Marc Lefkowitz | 07/22/09 @ 11:35am
Local bike advocates are building a case with national leaders that the Greater Cleveland area is well positioned to redesign city streets to make them safer for those who want to commute by bike. Efforts like the Second Annual Bike Week forum in May raised the stock of Cleveland's 2010 Active Transportation Plan. Rails-to-Trails Conservancy President Keith Laughlin called the plan -which features a mix of recreation trails like the Towpath Trail extension to Cleveland and a 180-mile loop connecting east and west sides with bike routes and bike lanes-a "national model" during his keynote address. Laughlin is so taken with Cleveland's plan that he uses it in his slide show to Congress (which is being lobbied for a $50 million earmark that would fund bike networks in 50 cities). He also talked it up recently to nationally syndicated columnist Neil Pierce who writes:What's indisputable is that several cities?among them Cleveland, San Diego, Altoona (Pa.), Billings (Mont.) and Madison (Wis.)?are straining at the bit, working with trail advocacy groups to appeal for significant federal support to mount full-bore walking/biking plans and construction. Their case is strong. We've had a near-century of overwhelming federal funding preference for the automobile. Rails to Trails calculates that a nationwide promotion of biking and walking for short trips could cut miles driven by 70 billion miles to 200 billion miles from what Americans drive yearly. And we'd reduce our oil consumption and greenhouse gas emissions by at east 3 percent, and with luck as much as 8 percent. Then also consider the dramatic health gains possible from more active, less sedentary lifestyles. It turns out that major walking and biking efforts aren't some joke, or just an interesting idea. They're imperative.
$50 million for bike lanes, paths and routes would certainly have impact in Cleveland. It would pay for some important projects, notably, the last six miles of the Towpath Trail stretching into the Flats ($15 mil), four neighborhood connector trails linking to the Towpath, including a link from the Zoo to the Towpath ($15 mil total), and to provide education and infrastructure improvements to 10 ? 12 additional Cleveland Metropolitan K-8 grade schools, targeting schools in proximity to the off-road trail system ($1 mil.). Cleveland's Active Transportation 2010 Plan aims to put every resident within a 10 minute bike ride of a trail, path, route or lane.
But, if we want to connect the region with a successful on-road bike network, we need to look closer at our multi-million dollar annual road building outlays, and at a plan that calls for less than a dozen bike lanes. In other words, while $50 million is a nice start, we can leverage real far reaching impact ? bike lanes and routes as part of EVERY road building project ? by going to the source of our transportation planning and spending. It will require reforming The Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA)'s road building process and updating ODOT policy to include Complete Streets as law. NOACA's system as it exists currently will never bring bike lanes and routes into any measurable scale because it fails to incorporate bike lanes or the larger framework of accommodating all modes of travel, aka "Complete Streets," as an option.
An investment by NOACA in cycling will have multiple benefits. Think about this statistic for a minute: 25% of Clevelanders do not own a car. Many rely on a bike to get to work or to connect with transit that takes them to a job. Cycling provides a pretty clear pathway out of poverty.
The region has other concerns that NOACA has committed to addressing, namely, how we're going to reduce our carbon footprint. The transportation portion of Metropolitan Cleveland's per capita footprint increased 3.1 percent between 2000 and 2005, compared to an increase of 2.4 percent in the 100 largest metro areas, according to the Brookings Institute.
A recent NOACA meeting raised serious doubts that the agency is prepared to square its Bike Plan with its new climate change goals. When one member asked about adding bike lanes to the half a dozen road building projects that were approved that day, the response was dismissive. Cost was cited as a reason not to do this. Ok, then, what is the return on investment in cycling infrastructure? Pierce answers:Cities that have already invested seriously in walking and biking access are demonstrating solid results, Laughlin claims. The lead example: Portland, Ore., where $57 million has been spent on in a 300-mile bikeway/pedestrian network since 1991. Portland bicycling has lately increased up to 15-20 percent a year, and another $100 million trail investment is planned. By 2040, Rails to Trails calculates, Portland's net benefit from better health and reduced fuel savings will be $1.2 billion, representing an eye-catching 8-to-1 return-on-investment ratio.
We cannot afford to wait for the federal government to grant us $50 million for cycling infrastructure, as nice as that would be. What we need is a stronger critique and a watchdog attitude with how our tax dollars are being spent on transportation today. We need a real conversation and someone to hold NOACA's feet to the fire. We need to improve upon the region's Bike Plan, which was passed last March, keeping in mind that this May, NOACA's board adopted climate change goals, which include a reduction of Vehicle Miles Traveled. We need NOACA's board and our state representatives fielding calls and emails asking when they plan to make Complete Streets the law. Ten states have Complete Streets laws, according to the national Complete Streets Coalition.
NOACA's Bike Plan has a lot of important language and analysis that on the surface promises a Portland-like commitment to cycling. But, its inaction and tepid goals for cycling speak much louder. NOACA estimates that 15% or 500,000 trips made in the seven-county region are less than three miles. That represents a huge opportunity to reduce VMT and carbon emissions. But, as it stands today, NOACA has not internalized how it designs and builds roads to meet even a modest goal of shifting some of those trips to walking and biking. That will have to change if we expect to move the dial on 'mode shift' from our current 0.5% of trips made by bike to even a modest 1% of trips made by bike.
For more about why Ohio needs a Complete Streets policy and a letter to Governor Strickland asking for such policy, go here.