Cleveland’s HealthLine: A Model for Detroit Rapid Transit?

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HealthLine buses run in their own lanes. Photos by Jerry Masek, Greater Cleveland RTA.

Bus rapid transit (BRT) lines are rolling forward across the country. Grand Rapids’ Silver Line is breaking ground this year, and BRT is also being considered for future transit service along Woodward Avenue and other corridors in metro Detroit. But just what is bus rapid transit? A group of metro Detroit leaders traveled to Cleveland for a day to check out its “HealthLine” BRT.

The HealthLine BRT starts downtown and runs seven miles east on Euclid Avenue, past the Cleveland Clinic and Case Western Reserve University. It consists of double-length hybrid buses, running mostly in their own separated lanes. The BRT system started operation in 2008, and carries about 15,000 riders a day, with that number growing by nearly 10% annually. The BRT service, along with the bicycle and pedestrian improvements, streetscaping and utility upgrades completed at the same time, is already credited with supporting over 100 private development projects totaling nearly $6 billion of investment.

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Stations serve riders going in both directions. Photo by Jerry Masek, Greater Cleveland RTA.

What did the Michigan delegation think?

Melanie Piana, mayor pro tem, City of Ferndale:

For me, experiencing Cleveland’s Healthline bus rapid transit system served as a test drive for what our region can aspire to build. My vision is to leverage Cleveland’s experiences and advice, then leapfrog to build the best bus rapid transit system in the world. We need to think and act big!

The system offers all the bells and whistles one expects to have with a reliable and coordinated system. It’s easy to purchase a ticket. The count-down ticker showing when the next vehicle will arrive was clear and accurate. The vehicles were comfortable and accessible. Cleveland has a dedicated lane just for transit vehicles shared with car and bike lanes, and dedicated traffic signals for transit vehicles. I was pleasantly surprised to hear the “Ding! Ding!” transit vehicle signal to notify riders as it pulled into a transit stop. It sounded like I was in San Francisco! These are experiences we need to replicate in our system to make it attractive for people to use it.

In addition to rider experience, their rapid transit system’s impact on new and infill development along the corridor increased investment that attracted new businesses, jobs and new housing.  Personally, I’m excited about the possibility of hopping on BRT in Ferndale and heading to Detroit for dinner or an event like Movement—the electronic music festival. But I’m motivated by the opportunities for Ferndale and all of metro Detroit as we launch the RTA and work toward building our region’s system.”

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During adjacent concerts, platforms may also be used as impromptu dance venues. Photo by Joel Batterman, Michigan Suburbs Alliance.

Steve Baker, council member, City of Berkley:

“The rapid transit vehicles are terrific. With train-like qualities both outside and in, they offer a safe, comfortable ride and a timely, reliable transit experience. Advanced vehicles like these would serve us very well also.

Greater Cleveland’s rapid transit system, and the HealthLine along Euclid Ave. in particular, is clearly an integral component of the downtown corridor. What impressed me most was how natural the whole experience felt.”

Carmine Palombo, transportation director, Southeast Michigan Council of Governments:

“Is it a sign that on the day we were touring the HealthLine, Governor Snyder was signing the RTA [regional transit authority] bill in Detroit? I hope it is a very positive sign. With the signing of the RTA bill, our region now has a chance to improve public transit and for the first time in a long time, actually think about implementing higher forms of transit service – like BRT. We need it, we want it, and now we may have the means to achieve it – and Woodward is the first corridor on the list!” [See Carmine’s blog for more.]

Next time, we’ll have a more in-depth perspective on the HealthLine, including results of an interview with a driver of these big silver vehicles. How does it feel to have a lane all to yourself? To find out, stay tuned.

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