A History of Fifty Years of Community Planning with Norman Krumholz

Interview by Michael McGraw

Michael McGraw: Professor Norman Krumholz, it’s a real pleasure to talk with you. I know that you were Director of City Planning for the city of Cleveland, originally appointed by Mayor Carl Stokes, and retained throughout the 1970s.
Norman Krumholz: That’s right, Mayor Stokes, and then Ralph Perk and Dennis Kucinich.

MM: And in that capacity, you had a lot to do with the formation of RTA as the public, consolidated agency that it became around 1975, and you’ve been very vocal about RTA’s interests and activities since then.
NK: Quite true!

MM: And, I wanted to ask you – the purpose of this interview is for the Street newspaper, which is concerned particularly with low-income Clevelanders, and their interests generally, work and housing and so forth, and that can certainly include public transportation. And I know that, and I’m paraphrasing here, you can correct me – you’ve been quite consistent over the years in saying that RTA should, before it does anything else, if it does nothing else, to focus and the needs of those people who really need public transportation, in order to meet their needs before it looks after anybody else, and you’ve also been identified with the view that buses are often the best way to provide that kind of service most cost-effectively – right?
NK: I think that’s all true, and if you need any backup, there’s an article that I wrote in 1975 and another one in 1982, from the Journal of the American Planning Association, that describes in part the positions and stands that I took on public transit.

MM: I know in the last few weeks or so, that there has been some press about RTA considering extensions of the Red Line and/or the HealthLine. Some possible different routes and scenarios to the east, to Euclid, and at least one possible scenarios going right over there to the Collinwood Arts District, and there are several different scenarios under long-term study. I wonder what you think about these recent proposals that I’m talking about extending the Red Line to the east, and how you see those as fitting RTA’s long-term vision as a system that’s going to be able to first and foremost provide service to those who need public transportation most in Greater Cleveland.
NK: Well, in general, I take the position against the extension of fixed rail transit, fixed rail transit being the type that goes from the Airport to Windermere, and then out to Shaker Heights. I’ve been opposed to that because, it is, on the basis of a number of different cities, an expanded fixed-rail transit into low density areas, it’s not very cost-effective. In virtually every case, the cost of capital construction has been underestimated, and the ridership has been wildly overestimated, and the cost of maintenance has been underestimated as well. So, all of this is in the literature, and it’s fairly clear that fixed-rail transportation is not a good idea, unless you have extraordinarily dense corridors that will use transportation, such as New York City, Chicago, or other communities where there is very very dense residential and commercial development along these corridors. Fixed-rail transit cannot be moved easily as you can guess. We can’t pick up the tracks and move them to other locations. So, I’ve been really very opposed to the extension of rail transit to low-density areas. And I think the proposal to go out to Euclid along the main line of the RTA is probably subject to the same kind of criticism. That is to say there’s not enough conceivable ridership to make that cost-effective.

MM: What about the HealthLine, which has been getting a lot of great press in a couple of different media outlets about it apparently getting bang for the buck in terms of development along Euclid Avenue. I have seen discussion about studies for extending the Healthline East rather than extending fixed rail. What is your opinion of extending the RTA Healthline East.

NK: That again would depend on the density, which reflects ridership capacity, in the corridor that they’re looking at. I’m not familiar with the area of East Cleveland and Euclid into which that’s going to pass, but I suspect it’s not of the density that’s needed to be cost effective.
However, extending the HealthLine, the HealthLine is just a #6, the old #6 with a fancy vehicle. And extending a bus line can be done on a demonstration basis, and it can be changed and modified, and use a different route and all that sort of thing with apparent ease. So if they want to extend the HealthLine, and it seems that the corridor that they’re proposing has enough ridership, then that’s something that could be supported, and least on a demonstration basis.

MM: OK, would you say there’d be a lower density threshold for what you’d consider rational to do for extending the HealthLine than for a heavy rail route.
NK: I don’t think there’s any question about that. The cost of heavy rail makes it very very improbable for it to be cost effective. So I think that proposal is really all fog. At least I hope so.

MM: OK, so you think there’s really not much chance of that particular proposal going forward?
NK: I hope not. Federal budgets are being cut, and there’s very very little money at the local level to support such a program.

MM: You know, I want to take a little different tack, I was telling you I was also out on an evening engagement. I saw a New York Times about the Boston MBTA extending some evening service into 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. And a lot of emphasis in the particular article that I read about these younger 20- or 30-somethings being able to get home from their nightlife rather than take taxis. What do you think about the RTA providing later night service to help people get home from jobs cleaning offices, as janitors and things, or getting people home from West 6th or bars without drunk driving?

NK: I think if you want to extend late night service to service late night customers, which are probably not going to be all that many, chances are you are going to engage in something that is going to tax RTA’s financial capabilities. So I don’t think there’s much room for that sort of thing. The young smarts who are going out drinking on New Year’s Eve, for example are probably not going to their clubs by public transit. The last time I took a date out by public transit was in my high school prom, which goes back like a hundred years. You don’t take date out on public transit. So I think that’s largely a vain hope. What I would be afraid of is taking service away from people who depend on service for their whole mobility around the metropolitan area, and I’m very much concerned or more concerned about people who have to go to work at all hours of the day or night, then people who are out drinking and carousing during the evening.

MM: If RTA is going to extend a little further out into the inner ring and outer ring suburbs, how do you think this should impact the fare for the bus or rapid? I think we know that poverty has dispersed somewhat from just the core urban areas certainly into the inner-ring suburbs. Is there any way RTA is set up now for a fare proportional to the distance of the trip, and would this increase ridership especially by those living in proverty?

NK: Obviously, the way RTA’s fare structure is set up it’s a flat rate. So you pay the same to ride on the Shaker Line from Green Road to the Airport as you would to ride from say E.55th Street to the Airport, and those are entirely different worlds. I would prefer, given my concern for the lower-income population, using public transit, I would prefer that the fare structure be set to the mileage, the amount of mileage traveled. So instead of a flat fare you’d have a graduate fare, where the closer in you are, which is where most of the poverty in our area is located, the less you would pay. The further distance you are, the more you would pay. But RTA has considered that and rejected that, part of the reason they’re rejected it is that the people who live further out actually pay more in sales tax than the people who live closer in. And so they don’t think it’s fare from that perspective, and the sales tax in Cuyahoga County pays more than half of RTA’s budget. So they have to be very sensitive and respectful of that. But I think that a flat fare is discriminatory against the inner-city poor, and I would prefer a number of things that would lower their cost.

MM: OK, it’s a bit of an open question, but what if anything, kind of transit element or consideration, could be added to the Opportunity Corridor project to make it something that would benefit transit riders, lower-income riders in the area?
NK: Well, they could do a number of things. They could use the present configuration so that bus lines would be able to transverse the present proposal. Or, better yet, they could use the existing streets, they could forget about the Opportunity Corridor entirely, and use existing streets, and connect more closely with existing public transit, and with redevelopment efforts in the existing neighborhoods. For example – instead of using the Opportunity Corridor, which is supposed to cost maybe $350 million, that an early estimate, it’ll probably run over $400 million by the time it’s done, they could simply improve the route from the stub at E.55th. Driver’s coming from the West Side, they’d make left turn, go up E.55th the Quincy, make a right turn to E.105th, make a left turn and there you are at the Cleveland Clinic. And so, they would improve the existing roadway, and at the same time, improve the neighborhood through which that roadway would pass. They could do that at a small fraction of $350 or $400 million. That’s the configuration I would prefer.

MM: Professor, thank you for your time.

Copyright Street Chronicle/NEOCH FEBRUARY 2014 Cleveland OHIO