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In trying to forge bike plan, Circle-Heights ponders many directions

Marc Lefkowitz  |  04/19/12 @ 4:00pm  |  Posted in Biking

Of all the improvements being proposed in the Circle-Heights Bicycle Network Plan-and they are considerable, from a bike trail leading up Cedar Hill to painting in miles of new bike lanes and sharrows that will tame (for some) Cleveland's vestiges of wide avenues in University Circle-far and away the most lasting outcome would be an agreement between Cleveland and Cleveland Heights to coordinate these activities.

Getting on the same page for pavement resurfacing, for one, has been a crucial missing link that has plagued University Circle, Cleveland's second largest employment hub, and the Heights, an inner-ring network of 'bedroom communities' just up a hill known as the 'Portage Escarpment'. The legacy of this disconnect, as told by insiders, played out a few years ago when the two cities couldn't align their schedules to repave Edgehill Road-the main route for bike commuters which crosses city boundaries literally right in the middle of a 548-ft. elevation change. The crumbling asphalt and dangerous potholes along the curb are a symbol of all that's gone wrong, and what the cities and planners are studiously hoping to avoid in the future.

"The focus is on mode shift-how do we get people out of their cars," said Nancy Lyon Stadler, a traffic engineer and planner with Michael Baker Corporation, a Pittsburgh firm with 4,000 urban designers and engineers, hired to lead the study with a local transportation grant.

The Plan's ambitions are to smooth the bumps in the road, but they must go deeper if they hope to push-start mode shift in a region stuck in cruise control. How one of Northeast Ohio's top bike commute corridors continues to grow will hang on perceptions of what is safe travel on a bike riding on or very near these streets-Cedar, Mayfield, Superior and Edgehill-which connect the Heights and the Circle, a district that is going full bore filling in its blank spaces.

With an exploding arts and retail district on Euclid, and $1 billion in new hospital and university development expected to add 10,000 jobs in the coming decade (to the existing 25,000), the solution to the congestion problem is two pronged. First, lessen demand for roads by enticing the influx to take up residence in one of University Circle's tony new apartment or townhomes. The other is the bike plan and a concurrent transit study. Both hope to build on both communities assets which include location-that they are located next to each other. In Cleveland/University/Shaker Heights, it was reported that up to 10% of commuters in nice weather chose to leave the car parked at home and bike, walk, or take transit to work.

Most agree, the relative ease-and upside, such as not paying out of pocket for parking -mean that, with some physical and psychological work, 10% of trips would be a drop in the bucket.

A recent study out of bike Mecca, Portland, Oregon categorized bike commuters into tiers: "Strong and Fearless" is the current bike commuter, but she represents less than 1% of the field. "Enthused and confident", the second tier, represents about 10% of the population who identify themselves as willing to bike on the road if conditions were right. "Interested but concerned" is how the vast majority identify themselves.

The opportunity and challenge for Circle-Heights is, on which of these groups do you spend limited resources?

"When you're designing for one category, you're excluding many others," Stadler said at last night's Circle-Heights public meeting. "I'm comfortable riding on the road, but I have to be aware that most are not."

The Plan presents improvements in multiple choices-absent the All of the Above pick. Here's an example: East Boulevard from Severance Hall to the Cleveland Botanical Garden (pictured left). Would you like to see the sidewalk expanded to a 10' bike/pedestrian path? Or, paint in share the road stencils (aka Sharrows) on the road? The first caters to the tier three 'maybe some day' cyclist, the second to the everyday bike commuter.

"What's the limitation on putting Sharrows everywhere?" asked a young man in attendence last night.

City of Cleveland traffic engineers say you run the risk of diluting the impact, Stadler replied.

But, with no Sharrows in University Circle and only three streets marked in Cleveland Heights, clearly, the area is far from saturation. The bigger concern (for the "strong" cyclist) are the sub-par pavement conditions on the main routes.

Again, the Plan asks, do we want a bike lane up Mayfield Road out of Little Italy where the potholes can swallow a Hyundai, or do we want a wider sidewalk along the WPA-era stone wall and Lakeview Cemetery for a bike trail? The Circle-Heights Plan presents plenty of options, but are they either/or? If so, how will conflicts in setting priorities that serve different skill sets of bike rider get resolved? In part, the Plan will rely on you to try out a new type of online survey where you can click and drag top bike and walk destinations on a map and offer details of what will help you get there.

A few in the audience wondered where the funds and the follow through were coming from, given the poor track record and big lag time in fixing the roads (a problem even for 'wealthy' districts). A lot of trust is missing that the cities and institutions that stand to benefit from the new Circle-Heights Plan will form a lasting partnership, but that's exactly what's needed-and if not in University Circle and the well-connected Heights, then where?

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