The Circle-Heights Bike Plan aims to improve the connection for people walking, biking and taking transit between east-side suburbs and University Circle. The plan recently concluded that more and better infrastructure would attract new riders. The city of Cleveland Heights has followed up on one of the plan’s big recommendations. In March, it applied for federal grants for a bike path on Cedar Hill and through its Cedar-Fairmount business district. The trail will be paved from grassy space on the south side of Cedar-Glenn Parkway, providing a bike connection to the RTA Rapid Station at the base of the Hill. It will also connect to a new green space when the Cedar-University Rapid Station’s south side headhouse and bus loop are demolished. This new pocket park and the Cedar Hill trail will continue efforts to build a east-side/University Circle bike network which got a boost in 2012 with the completion of the Lake Erie-to-Shaker Lakes Bike Trail. Cleveland Heights City Council approved a grant application for a local match to their $375,000 request to NOACA for the streetscape improvement and the new trail.
Circle-Heights shares a common bond with the W. 65th St. redesign on Cleveland’s near west side. The design for both was funded through NOACA's Transportation for Livable Communities. This should bump them up in line for Transportation Enhancements, federal money for bike/ped improvements. These “TE” funds help pay the lion’s share when cities are trying to implement Complete Streets laws and are required to follow through on plans for bike infrastructure and ‘green streets‘ ideas.
Funding for complete streets is one perennial issue that Cleveland will face. The other is federal guidelines that restrict bike lanes on roads because of space issues.
A federal rule has been cited by ODOT that has removed bike lanes from the W. 65th Street plan, because it would narrow lanes to 10 or 11 ft. rather than the standard issue 12 feet. With on-street parking, it is admittedly a challenge to fit a five-foot-wide bike lane on W. 65th Street. But FHWA has a guideline for bike lanes with on-street parking, if cities are really interested in having both. FHWA notes that narrowing lane widths is within road engineering standards, especially on streets that have moderate traffic. It's why FHWA routinely sees cities apply for exemptions to these federal edicts. The Feds grant these exceptions because they recognize that in urban areas, the context of the street should hold greater value. Because they defer to cities that want to fulfill goals of calming traffic, improving safety and comfort for all users on the road.
What does that mean for W. 65 Street? A more common sense and more cost effective solution—bike lanes on the roadway—are being ruled out because a federal law is being cited as inscrutable and beyond discussion.
So, there's a rub. Cleveland is saying it wants W. 65th to be safer for all users. ODOT says a federal rule takes bike lanes out. The city replaces it with an expensive trail (acquiring land for a trail is always more expensive than using some of the road). If cost were not a factor, that would be a fine idea. But it costs around $1 million per mile to build a bikeway. The stretch of W. 65th Street from Denison to Detroit avenues under the plan is 2 miles, and with the city capping Complete and Green Streets projects at $1 million, something will have to give.
The city may have to intervene here before the wonderful ideas in the W. 65th Street plan get “value engineered” out. In cities with a Transportation Chief, like New York and Chicago, it would be their job to see these conflict points ahead of time, and steer clear.
There will always be a roadblock of rules. The irony is, the Federal Highway Administration is ahead of Ohio Department of Transportation on this issue. FHWA, with its “context sensitive solutions” recognizes that it's people who use the street and their lives will be impacted by its design. When ODOT accepts the word from its boss in Washington is anybody's guess.
For Cleveland that may require one of the mayor’s many chiefs to write FHWA for a local exception. Or, to say, 'this W. 65th Street bikeway and green street is one of our big community development priorities' and find the matching funds for both a bike trail and green elements like bioswale curb bump outs (the weakness of this position is it soaks up all of the funding in one project).
The preference would be for Cleveland to have the latitude to explore the option of bike lanes on its streets without the interference of a rule in a book in Washington that, frankly, is an impediment to progress.
More immediately, though, the W. 65th Street example makes the case for adding a staff person at the City of Cleveland tasked, full-time, with implementing its Complete and Green Streets ordinance. His or her CV will include dealing with the intricacies of federal and state guidelines and still successfully building out a bikeway.
In the future, the road will be littered with these conflicts as the city attempts to complete its Bikeway Plan (which W. 65th is a part of) and fulfill its Complete and Green Streets law.
Right now the solution seems to be kick it to the curb—with expensive off-road bikeways or less effectual sharrows. Adding an expert traffic engineer/planner well equipped to handle the byzantine nature of laws that thwart complete streets and, armed with experience designing urban streets from the latest, nationally recognized design manuals, is quickly becoming a priority for the city.