From the outset, the Circle-Heights Bike Plan has been fixed on a singular purpose: Eliminate car trips on crowded roads in and to University Circle. For some, the plan's success metrics have to be 'mode shift'—how many willing but reluctant cyclists, pedestrians and transit riders will it entice to come off the sidelines.
The hospitals and Case have a lot at stake with the Circle-Heights bike plan because mode shift translates to how many parking garages they will build in the future. For Case, it can help greatly with meeting targets in their American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC).
For the last year, the city of Cleveland Heights and the big institutions in the Circle set to work on the Circle-Heights Bicycle Network & Missing Links Study with those goals in mind. They hired Baker, a huge planning and engineering firm, and City Architecture and engaged the staff of University Circle, Inc. They surveyed nearly 1,000 people living in the Heights about what would make them more comfortable trying an alternative 'mode' from a car to commute to work or school. What barriers and what opportunities they should capitalize on?
The survey revealed that, yes, most people would leave their car at home, but only for a clearly delineated area of road designated for biking. Or with better crosswalks. Or if transit was free, frequent and fast. The Circle-Heights Study was presented to the public for final comment last week.
For the transportation advocates in the room, the recommendations don't go nearly far enough.
"There's nothing exciting about this plan," says Bike Cleveland director, Jacob Van Sickle. "It's like they asked for and got all this good advice, and then ignored it."
At the heart of Van Sickle's complaint is the lack of bold ideas. He feels Sharrows appear instead of bike lanes more often than not. The plan calls for a lot of Share the Road pavement stencils, which, Van Sickle says, have limited impact. He cites a study from Los Angeles that concludes Sharrows are good for a number of reasons, but attracting new riders may not be one of them. To bolster his claim, Van Sickle points to the results of the Circle-Heights survey where only 24% responded that Sharrows would go far enough in convincing them to ride to work.
"It doesn't do enough to create stress free biking environments that are needed in our region to encourage more people to bike," Van Sickle says.
The issue, says GreenCityBlueLake director, David Beach, is the plan still misses an opportunity to create a compelling, highly visible, reliable alternative to driving. To encourage biking, the plan should point out how we create that robust system. He agrees with Van Sickle that peppering in Sharrows instead of painting a continuous bike lane on the preferred routes will not go far enough to attract those who expressed an interest in biking to work.
"Sharrows are too wimpy," Beach said.
Why, then, does the plan rely so heavily on Sharrows when it appears room and opportunity exists on roads like East Boulevard, Cornell, and Edgehill in Cleveland Heights to connect up a whole system of bike lanes?
At the final presentation, the plan showed isolated segments of roadway will have new bike lanes—up Edgehill Road, up Mayfield Road, maybe Cedar Road east of Fairmount, and for a stretch on Kenilworth Road.
That's certainly an improvement, says Beach, who also appreciates how the plan tackles some of the more dangerous intersections between the Heights and the Circle. "I think the plan does address some of the key areas that were identified as serious problem spots."
Those include massive overhauls of the intersections at the top of the hills, those gateways between the Heights and the University Circle district. Huge seas of asphalt at Edgehill-Overlook and Kenilworth-Mayfield would be softened by extending out the curbs and filling them in with landscaping such as rain gardens. That should calm car traffic and make the distance for bikers and pedestrians less formidable.
But, it is inexplicable why so many resources were spent on those intersections, and so light a treatment was applied to the whole system of circulation. Why did the city planners and traffic engineers involved from Cleveland and Cleveland Heights so quickly abandoned bike lanes when clear advantages and space exists for them?
Is it because, as a NOACA Transportation for Livable Communities grant,the plan's leaders knew they will only see limited funds for engineering and construction? For example, the city of Cleveland Heights has TLCI-funded studies for the Cedar-Fairmount and Cedar-Lee Districts. Cleveland Heights Planning Director Richard Wong said last week that the city applied for $1.5 million each for engineering and construction from NOACA's $8 million annual Transportation Enhancements budget. The Circle-Heights TLCI weaves in some of the priorities from the Cedar-Fairmount plan including a multi-purpose path down (the south side of) Cedar Hill.
What's striking to Beach is the similarity to the ten-year-old Circle-Heights Bike Network plan created by EcoCity Cleveland. For $5,000, the organization held a series of public meetings, developed a vision, a map and identified many of the problem intersections. Much of the work undergirds the TLCI plan which, after a year and a $50,000 investment, Beach and others hoped would take more than small steps forward.
"It doesn't offer transformational change," he says about the final draft. "At this point, it's not going to get that many people out of their cars."
Van Sickle also doesn't understand why the plan doesn't set out a more aggresive agenda. The cost of paint is not high, he says, and both cities have shown that, when pushed, they can figure out how to handle the needs of cars and bikes with lanes. In Cleveland Heights, Wong decided to paint in bike lanes on North Park Boulevard after a routine repaving. In Cleveland, the city agreed to paint bike lanes on Detroit Avenue when advocates, including Bike Cleveland and GreenCityBlueLake, pushed for alternatives to the West Shoreway bike path (which the city eliminated). To streamline the process, Cleveland is paying for the paint for Detroit Avenue out of its own budget.
Perhaps the problem isn't with the consultants, but their clients? In this case the cities and their representatives set such low expectations, aided by a lack of critical scrutiny from the public, that they dictated the modest outcomes before the process began. We all need to demand more than tinkering around the edges from our cities. Being good stewards of our resources should be defined as producing something with immediate impact and lasting value.