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Streetsblog founder: Cleveland is built for more TOD

Marc Lefkowitz  |  05/10/12 @ 2:00pm  |  Posted in Transit

Streets that attract people will always be at odds with roads that move cars, even in the most walkable city in the U.S. That doesn't mean you give up the balance between the two. This is the core messages of Mark Gorton, an entrepreneur and bike commuter who grew tired of New York's unsafe streets.

He told a City Club audience last evening that Cleveland can easily follow the example of New York where a progressive transportation department is introducing tactical urbanism-protected bike lanes, crosswalks, refuge islands, and pedestrian-only streets like Broadway in Times Square – with an eye on a balanced city, one that moves cars – if need be, a bit slower - and provides safe and attractive streets for people.

After launching successful tech firms, Gorton founded a number of online media outlets, Streetsblog being the most recognizable, to spread the word to a growing audience of people who "don't aspire to live a suburban lifestyle". Streetsblogs have expanded to a half-dozen cities, including Cleveland, where writers sound off on what Gorton describes as "the problem of living with cars in cities…where unintended consequences (include) the degradation of its living environment."

Activists within the Streetsblog network have been strong advocates for change. Sometimes they found the direct approach more effective. (After, Gorton said their tactics included embarrassing the city's former transportation department head, Senator Chuck Shumer's wife, into change or retirement by publishing stories like the one where crosswalks between an apartment and children's playground were deemed unnecessary).

Gorton sees hope for Cleveland in New York City's recent embrace of safer streets. Showing a historic photo of a pedestrian and streetcar filled Public Square, he commented: "You still have great transit and wide streets. You could probably reclaim 50% of city streets (for walking, biking, transit and denser land use) and still not have a problem (moving cars)."

Showing a picture of a young woman biking with a trailer holding a child, Gorton noted that Cleveland's recent passage of Complete Streets laws – and the conversation about the right 'design vehicle' being a bike instead of a car should happen at minimum downtown – it would continue to attract young knowledge workers and keep the influx of new residents moving in.

"Modal split in the city is determined by government policy."

Bigger 'livability' questions are finally on the radar in Cleveland, a panel of locals said.

The length of time it will take the city's top technocrats to figure out how the passage of Complete Streets will aid the city in its pursuit of existing plans, such the building out of its Bikeway, an officially adopted plan that identifies 180 miles of bike ways in Cleveland, will determine how soon Cleveland starts seeing roads transformed into livable streets.

"We've been working really hard to incent infrastructure that's unsafe to cycle," Gorton said. "You're building impediments to the most effective way to get around in urban areas."

Panel moderator, Steven Litt, asked, how do you build the political will when currently bike trips in Northeast Ohio add up to 0.8% of the total?

"You have to remember that when we built the national highway system you didn't have people driving across pastures from Cleveland to Columbus," said Bike Cleveland chair Chris Alvarado. "You can take that analogy to the type of movement you want to see in your city."

Cleveland still views economic development as a silver bullet, build it and they will drive in to the heart of the city on a highway model.

"We're still doing that," Cleveland Landmarks Commission chair Jennifer Coleman said with a nod to the Med Mart and the casino, "but more with an eye on the Mall and Public Square to address livability; to get around comfortably."

Gorton said Cleveland is moving in the right direction by experimenting with Complete Streets like it did on Pop Up Rockwell and building from the success of the Euclid Corridor, which he called the "best BRT line in the nation".

"The heart of Cleveland can never be a great suburb. Cities are vibrant. The compelling logic of living in cities is still there. Especially since people are driving less. All of this plays to Cleveland's strengths.

"Your models might be Public Square 100 years ago. Streets were much slower, even though they were moving a lot of people in a spatially efficient and social way."

There's a monetary argument to be made, too. Gorton flashed an infographic with the percent of Gross Domestic Product spent by cities on transportation along side percent of trips are made by a 'mode' other than car. The most 'multi-modal' cities like Amsterdam-where 40% of trips are made on a bike-spend the least. They save up to 8% of GDP compared to Houston or Atlanta. "They did it with smart planning. By substituting biking and walking for driving. And by placing activities close to where lots of people live," Gorton said.

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