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ODOT talks about sustainable transportation

Marc Lefkowitz  |  05/19/11 @ 9:38am

Against the backdrop of a Kasich Administration decision to delete trains and de-emphasize a balanced roadway from its important TRAC funding (projects $5 million and above), Ohio Department of Transportation held its Healthy Communities Active Transportation Conference in Cleveland this week to highlight the cutting edge ideas taking shape around the country in sustainable transportation.

The homegrown Access for All campaign which formed to promote the equity, economic and environmental benefits of complete streets in Northeast Ohio was brought on stage to share their thoughts on ODOT's unveiling of plans to update the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge with a multi-use path and old style pedestrian-scale lamps with super energy efficient LED bulbs.

"What we're trying to do in cities again is make the healthy choice the easy choice," said John McGovern of the Access for All advocacy campaign which ODOT credits with securing a $6 million investment for the bridge improvements. "Make (the roadway) a space where all types of cyclists and pedestrians feel safe."

Health and mobility decisions are too often made in silos by public agencies. That cannot continue if America is to hold its economic edge, said Dr. Michael Roizen, Chief Wellness Officer at The Cleveland Clinic. With health care costs expected to hit 20% of GDP by 2020, he said, our standard of living along with job prospects will be dim. Eating fresh (local!) food and walking 10,000 steps every day is part of the path to health. But our built environment is working against us, Roizen said.

Obesity has quadrupled and health studies project one-half of Cuyahoga County residents could have diabetes by 2050, said Cleveland Health Director Terry Allan.

"Our current trajectory isn't working. Health professionals need to start engaging with designers and planners for active transportation to address health disparities (between those who can afford access to healthy food and exercise and those who cannot)."

Decades of emphasizing one mode of transportation above all others had much bearing on our connectedness, Allan added.

When will Northeast Ohio take a page from some of the innovative cities who are racing to remake streets to be more inviting to walk, bike, take transit and attract more local economic activity?

Take Long Beach, California which set a goal to be the most bike friendly city in the country (even put that motto on its City Hall alongside a bike sculpture) as their way of gaining an edge and becoming a destination.

"The lesson we learned is bike lanes don't go far enough, we needed to re-arrange the street if we want to have active living," said Long Beach city planner, Charlie Gandy.

Long Beach made a political decision to experiment with road reconfigurations, Gandy said, with city council and its mayor literally hopping on bikes. It started with what he calls three 'bling' projects:

  • A 'bicycle boulevard' with lowered speeds from 35 to 25 mph and new traffic lights (which soaked up much of the $800,000 cost) that are better timed and include bike signals.
  • Green 'sharrow' lanes through a local commercial district.
  • And a bikeway on the street separated by a planters as a median (pictured).

The green sharrow lane had a huge bang for the ($10,000) buck. It has the effect of slowing traffic without taking a lane from cars, attracting 400 more cyclists ? of all levels ? to the commercial district per day, Gandy said.

"If you manage traffic effectively, you can have a complete street through one of the most successful indigenous business districts (Belmont Shore). You can calm a street that has 80,000 cars a day and give rock star parking to residents for their favorite coffee shop."

While Long Beach is aiming for the top, fiscally constrained regions are working to build consensus around multi-modal transportation plans backed by pilot projects. In Columbus, a Complete Streets policy from the regional transportation planning agency (MORPC) is starting to reconfigure existing streets with bike lanes and sidewalks. In New Brunswick, Maine citizens were invited to prioritize the city's bike plan, said Project for Public Spaces Director of Transportation Initiatives, Gary Toth. In Philly, the Water Department and the city are coordinating traffic calming and stormwater projects, with 'bulb outs' that also function as stormwater bioswales.

One hurdle is DOTs have used a single measuring stick which has led to an auto-dominated, unhealthy built environment, said Toth, a traffic engineer. "There's a single performance measure-size roads to move the most cars possible during peak hour. How unsustainable."

The conference offered a number of tools-and even an economics lesson-that can alter the road building manuals that hold such sway over the practices of the past fifty years by engineers.

The economic rationale for retrofitting cities like Cleveland to promote high density development and lots of foot and bike traffic was made by Peter Katz, founding Executive Director of the Congress for New Urbanism.

Katz is now Director of Smart Growth/Urban Planning for Sarasota County, Florida where he did a very interesting comparison of taxes generated from high-density luxury condos versus big box retail. He found that the high rise downtown earns $1.2 million per acre for the city while a Wal-Mart earned a paltry $150 per acre per year. Even with Wal-Mart's sales tax equaling the property tax of 60 high rises, Katz says, the latter is still a better investment. "A 17-story high rise with million dollar condos stacked on top of one another outperforms (in property tax) our best performing mall and the expensive to service Super Wal-Mart."

In order to maximize the economic benefits, he suggests locating (or retrofitting) buildings close to transit. Katz' findings may better support an adaptive reuse strategy in the downtown of slow growth markets like Cleveland. For cities and regions interested in smart growth, Katz suggests applying the same math to development decisions. He calls it a fiscal impact quotient.

"We found the downtown high rise paid back 35% of the infrastructure costs in the first year, where the suburban subdivision pays back two percent," Katz said. "You might adopt a scoring system that if the infrastructure costs aren't paid back in ten years, the development isn't approved. It could also include metrics for walkability and energy use. We need (cities that have) objective scoring systems."

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