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Mode shift: Setting a real goal for better transportation choices

David Beach  |  07/14/14 @ 2:00pm  |  Posted in Transportation choices

As Greater Cleveland’s transportation planning agency develops a new strategic plan, citizens have an opportunity to advocate for a more balanced transportation system that will meet emerging needs, not repeat the mistakes of the past.

Critical Mass ride in downtown Cleveland, May 2014<br />Demand is growing for a transportation system that promotes vibrant urban places.

Over the past year or two, there have been a lot of changes at the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA). The agency has a new executive director, Grace Gallucci, who has a strong background in public transit. Many other top staff positions have turned over to a younger generation. And the agency is developing a new strategic plan that will guide transportation planning in the five-county NOACA region in the coming years.

The strategic plan is something that we have been focusing on a lot here at GreenCityBlueLake. We see it as an opportunity to get NOACA to set real goals that are tied to a real strategy for turning intentions into reality.

In the past, the agency has set general policy goals that say good things, but the goals have had no targets and there has been no strategic link between the agency’s lists of programmed transportation projects and desired outcomes. The agency has never been able to say: This is the future we want for Northeast Ohio, and this is how we are going to invest transportation funds to build that future. Instead, the process has been to receive project proposals from sponsors (such as ODOT and local cities) and spread transportation funding around evenly to keep local elected officials happy. It’s a process that has perpetuated the lopsided, unsustainable transportation system that forces most people to drive everywhere.

Real goals, real strategy

Our goals should be about the transportation system we will need in the future — the system that will make this region sustainable and prosperous. I think one of the most important goals should be about mode split — the mix of transportation modes, such as transit, biking, walking, and driving.

Given the trends — everything from the preferences of Millennials for reduced dependence on cars to the need to be more resilient in the face of climate change — we need to change the mode split so we have much better choices. So the NOACA plan should have a specific target for greatly increasing alternate modes like transit and biking.

Once there’s a target for a more balanced mode split, the strategic plan (if it’s truly “strategic”) should describe how this shift will be achieved — what transportation projects will be needed to produce the shift and how those projects will be designed and programmed.

Below are more details on how to think about a “mode shift” goal for the region. You can submit your own comments about NOACA’s strategic plan here. The strategic plan is scheduled to be adopted at the next NOACA Board meeting on Oct. 10, 2014.

Building the future instead of the past

I recently submitted the following comments about NOACA’s strategic plan.

Thanks for the opportunity to comment on the NOACA strategic plan. I congratulate NOACA for doing this plan and for thinking broadly about the future of transportation in Northeast Ohio.

The big-picture idea for this strategic plan should be the massive transformation now beginning in American society. The automobile-centric transportation policies of post-war America are now bankrupt and unsustainable. We have hit the wall. We can’t afford to maintain our far-flung infrastructure nor buy all the cars we’re forced to buy because we have no other transportation choices. We can’t afford to keep abandoning our cities in favor of low-density suburbs. And we can’t keep burning all the fossil fuels that are destabilizing the climate.

Therefore, we need a fundamental change of direction. What will this be like? It’s already becoming apparent in shifting consumer preferences in favor of walkable urbanism. More people are choosing convenient, healthy lifestyles in places that offer vibrant density and transportation choices.

So the policy question for NOACA is this: How can NOACA help to support and accelerate the new trends that are making the region more livable and sustainable? How can it help to build the future instead of the past?

The five goals already proposed in the NOACA strategy provide a good start. But I would focus most on the third goal related to building a multimodal transportation system. Mode split is a key indicator for the sustainability of the region. If the mode split becomes more balanced, many other good things will also happen. Compact patterns of land use will be promoted because alternate modes of transportation are not practical in low-density areas. Vehicle miles traveled, air pollution, and carbon emissions will be reduced. Personal transportation costs will be reduced. Health will be improved. Urban vitality will be increased. More places for knowledge-economy workers will be created.

Here are the steps NOACA should take to shift the mode split and create more transportation choices:

  • Set a target: Set a measurable target for a future mode split. This target should be bold and transformational. Bike commuting, for example, should be at a level that puts Northeast Ohio at the top of best-practice regions, such as a 6% share.
  • Figure out what it will take: Do the rigorous planning needed to figure out what it will actually take to meet the target. What projects and programs? How will it happen? Who is responsible? What is the timeline? (The Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium framework provides a lot of good ideas.)
  • Cultivate a different set of projects: Since NOACA doesn’t propose projects, it will need to create a process to help project sponsors (cities, counties, ODOT) envision and design projects that will build a more multimodal transportation system.
  • Program the projects: Change funding allocations to fund the right projects that will change the mode split.
  • Track progress: Success should be measured by change on the ground – how much the region’s mode split has changed. NOACA should have a laser focus on this. There should be a report at every meeting about the progress.

If NOACA does these things, it will have a real goal and strategy for transforming Northeast Ohio. It will help create the multimodal transportation system that more and more people are seeking. And it will make our region more resilient and sustainable.

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