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Walkable communities? Maybe down the road

Marc Lefkowitz  |  04/23/13 @ 12:00pm  |  Posted in Vibrant cities, Transportation choices

When he looked recently at the long list of roads that NOACA, Northeast Ohio's transportation funder, will dole out to fix, expand or widen, GreenCityBlueLake Director David Beach wondered, what does this seemingly random list of projects add up to? Will it produce a lower-carbon transportation system?

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Will NOACA's 2013 Long Range Plan produce more vibrant places that attract to Northeast Ohio Millennials and aging Baby Boomers who want to live in bike- and walkable communities?

VMT has already taken a dip in the U.S. in part because so many Millennials define their American Dream as a walkable community. Young people would sooner give up their driver’s license than a close walk to the local brewery or a bike ride to work.

Under its new leadership, NOACA is questioning the “boom and bust” cycles that it has supported in the past as it built new roads and infrastructure without regard to environmental, social and economic consequences.

The plan also questions more of the same transportation that promotes the kind of retail development which pits communities against each other for the same tax base.

It calls for a full, life-cycle accounting of the costs for adding roads and highways.

It’s a regional approach that deserves serious consideration from NOACA’s Board—mostly elected officials from the five-county area. To offer healthier transportation choices, cleaner air and attractive, walkable places benefits all of its member communities.

At the same time, projections of more job sprawl in NEO work at cross-purposes to building up existing communities. How do we assess Northeast Ohio’s current sprawl so that it doesn’t hurt its chances of improving?

Cuyahoga County ranks #1 in the U.S. for commuters coming from another county (40% come from Lake, Lorain, and Summit).

One way is for NOACA’s Board to pay close attention and absorb the lessons as the lead agency in the regional sustainability initiative. VibrantNEO is looking at the impact of business-as-usual on preserving and protecting land, water and air quality, and in making the connection between transportation and a placemaking strategy that reduces the impact of driving (28% of the region’s emissions).

Wouldn’t it be a revelation if out of that process, for example, NOACA’s measure of a project worthy of funding emphasized vehicle miles traveled reduction ahead of projected crashes and congestion? A project questionnaire could ask, how much did this improve my community’s Walk Score (and, by extension, its property value)?

Instead, NOACA’s 2013 Long Range Plan seems to put little faith in Northeast Ohio as an attraction for the walking, biking and transit riding demographic. It predicts that roads will be more congested—that residents will drive 14% more. It plans on spending more to support that assumption by widening roads.

How will it perform on making Complete Streets? It includes bike facilities, bus routes and improved pedestrian network in its congestion mitigation strategies. Better still, MPOs that are leading regional transformation, including Dayton and Columbus, have adopted comprehensive and clear Complete Streets policy requiring communities to implement these ideas. NOACA could also take the lead in setting a goal for VMT reduction.

Reading the NOACA 2013 Long Range Plan from a sustainability perspective argues that transportation in Northeast Ohio is in an untenable situation. We have built hundreds of miles of roads and bridges that we are now stuck maintaining. One small example of the difficulty we face is in the condition assessment report. Geauga County has the highest percentage of roads in poor condition. The region has 600 miles of roads that need help.

A way of flipping this narrative would be to prioritize the roads that can deliver multiple benefits like high-value development (which developers like Peter Katz and Chris Leinberger have determined is mixed-use and on a street that's attractive for a walk). Or, the cleanest air. Or the lower health-care bill.

Those are choices that inspire hopefulness. They might actually make people care about one of the biggest things that (unknowingly) shapes their lives.

Provide input on NOACA's draft Long-Range Plan by emailing publicinv@mpo.noaca.org

Questions for consideration:

How will NOACA's 2013 Long-Range Plan adhere to governing principles such as 2009's: It is the intent of the NOACA Board to enhance the natural environment of the NOACA region and to minimize the adverse impact of incremental transportation investments on the environment.

And to a goal in 2013 to Establish a more balanced transportation system which enhances modal choices by prioritizing goods movement, transit, pedestrian and bicycle travel instead of just single occupancy vehicle movement and highways.

How well has NOACA performed on past promises including its 2009 Long Range Plan when it promised to identify strategies for reducing the region's transportation related greenhouse gas emissions through efforts like reducing Vehicle Miles Traveled in the region?

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Suburban Commuter
4 years ago

Has NOACA compiled the results of its Northeast Ohio Regional Travel Survey, which I understand measured solely to which destinations do folks travel in the region and how they get there? What has NOACA learned from those results and how does it intend to use them?

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