Horwitz and Reif: Make the wheels on the bus go ‘round and ‘round

Avi Horwitz, Jordan Reif, Staff Writers

One of the perks of being an undergraduate student at Case Western Reserve University is the small sticker that Thwing staff adheres to our ID cards at the start of each semester: the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (RTA) pass—our keys to the city. At $40 each, these passes, built into undergraduate tuition, are not an opportunity (for some, a necessity) afforded to all of campus. Except for those at the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences, graduate students cannot receive RTA passes at a discount. Faculty and staff have the option to obtain monthly bus passes from a payroll deduction. Full-time employees earning less than $50,000 a year are eligible for a 55% discounted rate. Without the highly subsidized pass option, some campus members are left to pay $95 per month—in other words, over $300, to have the same unlimited access to public transit. The varied reality of transit access on campus is echoed at the community, state and national levels and needs dire attention. 

While some people have access to cars and others afford monthly transit passes, many are left to pay the $2.50 fee per trip, racking up an astronomical bill at the end of the month. Not only is funding public transit a personal concern for many people, but it is also a matter of climate, racial and economic justice. Approximately 29% of the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions are from the transportation sector. Moreover, when 60% of transit riders are people of color, continuous disinvestment in public transit cannot be called anything besides systemic racism. 

However, lucky for us, following the status quo is a policy choice. We can choose to abandon it in favor of a society that addresses injustice, in part through building infrastructure. For example, pledging to invest in reliable transit networks—pedestrian bridges, bike lanes, high-speed rail and green spaces—would create around 50,000 union jobs that could increase household incomes and provide improved health insurance coverage. 

First and foremost, none of these changes can happen without serious federal investment. Luckily, with discussions surrounding infrastructure investment dominating public discourse at the federal level, the opportunity to invest in public transit may soon be upon the country—if the politics work out, that is.

That said, for any investment to occur, our state and local representatives must also recognize the need to prioritize transit. Compared with neighboring states, Ohio has invested less than half as much per capita on public transportation, landing Ohio in the bottom 10 states nationally. State legislators would do well to trade out fare evasion enforcement with job creation and infrastructure development. It is ludicrous that failing to pay the $2.50 fare—or paying, but not having proof—can result in a $250 fine and 30 days in jail. The equivalent would be locking someone up for a single parking ticket. 

Unfortunately, we see our state and city surrender our public transit programs to a self-fulfilling death spiral, where failure to make proper investments leads riders to pursue alternative commute methods. Then, decreasing ridership is used as an excuse for more defunding. As a result, we see fares increasing while services decrease—RTA fares increased four times over the last 15 years, doubling the price of a ticket, while service has been cut by 25%.

Investing in robust transit systems is the perfect escape from the spiral. While federal and state funding will be critical to its success, the City of Cleveland—and the universities and corporations within—can benefit socially and financially from changing the narrative around cars and public transit.

Transit is an urgent issue for Cleveland, where 25% of households do not own a car. Not only must we push for infrastructure for these thousands of people who need it, but sensible plans can also save us money. Riders who only use RTA and do not drive save $51.9 million per year. Additionally, providing RTA access to previously unserved areas can decrease poverty by 12.9% and increase property values by 3.5%. 

For institutions in Cleveland, including CWRU, cars have exorbitant costs. Every parking space in a typical garage costs between $25,000-$50,000. Parking also consumes an astronomical amount of space; in Cuyahoga County, there are 940 million square feet of parking. For comparison, there are only 680 square feet of housing (yes, we have a housing crisis too). Think about what could be done with all the parking spaces—more outdoor eating, playgrounds, bike lanes and green spaces in general. Investment in green spaces will also contribute to improved physical and mental health conditions, decreasing rates of asthma, lung cancer, premature birth, gun violence, anger, depression and anxiety.  

Beyond our responsibility to vote for politicians who will prioritize public transit infrastructure, health and the climate crisis, we can be pushing our own university to consider its perspective and policy on transit. Our leaders on campus can and must take action. At the very least, CWRU can fully cover the cost to provide RTA passes for all campus members—including undergraduate and graduate students, campus staff, Bon Appetit workers and faculty. The next steps are increasing the cost of parking, building community partnerships to promote transit investment at the city level, making bicycles and scooters accessible by a swipe of a CWRU ID or community card, adding bike lanes and finally, opening a bicycle repair shop closer than 2.5 miles away.