out of the power of cities to influence. The difference between American and European safety nets has all kinds of consequences for homelessness and untreated mental health issues. These show up in cities but are not something a transit agency can do something about.

      But the choice between welcoming or rejecting “unwanted” categories of people is still an active reality that businesses need to think about. Again, if these problems were so severe as to threaten the viability of downtown, people wouldn’t be investing there.

  17. Benjamin Smith March 14, 2017 at 3:40 pm #

    Perhaps some of these business leaders should read what Jane Jacobs wrote on the matter? Here is a woman who lived in NYC in the 50s and 60s, and who felt completely safe in the big crowds of urban life because of all the informal surveillance they provide.

    And then of course there is the whole element of the privatization of public space, and how some people are more “public” than others. If it bothers them so much, perhaps governments should do a better job addressing social inequality and mental health rather than trying to sweep it under the rug.