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Are we stuck on cars? The mass transit alternative

Susan Nolan has found a way to cushion the shock of high gas prices. She's taking the bus to work.

"I had been driving downtown from North Ridgeville, paying to park downtown. With gas and parking it was costing me about $10 a day, and it wasn't getting any better," Nolan says. "I tried the RTA Park-N-Ride lot [along Interstate 480 in North Olmsted], only two exits from my home. . . . It's a godsend."

As a bonus, Nolan's employer, the federal government, gives workers free bus passes.

Even if she had to pay, the $3 round- trip fare would be a bargain over driving, and it takes only a few minutes longer.

Not surprisingly, others have made the switch, ridership data from transit agencies suggest.

This year, Lake County's Laketran and Summit County's Metro Regional Transit Authority reported a jump in passengers on their express commuter routes to downtown Cleveland. Ridership at the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority has been climbing along with the gas prices since 2003.

However, not even some of the staunchest public transit advocates believe that the bus or train will become the dominant way to get around Northeast Ohio - even with sharply higher gas prices. Too much is stacked in favor of the car - from the convenience of driving, to expanding roads as bus options shrink.

Despite recent ridership increases, public transit use nationally has fallen from 12.1 percent of all work trips in 1960 to 4.7 percent in 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau reports.

"I have to take my son to school first, and then I have to go to school after work. So I need my car," says Lakewood's Vanessa Hudak, who works for a downtown Cleveland law firm. "Plus, my boss pays for my parking. . . . And I don't have time to take the bus. It's too slow."

Public transit works best when people live in densely populated communities and commute to a core - such as from Lakewood to Cleveland. That makes it more efficient to run more buses, more often. But even then most people are like Hudak; they drive.

For many people, transit is not a serious option. More and more work trips are from one suburb to another as the population and the jobs continue to spread.

Public policy since the early 1900s has been to invest tax dollars heavily in roads rather than in mass transit.

After the Depression, for example, the government paid for new roads while it lent money to the railroads - money the railroads had to repay.

In the fiscal year ended June 30, Ohio spent $18.3 million of state tax money on public transit, down 58 percent from 2000.

In contrast, road spending did not suffer. In 2003, state lawmakers increased the Ohio gasoline tax by 27 percent. That tax raises about $1.5 billion a year for roads. Local property and income taxes also support the roads, and some of those taxes have increased.

Gordon Proctor, director of the Ohio Department of Transportation, says this gives the state money for roads.

But he says a negative is that Ohio doesn't have similar funds for public transit, which competes with education, Medicaid and other programs.

"You're building highways that have allowed builders to have a free ride out to a sprawling development where there is no public transportation," says Jane Holtz Kay, author of "Asphalt Nation, How the Automobile Took over America and How We Can Take it Back."

"It's a no-brainer that not as many people are going to find the rail and the bus because they are farther and farther away."

Others, however, argue that the public's investment in the roads is what the people want, and that it represents a better use of public money.

"Sprawl has been happening for thousands of years," says Robert Bruegmann, a professor of urban planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "In the Roman era, when people could afford it, they would go out to the seashore, they would go out to the mountains." The five-county Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency must approve the use federal money to fix and build roads in Greater Cleveland. NOACA, however, does not have the same say over land-use planning, says Executive Director Howard Maier.

"There sometimes is a disconnect," Maier says. "The land-use decisions, the zoning decisions, the development decisions are done on a municipal basis,"

At the same time that urban areas have spread, people have bought more cars and trucks. As late as 1970, there was about one vehicle registered in Ohio for every two residents. By 2000, vehicle registrations exceeded the population of the Buckeye State.

Now that more can afford to drive a car, even with higher gas prices, they are in control of yet another driving force in modern life, says Alan Pisarski, author of "Commuting in America."

"Time pressure is a real critical issue. People are focused heavily on saving time to have time with the family, time to juggle all the things they want to do," Pisarski says. "Transit, which tends to be slower, tends to come out second best."

Joe Calabrese, general manager of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, argues that public transit deserves a fairer shake.

"I contend that if employers provide free parking for their employees, they should provide free public transit, the same way that if a store validates parking for their customers, they should pay for public transit for their customers," Calabrese says.

Pisarski, citing $5-a-gallon gas prices in Europe, says increasing gas prices aren't likely to change Americans' preference for the automobile anytime soon.

"In the short term, people do other things to respond. The biggest effect, as you see in Europe, is smaller cars - more efficient cars," Pisarski says.

And, evidence suggests, cars have closed the gap on fuel efficiency with buses on a per-passenger-mile basis, in part because buses often operate with few riders during off-peak hours.

EcoCity Cleveland's David Beach, an advocate of public transit and redeveloping urban neighborhoods, says the tables could turn on the auto.

"We have communities where driving the car is the only practical way to get around, where transit will never be the option," Beach says. "What's going to become of them if gasoline becomes really scarce? Will they become the slums of the future? Will people want to live there?"

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter: [email protected], 216-999-3505

© 2005 The Plain Dealer
© 2005 cleveland.com All Rights Reserved.

Editorial Notes: Sidebar: How to switch from your car to bus, rapid transit. Sidebar: Public tranit on the decline (graphic) The Cleveland Plain Dealer is doing an exemplary job of explaining energy issues to the public, and doing it with a local slant. (If there's one thing we know about a low-energy future, it's that it will be local.) Previous stories in their series "Crude Awakening" are available through the series archive. Many of these articles in the series have been archived on Energy Bulletin. -BA

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