By Mansfield Frazier
A few seemingly disparate initiatives on Cleveland’s near eastside ostensibly all have the same goal: To increase the quality of life for residents in neighborhoods that border University Circle. And there just might be a solution that helps to achieve this outcome: providing door-to-door transportation that’s responsive to community desires and needs … in other words, bring back the jitney — albeit in a more organized and professional iteration.
It’s indeed difficult for those of us with regular access to transportation on demand (i.e. being in possession of a car or pickup truck) to comprehend how much more challenging life is for those — the elderly, mothers with small children, the disabled — without such access.
Imagine, if you will, attempting to go about your daily business of living without having a vehicle for a month or so. It’s a prospect both chilling and daunting, but actually quite difficult to conjure up since the majority of us take the mobility and freedom our autos provide completely for granted. Even for those who don’t use their vehicles every day, just knowing it’s parked somewhere close by is security enough to keep us from going off our collective rocker. For those of us who can afford it, for better or worse, we’re hooked on the wheel, and have been for over a century.
And, while public transportation in Greater Cleveland ranks consistently among the best in the nation, the gaps in mobility for disadvantaged populations without access to a private mode of transportation on demand are huge, and quite beyond the ability of the system currently in place to solve.
However, three initiatives are concurrently underway that could benefit from a thoughtfully designed community transportation program. The most high profile (and costly) is the proposed building of the Opportunity Corridor, which has activists and residents asking, “what community benefits will accrue to locals (close to 40 percent of whom don’t have access to a vehicle or for some other reason are unable to drive) when the three-mile, $330 million road is built?” An organized, local transportation operation that augments — not replaces — public transportation seemingly could do the most good for the most people.
Second, urban planners — under the auspices of the City of Cleveland — are bringing residents of Hough together for meetings to determine what would make the community healthier. They’re asking neighborhood residents what the barriers and challenges are that create the reality that the average lifespan of residents in Lyndhurst (a mere seven miles away) is over 24 years longer than that of the residents of Hough.
And one of the consistent answers has been access to fresh, healthy fruits and vegetables … in other words, solving the much talked about “food deserts.” Instituting such a program would certainly address these food concerns by providing access, and certainly makes more sense than attempting to place a grocery store on every other corner.
Additionally, elderly residents, mothers with small children (and others) could call for a ride to a doctor’s appointment or to pick up a prescription without having to spend hours navigating the public transportation system or depend on relatives or friends — who can, in some cases, be unreliable. The result would be that fewer appointments are missed … thereby improving health outcomes. All Mrs. Jones would have to do is make a phone call and a vehicle would be at her door at the appointed time.
And lastly, efforts have been underway for close to a decade now to solve the problem of recidivism and one answer is by creating programs that assist this demographic (which overwhelmingly return to the neighborhoods surrounding University Circle) in obtaining gainful employment. Historically difficult to employ — now even more difficult with unemployment (even for those who’ve never been incarcerated) remaining stubbornly high in the region — finding ways to increase mobility can lead to increased employment.
Providing a means for these returning citizens to expand their job searching capabilities would aid in their reintegration back into society, plus a number of these individuals could be employed as drivers for the proposed program — as long as they were exhibiting acceptable behavior. Offering occasional access to a vehicle can be a huge carrot in terms of modifying negative behaviors.
While such a transportation program certainly will not prove to be a silver bullet for all of the social ills of the residents of these neighborhoods, solving the persistent mobility conundrum for economically disadvantaged populations certainly could be an excellent place to start.
Perhaps the biggest upside of having a number of vehicles (both autos and mini-buses) available to service the needs of residents would be the increase of citizens’ participation at community events and meetings. One of the main reasons such activities — especially those held in the evening — are sparsely attended is because many residents don’t have a safe, dependable, and convenient way to get out and about, especially after nightfall. Insuring that all citizens have the means at their disposal to be involved and connected to the wider community is reason enough alone to provide them with free transportation. I mention free, didn’t I? Yes, free.
If we’re going to spend in excess of $300 million tax dollars for a new road for those in the middleclass to get to work more easily, we certainly can afford to establish a neighborhood transportation program for the less fortunate that would greatly improve the quality of their lives and add to the stability of the community.
Of course the answer from the politicians will be that such a program is not doable because of costs, but whoever says that will be flat-out lying. In America it always depends on who’s doing the asking, and for what purpose. It all comes down to political will, and if the residents of the area affected by the Opportunity Corridor organize, make their case, and then stand firm, it’s a battle that can and should be won.
From Cool Cleveland correspondent Mansfield B. Frazier mansfieldfATgmail.com. Frazier’s From Behind The Wall: Commentary on Crime, Punishment, Race and the Underclass by a Prison Inmate is available again in hardback. Snag your copy and have it signed by the author by visiting http://NeighborhoodSolutionsInc.com.