When this story first hit, I wondered how many of the attorneys and employees of the “Rights” groups touting unfair targeting had ever ridden the Health Line or any other RTA bus other than the high end commuter buses from the suburbs. Regular riders on the 79, 35, 20A and 26 myself included often wait patiently as a bus driver explains to someone with no fare why they can’t ride for free “just this time”. More often, we are shuttled on to the bus because the fare box is not working. For years, I have wondered how much fare money is lost because of these fare boxes. Do I feel guilty when I can’t pay, no, because I had every intention to honor my agreement with RTA ”I pay you, you get me where I am going on time. Of course, I probably have had to start my journey an hour and a half before my appointment, but that’s another post.
The Health Line has become a regular route on my forays around town. It allows me to meet friends and colleagues for coffee with little hassle because of the coffee shops along its route. I travel the route from downtown out to University Circle and back again. I now know how to buy tickets at the stations thanks to two very helpful Case Western students. Actually, I might still be at the station in front of Thwing Hall if not for those two. Let me say that I found the instructions on the fare board more confusing than helpful. I continue to avoid 2:30 pm to 4:30 pm whenever possible because the crush of high school students is very intense. I have, at times, not been able to avoid rush hour which is another crushing time, but I am well equipped to pay my way although I often feel like I am one of the few who do pay regardless of age.
Two of the things I like best about the Health Line are: the display board telling you when the next train will arrive and the space for waiting for the “train/bus”. When I first started hopping the Health Line, I had some trouble finding where I should validate my card. I did what I always do in a situation where i don’t know what to do, I observed the other people at the stop. Imagine my surprise when not one person swiped their card. Each and every one of them stood, hands in pockets, avoiding eye contact. Finally, I ventured over to the fare card box and figured out how and what I needed to do. That day, one man and myself were the two who paid fares before boarding the train. For a year and a half, I have from my own observation believed that the pay rate for the health line was probably somewhere between 15 and 30 per cent excluding people transferring from other buses. I have yet to see people step up to swipe a card or buy a fare more than once or twice while waiting for a train.
Last week, I met a friend for coffee at Moko Cafe. As I walked to the 14th Street stop, I decided I would make sure I counted each person who paid a fare. I knew I would be waiting six minutes for the next train. I had just missed one. Granted, some riders may have transferred from another bus, but the majority would probably hop on from one of the office building around the stop. Twelve people waited at that stop in the middle of the day-four with book bags, three with cold hands stuffed in pockets, two with briefcases, a lady with a baby in a stroller, me, and a young man who sprinted across the street hopping into the train just as the doors closed. I figured he was probably the rider transferring from another bus. How many did I see pay? Me. Not one other person bought a fare or swiped a card. Every other person arrived after me. Now, I understand from an article in the Plain Dealer that this “quick on honor system” was a concession to receive federal money for the project. Well, it doesn’t work.
There is a lot of talk about targeting certain riders for non payment, but I can say to you that the group I waited with was very diverse and NO ONE paid except me-the white haired white lady. So, stop a full train, target any population, and I am willing to bet that you will find that the percentage paying is probably around 30 to 40 per cent. Cross socio-economic lines, ethnic groups, age groups, and you will find the same numbers. It should not be about targeting any one group. It should be about a stupid “honor” policy that does not work in the real world. If anyone had asked regular riders of the RTA how such a system would work, we could probably have told you that it wouldn’t. Of course, when the need for federal money to finish a project or to start a project outweighs the practicality of an “honor system”, we know which one wins, and now, we have a community again targeted as “discriminatory”. The Health Line is discriminatory, but not for the reasons cited in this Plain Dealer article. It discriminates against me and every other Clevelander of any color who pays their way on the bus line.
If it were free to each and every rider what would the economic benefit be to the businesses and employers along that line? If it were free, would more college students use it to attend classes at CSU and CWRU stopping to eat lunch or have a cup of coffee with a study group? If it were free how much revenue would the parking lots lose along Euclid Avenue? If it were free how much would the carbon emissions in Dontown Cleveland be decreased? If Cleveland’s carbon footprint was enhanced how many federal $$$ would that mean for Cuyahoga County? Would people use it to reach Playhouse Square? How would gridlock be eased during rush hour on snowy or black out days? Would people feel safe and secure along the route if it was used night and day? We do know the “honor system” is not working. Have we looked at innovative and creative ways of solving the problem? Or have we simply slipped into punitive, unenforceable mode?