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Clevelanders want more transit, shocked by its lack of funding

Marc Lefkowitz  |  06/14/12 @ 9:00am  |  Posted in Transit, Transform

In focus groups on transportation led by Natural Resources Defense Council, 70 ordinary Clevelanders across the political spectrum expressed frustration with being 'stuck' with one choice-of commute time or using anything but a car. Respondents included Republican women and Democratic men with no self-described bike advocates. Universally they said public transit, if it was convenient, would be a welcome addition to their community. They were 'shocked', NRDC said, when they found out that Ohio spends only 1% of its transportation budget on transit. They assumed the state invested at least 10-15% on transit.

The desire to make transit more convenient doesn't mean they favor denser communities. In fact, most expressed negative feelings about the words 'density' and 'close knit'.

"They imagined an apartment in Tokyo. None wanted to live on top of each other like that," said NRDC, which also conducted focus groups in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

Clevelanders were not aware of anyone working on long-range transportation planning here. Unlike North Carolina where the groups were familar with regional land-use and transportation plans, the lack of clear vision or plans in Northeast Ohio, NRDC said, may be feeding their feeling of being stuck. Put another way, the Cleveland groups, while not scientific, point to a need for pictures and visions of how well-designed neighborhoods that provide transportation choices look. Suburbs can still be suburbs with a slight bump up in density; from our current 1 unit per acre to 5 units per acre.

What does that look like in Northeast Ohio? It is more areas like Lakewood and Ohio City where tidy Victorians on ¼ acre lots are served by an alley system. Its more townhomes like those built in recent times in Little Italy. It's not Tokyo, because it doesn't have to be (5-8 units per acre is enough density to create vibrant places and to make transit convenient).

Well-designed density leads to 'vibrant' communities and more 'convenient' transit-two ideas that scored well here. The focus groups revealed words that produce positive and negative feelings. "Vibrant" is good because it implies a safe place with a lot of activity. 'Transit-oriented development' was seen as too bureaucratic. 'Walkable' scored low since most assumed they lived in a place where they can walk.

When talking about transit, 'safety' scored high. Safety translated to personal security. If the Cleveland groups took transit, it would be a train, not a bus which many saw as dirty and the option of last resort. "Freedom"-from cars and traffic-didn't score high with the Cleveland groups, since they equate cars to freedom of movement. "Oil dependence" was not compelling (perhaps, like Climate Change, it hit too close or too far from to home).

More transit was seen as a good investment, sometimes for the selfish reason of taking more traffic off the road. More state support for transit indicates a shift in attitude.

"We could see a softening to the opposition to other uses for the gas tax," said NRDC. "There's a belief that those using the system, in this case, highways, should be paying for it."

The Ohio Constitution prevents gas tax revenue from supporting transit, bike paths, bike lanes-anything other than road and highway building.

Transit was the clearly preferred alternative for the Cleveland group. Bike lanes and sidewalks weren't recognized as options. Again, it points to a lack of local examples of communities where biking and walking for practical purposes is convenient.

One of the biggest take aways from the focus groups is the lack of exciting plans in Cleveland-it leaves a blind spot in the public eye. If we start to build a vision and concrete examples of communities that can support transportation choices, i.e. convenient transit and more bike lanes, Clevelanders may begin to imagine a future of vibrant places where they want to be.

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