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What goes into a bike friendly city

Marc Lefkowitz  |  07/03/12 @ 9:00am  |  Posted in Biking

We believe that once the number of people biking crosses a threshold, a magic number to be determined, biking has the ability to alter the shape of a city. Cities like Copenhagen, Zurich and Amsterdam where almost half of its people are riding bikes have proven this by conforming to the needs (and speeds) of hordes of cyclists; arguably, they are more comfortable, safe and attractive for everyone.

What would cities around Cleveland look like if we grow the number of cyclists from hundreds to thousands traveling on its streets daily? Bike commuters grew by 100% in the last decade in Cleveland, but still represent only 0.8% of all trips. Is there a tipping point when Cleveland and close-in suburbs like Cleveland Heights and Lakewood are thought of as bike meccas? (We think of Portland as a bike Mecca with 6% of commutes by bike).

As the growth in bike commuters from Cleveland Heights and Lakewood to Cleveland has shown-the increase could be another thousand or two cyclists to really have a presence.

Cleveland Heights and Lakewood are actively pursuing bike friendly designations (both official and in general).

When she pursued a Bicycle Friendly Community designation from the League of American Bicyclists for Cleveland Heights, City Councilwoman Mary Dunbar discovered that 0.75% of the city's commuters use a bike, which, she figures, ranks it in the top 10 percent nationally. That is double the rate of Columbus (0.34%) which recorded the highest bicycle usage among major Ohio cities in the last census and was recognized in 2009 at the League's bronze level designation. And yet Cleveland Heights only earned an honorable mention.

The League told Cleveland Heights to fully implement NOACA's regional bike plan and policy and close gaps in the network, and to work on education, engineering and implement Safe Routes to School programs.

NOACA's bike plan is really just routes on a map, Dunbar said. She pursued Safe Routes funding, but she isn't a fan of federally funded programs-too long and complicated a process for a small city. Unless you get a committment like Chagrin Falls did to hire someone to raise funds and implement a Safe Routes to School program.

The Bicycle Friendly Community did help set priorities, says Dunbar, who completed the application as a founding member of the Cleveland Heights Bicycle Coalition. The group would like the city to establish a Complete Streets policy like Cleveland's and develop a comprehensive bike plan like Lakewood's. As a member of city council, she's pushing the city to do both. Instead of Safe Routes grants from the federal government, she would like to see (biking and walking) engrained in the transportation system for the schools.

"That's a possibility."

Biking helps Cleveland Heights form a district with University Circle, Cleveland's second largest employment center. The Circle-Heights District as its known is in a planning process to improve its connectivity (looking at issues of how to improve regionalism on specifics like paving, intersection crossings, parking and designated spaces such as bike lanes and paths carved from wide sidewalks or greenways). The funding for the study comes from NOACA's Transportation for Livable Communities which is a multi-year pipeline from planning to implementation.

"The problem with the federally funded programs like this is, we already know what we would like," Dunbar says, "to put a bike lane going up (Edgehill) and Sharrows down and fix the pavement. A lot of these can be dealt with at a local level more expeditiously."

As it is, Dunbar was frustrated that a bold idea like repurposing a car lane from Cedar-Glenn (Cedar Hill) was quickly knocked out of contention from the Circle-Heights Plan.

"Roads are designed like parking lots at the mall for Christmas-for the peak traffic hour."

A recent bike count conducted by NOACA recorded a total of 247 cyclists during two days' rush hour at the Edgehill and Overlook intersection, well above Cedar-Glenn and Mayfield Road, Cleveland Heights' two other main routes in to University Circle and Cleveland.

The regional import of a microcosm like the attractiveness of Edgehill and Overlook as a bike route? Its posted speed (25 mph) and wider, tree-filled lanes make it more attractive to cyclists of all skill levels (and a reason why the city's Planning Director painted 'sharrows' on Edgehill, pictured right).

How many more corridors like it does Northeast Ohio have that would be ideal for bikes, pedestrians, transit and cars to share? Regional transportation agency, NOACA, will attempt to answer this question as it embarks on an update this summer of a five-county bike plan. NOACA is also conducting a study that looks at what influences higher volumes of bicyclists and pedestrians.

"We'll look at the presence of a dedicated facility (path, lane or sharrow), surrounding land use, motor vehicle speeds and motor vehicle volumes," writes Marc Von Allmen, NOACA's multi-modal transportation planner. "It will also examine helmet use, sidewalk riding, and trends in volumes." The study will be released after the next bike counts in September.

"At most locations, bicycle volumes are up," Von Allmen said about the spring 2012 bike counts at 27 intersections, half in Cuyahoga the rest in Medina, Lake, Lorain and Geauga counties. "We also had our first triple-digit volume counts on the Detroit Superior Bridge."

As nice as bike counts are, the number is but one factor in reaching a tipping point, that is, a recognizable change toward a deeper bike culture in Northeast Ohio. As we noted in our coverage of the Circle-Heights Plan, perhaps the most important outcome would be better cross-jurisdictional cooperation between Cleveland and Cleveland Heights. Dunbar, a former business executive, was frustrated that Cleveland Heights wasn't included in a recent path connecting Shaker Heights and University Circle.

"When I heard they were building the Lake to Lakes Trail, I thought, 'Oh, they didn't think of Cleveland Heights at all', and that bothered me. I think (city of Cleveland Bike Planner) Marty Cader is aware of us, but I don't think it goes higher than that. People say they're interested in regional cooperation but when it comes down to it there is no one working on making it happen."

A bike friendly community isn't easy to define, Dunbar says, at least, that was her impression from the LAB process. With NOACA's bike plan really a map with routes, what other defining elements can cities use? Are there soft metrics like a better educated driver and cyclist leading to a higher visibility and recognition between cyclists and to some extent motorists? Dunbar agrees with the LAB's overall "5Es" (Engineering, Education, Encouragement, Enforcement and Evaluation) approach to building a bike friendly community.

Some communities have a leg up: An urban roadway system that provides routes for differing skilled cyclists. Maybe its the perverse effect that traffic has to form clogs nightly in University Circle that places a bike on more even footing? It's not enough to rely on traffic jams to build a bike friendly city; we need intentional plans and leadership from more than one or two well connected people.

"We want to make people more comfortable using alternative modes of transportation," Dunbar says. "When we kicked this off, (University Circle, Inc. president) Chris Ronayne said as University Circle gets built out, there isn't going to be room for all of the parking that people would like to use if they come by car. He was interested in encouraging people to use biking walking and transit between Cleveland Heights and University Circle."

What do bike friendly downtowns and commercial districts look like in the region? In Lakewood, the NOACA bike count at the Warren and Detroit intersection captured 229 cyclists. It is in a league of its own as a suburb with a published bike plan. The Bike Lakewood Plan sets ambitious goals like making the city the bike capital of Northeast Ohio. That's the vision you want, followed by comments like this one in Lakewood Patch: 'biking in Lakewood isn't alternative transportation, it's a way of life.' Lakewood wanted a baseline so it did its own count, finding 300 cyclists and 1,000 pedestrians at one intersection in one day.

Lakewood is starting to act on its bike plan. Recently it installed a large bike corral in front of the Root Café on Detroit, and the city has purchased and will install 15 U racks along Detroit. While Lakewood's plan has room for improvement (as we wrote here, we'd like to see the city do something bold like some bike boulevards to help people bike north-south), we predict that Cleveland, Cleveland Heights and other cities looking to improve bike circulation will look to how Lakewood's plan evolves. A central theme of the Lakewood plan is parking and wayfinding signs are some low hanging fruit. Bike parking is one marker that a city is considering an important issue in the growth of its bike trips.

Parking can be a shared burden as the city of Cleveland made clear with its bike parking ordinance requiring in 2010 parking lot operators to provide one bike parking space per 20 car spaces. Parking lot operators had two years to comply with the new law, making 2012 the target date for all of the garages in the city to have bike parking. Cleveland Heights and Cleveland have plans to roll out new bike parking, targeting active centers of commerce (Cleveland Heights is looking for input on where to put racks; Lakewood has a seven-member ad hoc Bike Rack Advisory Committee).

"The problem with (bike planning) to date," Dunbar concludes, "it's all been ad hoc."

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