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Is Cleveland pedaling hard or coasting?

Marc Lefkowitz  |  10/25/13 @ 11:00am  |  Posted in Biking, Transportation choices

For thousands who bike around Cleveland, the city's embrace of Complete and Green Streets (2011) must have felt like a big group hug. Here was a promise to paint in bike lanes or at the very least raise their visibility on the road with painted symbols like sharrows.

Hey Professor!<br />Cities like Cleveland are relatively flat making biking easy. Cyclists check out the new Professor Avenue in Tremont which has traffic calming bump outs at intersections.More elbow room<br />Bikes create more space. The same people on bikes, in cars and on a bus. Image from Munster, GermanyRoom for bikes?<br />Is Cleveland doing all it can to balance the needs of drivers, cyclists and pedestrians? <br />Critical Mass<br />800 cyclists rode together in a monthly celebration of bikes. The Cleveland Critical Mass ride in July, 2013 departs from Public Square.

But, two years later bikers are still waiting for a visible sign that Cleveland is ready to send out road crews with paint can and stencil to stake their claim.

True, 2013 marked a new era of engagement between advocates like Bike Cleveland and City Hall. The Office of Sustainability introduced Street Typologies, which is like a recipe book without the measurements. And Cleveland started designing its first “official” Complete and Green Street—Fleet Avenue which will have bike lanes, bioswales and a vacant lot with some sort of stormwater park. The city was rightfully praised for a long-desired bike lane on Edgehill Road painted in tandem with Cleveland Heights and for building an off-road trail between Shaker and University Circle, both neighbors that provide many of the east side’s bike commuters.

At the same time, the city short-circuited its most high profile bike project on Detroit Avenue. When it inexplicably dragged its feet over the summer, a “tactical urbanist” expressed the frustration of the bike community by fudging a bike lane under the cover of darkness using white duct tape. The mayor’s chief of staff told the Plain Dealer the delay came from a belated move to gang up the project with future plans for bike lanes on W. 44th and W. 41st streets. As of this writing (with snow flying), it’s unlikely that Hingetown and Gordon Square will have its bike lanes this year.

There are those at the city who would probably admit it made a mess of the Detroit Avenue bike lane project. On balance for the year, the city painted about 2 miles of bike lanes (Edgehill and more recently on Superior Avenue). By contrast, the $330 million plan to build Opportunity Corridor, a road primarily for suburban commuters, signals that low-carbon forms of transportation are less of a priority for City Hall.

It’s hard to fathom why. There are plenty of good reasons for the city to like bikes. As a health issue for a city with shockingly high obesity. Or to give a safer travel option for the 44,000 residents who don’t own a car. Or to save residents money it would spend on gas to put toward something more vital. Or to fulfill a pledge in its Climate Action Plan (CAP) to reduce the city’s carbon footprint.

Mayor Jackson deserves credit for the CAP which has some aggressive targets for carbon reductions. It is possible that the mayor’s sustainability chief could use the CAP as a springboard for setting an aggressive goal for bike lane miles and in securing an increase in the capital budget next year to paint them. If Cleveland set out a modest goal of 25 miles of bike lanes in 2014, the cost would be minuscule relative to the impact.

Whichever one of these is the big driver for the mayor and his staff, Cleveland has an opportunity to help improve the lives of so many people who are already living a low-carbon life. It can win the hearts and minds of thousands of people who moved into the city, who care about climate change and who see Cleveland as a place where it’s possible, with a little help, to lead a car-light lifestyle.

Where are the bikers?

Cleveland bikers increased their numbers by 270% from 2000 to 2010. But it might not feel like bikers have as much presence on the street. Part of the reason is bikes take up much less space than cars. The picture above demonstrates how much less space is needed for bikes than cars. It shows how much more room a bike friendly place leaves for people because of the different space requirements of same number of cars and bikes. It illustrates why it is the presence of bikes are sometimes discounted. It took 800 cyclists rolling en mass through downtown in July’s Cleveland Critical Mass ride to make their presence known.

Build it and they will come?

Evidence suggests that building bike lanes first does wonders in attracting more riders. A Portland survey found that even when $65 million was spent on bike lanes, 60% admitted they’re waiting for more bike lanes before they try biking. Can you blame them? Still, the 20-year, $65 million investment by Portland for biking and safe streets translated to 20% less driving, and a savings equal to 3% of the city’s gross domestic product. The savings are spent locally—Portlandia has more book stores and spends more on recreation, alcohol and restaurants per capita than any American city. It inspires 6% of the population to bike regularly. By contrast, in Cleveland about 1% bike regularly. What would happen if Cleveland devoted even a fraction of the $65 million to making biking safer?

Changing direction

How do cities bust through the apathy or downright disdain toward biking? A signal from leaders that bikes are an important part of living affordably and sustainably would be a nice start. Mayors of Cincinnati, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Columbus to name a few are pushing for streetcar development and bike lanes. They are matching capital dollars to statements that cities will place sustainable transportation and people on equal footing with cars.

Road building is a technical operation, but it is also a huge source of funds flowing into cities. If Cleveland wants to harness street funds to produce quality, connected places like the Euclid Corridor it will need some plans for increased bike infrastructure and transit-oriented development. Today roads serve mostly cars, but a simple policy that ties transportation investments to the CAP's goal of reducing carbon emissions and vehicle miles traveled would change that.

Today, roads are the provenance of technicians. Angie Schmitt explores in Streetsblog, “Would gender balance in the engineering world benefit cycling in the U.S.?” The post takes aim at traffic engineers, a profession dominated by men who dismiss bike lanes as some sign of weakness.

An effort to counter this bias got a big boost in September, 2013 when the Federal Highway Administration advised traffic engineers to remain flexible in designing streets that promote protected bike lanes in reference to the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) bike guide. Bike advocates hope that Cleveland can move their traffic engineers in a new direction charted by this urban street manual which has found simple but innovative ways of providing protected space for cyclists.

Three opportunities for cities and advocates to learn more about urban bike design just presented themselves:

  • The national Complete Streets Coalition posted some interesting resources on walkable commercial districts as well as policy and advocacy tools.
  • On November 6, NACTO will host a free Urban Street Design webinar.
  • Cleveland could give a boost to its bike lane efforts by applying to Project Green Lane, which is looking for a second round of half-dozen cities who want a free year of technical support for protected bikeways aka green lanes. Cleveland has demonstrable need for national expertise—to its credit the city has shown interest in green bike lane projects on Lorain Avenue, on Ontario Street and in the Midway project which would put them in the center of wide former streetcar avenues like St. Clair.

Read more at GCBL's Biking and Walking page.

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Level of Service
4 years ago

What is the status of the Detroit Avenue bike lanes?

The Good King
4 years ago

Are we all in agreement that the Complete Streets legislation has been somewhat of a joke (similar to the bike parking ordinance)?

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