Leaning into the street, a resident flags down her bus. She wears thick gloves as she holds onto the bus stop sign. A light rain falls, washing old salt and snow down a nearby drain.
There is no shelter and her black coat is zipped all the way up as she hunches over, hiding her face from the cold. Because of the snow and ice piled in banks, she can’t stand safely on the sidewalk and still reach the bus stop.
The bus pulls up and she gets on. She may have waited as long as 30 minutes.
Earlier this month, Mayor Justin Bibb nominated two public transit users, Jeffrey Sleasman and Lauren Welch, to the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA) Board of Trustees. If approved, they would be only the third and fourth trustees to actually use the transit system they represent while on the board, according to the volunteer-run organization Clevelanders for Public Transit (CPT).
Editor’s note: Lauren Welch is a board member of The Land.
Sleasman, a downtown resident, is dedicated to public transit and was recommended for the GCRTA Board once before. He is a longtime member of CPT and he has been car-free for 30 years. CPT members are typically transit riders who are also leaders in the community. The group advocates to improve the city’s transit system in terms of safety, accessibility, reliability, and affordability.
Edgewater resident Welch was also recommended by CPT this year. She first connected to the transit system as a fixed-route rider in high school and remained car-free until last year, when she purchased a car for business purposes. Welch assured me that she continues to use the GCRTA.
“These are people who regularly use public transit to get to their jobs and go about their daily lives,” said Erin Gay Miyoshi, a member of the CPT Board, who regularly rides a bus to work from her home in Cleveland Heights. “They can make decisions from their firsthand experience.”
Last year, Roberta Duarte joined the Board after Bibb’s term ended while he was campaigning for mayor. Duarte was the first fixed-route transit rider to be added to the Board and had been recommended by CPT. GCRTA Board President Rev. Charles P. Lucas is a regular paratransit rider, too.
Welch hopes she and Sleasman are not the last resident riders to be nominated. “For so long,” she said, “we didn’t have residents’ voices on the board. I’m really grateful now that we have leadership that understands the importance of that.”
In recent years, GCRTA has had falling ridership rates, rising fare costs, and service cuts. Primary funding for GCRTA comes from a one-percent sales tax within Cuyahoga County which was set in 1975. Since then, Cuyahoga County has lost 30 percent of its population, largely due to increased housing costs. This has generated what CPT calls a “death spiral.”
Miyoshi said a new major source of funding for the system is desperately needed and she hopes the board will be able to diversify revenue. “The RTA’s been in financial distress,” she said. “There’s so many things we would like to see, but it all depends on funding.”
Nominations must be approved by the City Council. If all goes well, Sleasman will start his term next year when Valerie McCall’s term has ended. He will hold the position for three years. Sleasman is also part of the advisory committee for The Paradox Prize, a $1 million competition that sources proposals for improving transportation in Northeast Ohio.
Welch would also start her term this month and go for three years as well. RTA and Mayor Bibb’s Office declined to comment at this time on the next steps in the nomination and appointment process.
Welch has 15 years of experience in marketing and advocacy. She is the assistant director of communications at Say Yes Cleveland and founder of Laurel Cadence. Miyoshi said Welch would be an important appointment not just because of her expertise in marketing and advocacy, but also for connection to the schools.
“RTA serves as school district bus transportation,” Miyoshi said. “There are a lot of problems with the contract from a student/parent view. The passes are only for the weekdays, so if the students are participating in academic programs during the weekend, they have to find their own way. ”
Welch remembers what it is like to be a black girl from Ohio City boarding the bus to school.
“When I was younger, the RTA for me was part of my community like your next door neighbor is part of the community,” she recalled. “Some of those bus drivers were like guardians to so many of us who were a part of CMSD [Cleveland Metropolitan School District].
“Ultimately, what I think about is: Who did I need to advocate for me when I was younger and who do I continue to need?”
Miyoshi noted that student bus passes have curfews. That means students who work or stay late at the library have to find other ways home. Elementary school students and middle school students also have different pass usability times, which makes it difficult for older siblings to get their younger siblings safely home.
Welch said one of her skills is listening and gathering stories. “When I’m on the board, everybody is coming with me,” she said. “There are a number of people who are by my side and in front of me and behind me, who I am taking with me. I don’t believe this [appointment] is just for me.”
This year GCRTA plans to implement a pilot program that would replace armed police officers with civilian transit ambassadors on high ridership lines, such as the Healthline. These 10 ambassadors would check passes, assist patrons in navigating the system, and report real security concerns to transit police.
India Birdsong, RTA’s new CEO, predicts the program will launch this fall. In a recent speech at the City Club of Cleveland, Birdsong acknowledged that RTA has not yet hired any ambassadors.
“Our goal is to have them assist with that fare enforcement but be their only role,” said Birdsong, the first Black woman to head the RTA. “We don’t want to replace fare enforcement with those ambassadors.”
Hiring Birdsong isn’t GCRTA’s only step towards Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion (DEAI). According to Birdsong, GCRTA is the first public transportation group in the country to sign The Hispanic Promise, a pledge to hire and promote Hispanics in the workplace. The GCRTA also created a DEAI team and changed its slogan to “Connecting to the Community” in an attempt to reflect a commitment to change.
Birdsong hopes that a few ambassadors will be social workers who can also help homeless people, those with substance issues, and people suffering mental health crises.
“Too often we see individuals from marginalized communities end up being criminalized because they simply do not have the $2.50 to pay,” Welch said. “We need to treat riders with dignity and respect. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people that look just like me get arrested because they don’t have the fare. It’s not equitable.”
Miyoshi said she hopes that the two new board members will push for construction of new rider safety measures, such as well-lit shelters, as well as task the city with better maintenance of the sidewalks. CPT believes in a “Transit Bill of Rights” and that Cleveland’s system can implement the best practices in other cities.
“One of the pain points to access is the fares,” Miyoshi said. “”Other cities like Youngstown and Toledo are fare-free. I don’t know what the answer is but they need to look at reduced or free fares for low-income residents. It’s a lifeline. It needs to be a service we are making accessible.”
“Transit is for everyone,” added Welch. “I want a safe and equitable city for everybody. If we are putting in more stops in different neighborhoods, that means more development in those neighborhoods and more people in those neighborhoods.”
Aja Hannah is a freelance journalist based in Northeast Ohio. She believes in the Oxford comma, cheap flights, and a daily dose of chocolate. Follow her @ajahannah or https://www.facebook.com/AjaHannah. Her website is http://www.ajahannah.com.
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