If anyone can be said to embody the spirit of bicycling in Cleveland Heights, Mary Dunbar might be the best candidate. Underneath a bob of brown hair, silver wire-rim glasses, and a reserved manner, Dunbar exudes warmth, creativity and a healthy sense of humor, especially when you get her talking about the monumental task of asking people to leave their cars at home and take up biking.
For the retired Senior Vice President of Dix & Eaton, the love of biking came later in life. But even that has proved to be good providence for her hometown of Cleveland Heights where she has lived since 1970. She entered what she calls the “community service phase of my life” at exactly the same moment a passion for biking was ignited.
After she lost her first bid to Cleveland Heights City Council in 2009, Dunbar followed through on a pledge to apply for the League of American Bicyclists’ Bicycle Friendly Community (BFC) designation and for the National Register of Historic Places to recognize the city (resulting in an Honorable Mention and a designation for the Shaker Farm neighborhood, respectively).
She found while writing the BFC application that Heights area bike commuters—the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey estimates at 10 percent of households—represent the highest concentration in the state of Ohio. Dunbar the candidate made clear the importance this constituency, many of whom commute to University Circle and downtown, play in the region’s lifeblood. Some of them reached out to Dunbar and together they formed the Heights Bicycle Coalition, a citizens group that would advocate on bike issues just starting to emerge—from advising the city on where cyclists could park in commercial districts to practices like painting bike facilities on its roads.
The entry-level Honorable Mention from the League came with a path forward that the Heights Bicycle Coalition used as a springboard to discuss on its web site. For example, when the city painted its first Sharrows—road stencils that remind motorists to Share the Road—the coalition commended the city for taking action. It also made a name for itself by not shrinking from its critique of the city for painting the stencils close to the curb instead of in the lane, the more common practice.
“It was obvious that the city needed to be involved. An advocacy group can’t paint sharrows or bike lanes on the road,” said Dunbar, who is quick to credit Director of Planning Richard Wong for a strong interest in biking.
By 2012 a groundswell for making Cleveland Heights more sustainable—which includes aligning its transportation decisions to reflect a growing interest in biking—led Dunbar to a second run at City Council. This time she prevailed.
Wearing two hats as President of the Heights Bicycle Coalition and councilwoman, Dunbar renewed the city’s efforts at moving up to medal contender in the BFC. But, what had happened to improve its chances? For starters, a Transportation for Livable Communities study that looked at improving biking and walking conditions between the Heights and University Circle; a successful grant application to improve Safe Routes to School; and the formation of the advocacy group, which started hosting events such as a summer social ride to the Bottle House and adult bike skills workshop at the high school. The city also earned points for painting bike lanes on Edgehill Road and on North Park Boulevard.
In the winter of 2013, the League acknowledged this and Cleveland Heights moved up to Bronze. It joined Lakewood (Bronze-2013) and Cleveland (Bronze-2012) as the only Bicycle Friendly Communities in Northeast Ohio. (The state ranks 32nd in a measure of not only BFCs but also percent of bike commuters, Complete Streets policies and more).
But with the kudos came the judges' very specific ideas for getting better. The city has already acted on one recommendation: forming a Transportation Advisory Committee (full disclosure, yours truly has been selected to represent the bike community).
Of the four-pages of recommendations from the League, Dunbar prioritizes the city adopting a Complete Streets ordinance. She would like the TAC to advance the cause and to select at least one other major recommendation.
When asked about a citywide bike plan, Dunbar agreed it should be a priority, but cautioned, “city planning already has a lot on its plate with the streetscape plans for Cedar-Fairmount and Cedar-Lee.”
The city’s budget is too tight to take on a bike plan without additional resources such as a TLCI grant, she states. (As an aside, I mentioned to Dunbar that Lakewood completed a bike plan with in-house planning staff and no major additional funding).
Creating a bike network on the road with paint is an ongoing effort, Dunbar adds. The League recommended painted in bike lanes instead of sharrows on any road with posted speeds of 35 mph or less. That’s every road in the city, Dunbar says with a chuckle.
“We’re considering how to direct cyclists away from main roads to secondary roads that run parallel,” she said, citing Derbyshire and E. Derbyshire roads which parallel Cedar from Taylor Road to Cedar-Fairmount where it crosses Euclid Heights Boulevard.
The city probably won’t add bike lanes to Cedar Road, she says, because ODOT will not allow it to narrow the lanes. “They told us we could add bike lanes on Cedar when its resurfaced in 2015 but we would have to pay for it ourselves.”
(As an aside, I mention that Lakewood’s work-around to add bike lanes on Madison Avenue is to follow the federal guidelines on lane widths and to pay for the paint itself. The Cedar-Fairmount Business District will receive $1.5 million for streetscape improvements. City Planning favors a striped shoulder on Cedar similar to the 3-ft. wide unmarked striped shoulder on Lee Road. It is unclear whether the League would accept this unofficial bike lane in its calculation of points for the city.)
“We are already working on things that will get us to Silver,” Dunbar said. “We won’t get there in a year. My personal goals are to get more involved in the Safe Routes to School, to get the Transportation Advisory Committee up and running and to pass Complete Streets.”
On a personal level, Dunbar is inspired by her sister-in-law, the Mayor of Davis, California, one of four U.S. cities to earn the League’s highest level, Platinum. The love of cycling was ignited during a three-month car-free trip to Belgium with her husband, Rob, who commutes on a bike to his job as professor in the Chemistry Department at Case for the last 15 years.
“I was reading an article in Fortune about a town in California that is giving each new homeowner a bike,” she says. “I think it would great to get a bike to each homebuyer in Cleveland Heights.”