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Cleveland Heights aims to be first suburb with complete streets

Marc Lefkowitz  |  02/25/15 @ 2:00pm  |  Posted in Vibrant cities, Transportation choices

When complete streets landed in Cleveland more than three years ago, it created a ripple that is being felt now in the suburbs.

<br />Lee Road in Cleveland Heights. Image: Greg Slawson.<br />Cleveland Heights participates in 2014 Bike to Work Day. Image: Heights Bicycle Coalition.<br />Bike corrals (yellow on-street racks) in downtown Lakewood.

In Cleveland Heights, after a yearlong discussion, a Transportation Advisory Committee recommended last month that the east side suburb adopt a strong complete streets policy (disclosure: I serve as co-chair with retired NOACA director Howard Maier. The TAC was created by city council and includes citizens from all walks of life. It enjoys the broad participation of city officials from Planning, Safety and Public Works departments).

The conversation in Cleveland Heights about complete streets has started in earnest. Complete Streets requires cities to plan and build streets for pedestrians, cyclists, transit riders, seniors, the disabled and children and cars. Complete Streets are not about getting rid of cars. Cars are a great convenience. But in their widespread adoption, sometimes the trade off has been streets that are too fast or deadly wide.

Another notable ripple has been Cuyahoga County’s recently launched Complete Streets Toolkit. It shows how suburbs can make main street more comfortable for a walk (even for motorists who become pedestrians again at the end of their trip). Complete Streets can help the region's growth in cycling and transit ridership by providing safe passage on major commute corridors (like Euclid Avenue in 2008).

It will be interesting to watch how Cuyahoga County uses its toolkit to bolster efforts already in motion in the suburbs.

For example, after it won a $1.5 million grant from NOACA, Cleveland Heights chipped $600,000 in to a new streetscape for the Cedar-Lee district (coming in spring 2015). It is a major investment in keeping feet (and bikes) on the street. The plan is to add “bike corrals”—those big, curbside bike racks similar to what Lakewood has been installing on Detroit Avenue—to a couple of on-street parking spots. Patrons of the Lee Road Library and Zagara’s grocery store will gain the added visibility and protection of new crosswalks equipped with flashing beacons and new street lights. Cyclists will gain Sharrows (the TAC recommended studying bike lanes outside of the pedestrian areas on Lee Road).

They’re not alone. Lakewood has an impressive bike plan and has expressed interest in “complete streets” elements including its Madison Avenue streetscape project with bike lanes being mentioned. Shaker Heights is investing millions into making its Warrensville-Chagrin-Van Aken district more walkable and transit friendly. It is worth noting that Cleveland Heights, Shaker Heights, Lakewood and Cleveland have led the way in pursuing Bicycle Friendly Community status.

Naturally, when introducing something new (or something inherited in the case of older suburbs built around streetcars, pedestrians and cyclists), questions arise. As Cleveland.com reported, during the TAC’s presentation to Cleveland Heights City Council, questions about the budgetary impact and whether the policy will “tie the city’s hands” were raised. Generally, the mood was supportive, with city council members expressing their enthusiasm for Cleveland Heights becoming the first suburb in Northeast Ohio to adopt complete streets.

Suburbs are a big growth area for complete streets. Of the 564 municipalities with Complete Streets policies, 218 (or 39 percent) are suburban communities with fewer than 30,000 residents, the National Complete Streets Coalition reported in its Best Complete Streets Policies of 2014.

As it moves into suburbs, where population density is often low, it will be interesting to see how complete streets translates. Can complete streets help convince people to try walking or biking in suburbs where most trips are made in a car?

In Columbus, the affluent suburb of Dublin started down the road of calming traffic and making its main street more pedestrian and bike friendly. You can bet some residents wanted to know why the city was spending resources this way.

“The answer is that Dublin’s leaders are thinking like a business,” Kaid Benfield wrote for Natural Resource Defense Council. “They know that their success has been based on a late-20th century model of office parks, malls, and single-family subdivisions that is now becoming outdated.

“Having been on the leading edge of past suburban success, they want to be on the leading edge for the 21st century as well. And right now, although they have great assets to build upon, they suspect that they aren’t ready for the new generation of ‘customers.’"

Some suburbs see complete streets as an equitable use of streetspace. Consider the City of Piqua, a small suburb of Dayton, who surprised many by landing at #9 in the Top Ten Complete Streets policies of 2013. The National Complete Streets Coalition commended Piqua for writing a policy that covers all transportation improvements.

Writing about its reasons for doing so, Piqua expects the policy to give a boost to the local economy, and to serve the needs of working families.

“People living in communities that give them the option to walk, bike or take transit to their destinations often pay less in total housing and transportation costs than those who live in areas with lower housing prices that are more auto-dependent,” the city wrote. “When coupled with programs to maintain access to affordable housing, families of all incomes can realize the economic benefits of Complete Streets.”

Concerns about whether complete streets cost more or “constrain” cities needs to be discussed and addressed. The best remedy for angst about complete streets, probably, will be in the opportunities to demonstrate the benefits. That’s where a strong sense of what can be designed back into the system will be crucial to convincing the doubting Thomas in every crowd.

It may take some education before all of the suburbs of Cleveland are convinced that complete streets will expand choice and opportunity. Time will tell if they find the data about bike lanes improving local economies and attracting new riders, including those typically excluded from consideration such as women and children, convincing.

Complete streets and Cleveland's inner-ring suburbs are a good match. Greater density, sometimes on par with the city, can make biking, walking and transit trips not so long or arduous. Many are endowed with tree-lined streets that naturally calm traffic. With a little work on making streets more appealing, they can tie (not only their hands but) all of it together into a placemaking strategy that city leaders and residents young and old can feel good about.

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