Inside the RTA: Cleveland’s public transit


Clay Preusch/The Observer

The RTA is a vital service for CWRU students and faculty as well as an important tool for fighting poverty by bringing economic activity to an underserved community.

Milo Vetter and Jarod Lau

For many students, faculty and employees at Case Western Reserve University, the Greater Cleveland Rapid Transit Authority (RTA) is a vital service. The RTA’s light rail and bus system is the best way to get to any places in Cleveland, especially for those who don’t own a car, when going to areas not covered by CWRU’s Safe Ride and shuttle service. Undergraduate students who have picked up their RTA pass—already paid for via tuition fees—from the basement of Thwing or Crawford can also use the RTA at any time for no additional cost, meaning that students don’t even need to pay extra to experience everything that Cleveland has to offer. The RTA is also extra helpful for getting to and from the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport; Cleveland is one of the few cities in the US with a light rail line that connects downtown with the airport with no transfers.

Given the importance of Cleveland’s public transit system in the lives of CWRU’s students, we at The Observer decided to learn more about the RTA and how it really works, so we interviewed Dr. Floun’say Caver, the chief operating officer of the RTA. By doing so, we were able to have an idea of the big picture and nuts and bolts of the RTA.

Dr. Caver first described the strategic plan that the RTA has for the future. The RTA is currently seeking to get bigger and better, with new cars, more frequent service and service to more areas. There are always improvements to be made, whether that be with regards to electrification, rail signal technology or the rail itself. However, they are also aware of the need to balance expansion with maintenance. 

“We are currently at a space where we are aggressively looking to recapitalize our infrastructure,” Caver said. “Our rail cars are approximately 40 years old.” 

The RTA is what public transit professionals call a “legacy transit system.” This means that it was built so long ago that the service has to deal with rapidly escalating maintenance costs, and the costs that come with replacing out-of-date technology with more modern systems. 

The RTA is also focused on safety and security. Some CWRU students may be reluctant to use the RTA frequently due to safety concerns, especially during the night. However, Dr. Caver emphasized the multiple different ways that the RTA ensures the safety of its passengers.

First, the RTA has its own dedicated police department that is always available to any operator or staff member. Second, every station, bus stop and train car has a surveillance system which is able to record any potentially dangerous incident.

In addition to these traditional security measures, he also shared with us the recently-unveiled “ambassador” program. Due to nationwide shifting attitudes about policing—and a 2017 court decision that deemed the usage of Cleveland police to enforce fares to be unconstitutional—the RTA is trying a new way of mediating potential conflict on trains, buses and at stops. 

“The fact is that the majority of police interactions nationally are for nonviolent reasons…so we are adding social workers here,” Dr. Caver said. “So that when we’re engaging in those situations, we have a person who may be able to defuse that situation…We talk to them, we try to get them help if they need it.” These ambassadors, in addition to being on call when problems arise, are also on duty on trains and buses. The program is in its early stages, and there are relatively few ambassadors for the time being, but time will tell how effective of a replacement they end up being for the transit police.

Dr. Caver also addressed the great benefits that the RTA has had on Greater Cleveland. The HealthLine is one example of the RTA’s successes. The HealthLine is a bus rapid transit (BRT) system, a sort of intermediary between a bus and a light rail. The HealthLine service starts at Cleveland’s Public Square, goes down Euclid Ave., through Midtown, past the Cleveland Clinic, through University Circle and ends at the Louis Stokes Station at Windermere. It has been praised for its frequent service and dedicated bus lanes—features which many riders would like to see applied elsewhere in Cleveland. Completed in 2008, the HealthLine earned a silver ranking from the BRT Standard. 

The RTA aims to work towards the philosophy of “transit-oriented development,” which is a development style that creates mixed-use residential, commercial and office space within walking distance of a transit stop. Transit-oriented development, when implemented properly, has a huge positive effect on the surrounding area, and a perfect example of this is the impact the HealthLine had on Uptown, right on CWRU’s campus. 

“Euclid… through the late ‘70s and ‘80s, had regressed to be sort of an empty corridor. It doesn’t look like it now,” he said. “[The HealthLine] project ended up helping to spur $9 billion worth of investment within a quarter of a mile…of Euclid Avenue.”

In a more general sense, the RTA and other public transit projects like it can have huge positive effects on the area that they service. They create jobs, reduce traffic congestion, decrease dependence on cars and provide commuter transportation both for people who don’t want to or can’t afford to drive. RTA officials argue that public transportation can contribute to increased economic development—after all, if you’re building an office building, it makes logical sense to put it near a train station.

Public transportation can also be an extremely important tool in the fight against poverty. A major reason why poverty is such a vicious cycle is because impoverished neighborhoods provide few or no legal ways to make money. With jobs mostly in wealthier areas, working at those jobs can be nearly impossible if the person in question is too poor to own a car and there are no other transit options available. This is where public transportation comes in and where RTA aims to serve their community most; adequate, affordable transportation allows people to get to the jobs that will lift them out of poverty. Public transit also allows people to mitigate the effects of food deserts by bringing them to wealthier neighborhoods where healthier eating options are more readily available.

But these huge benefits don’t come on their own—Clevelanders have to make the choice to invest in the things that make our communities better. 

“An investment in transit is an investment in healthy communities,” Caver said. “We know that light rail systems come with an economic impact that is catalytic to communities…If we tried to build it today, it would cost $5 billion… We would never be able to…so we have to take care of that system.”