Marc Lefkowitz | 03/20/15 @ 1:00pm
As Ohio considers upping its highway speediness to 75 mph and a transportation budget that encourages more driving, it begs the question: what are the economic reasons for doing so? Is the strategy to make Ohio’s metropolitan areas more competitive or to build a truck-stop state?
When it comes to policy, speed is arguably less important than using transportation to drive economic growth in not away from metropolitan areas.
Transportation policy should drive economic growth at the core where important industries cluster. It is in metropolitan areas that the state’s future prosperity, its patents, its intellectual capital, are located.
Technology has increased productivity and made distance driving less necessary. Young people want to live in walkable urban places. They're also more likely than older generations to get around by alternative means: by foot, by bike, or by transit.
Those who can afford to buy a home are doing so for different reasons than in the past. Real estate service Zillow found the reason people move is shifting from “new and better housing” to "affordability" and "making commutes easier."
It seems people are choosier and staying put. Public policy can be recalibrated accordingly.
As Cleveland transitions from heavy manufacturing to more knowledge- and service-based economies, it is important to think of transportation policy as a place building strategy.
Ohio appears to be moving in a different direction: Highways and duplicate development along interchanges. It is a zero sum game. It spreads capital thin and away from where it can do the most good.
Intellectual capital will be fueled by the right kind of infrastructure investments: Universal Broadband, state-supported pre-K education, resources for aging in places that are safe, warm and dry, and an efficient, low-carbon transit system, for example.
As a strategy it appears to be working in cities like Seattle and Pittsburgh. Seattle, for example, where building in the core urban areas around new investments in public transit has resulted in a city where more people take transit to work downtown than drive alone.
How can Ohio be a partner? In the 20th century, the model was highway departments. Today, state transportation agencies from Minnesota to Michigan have shown themselves to be more willing partners in the placemaking effort. Even in Ohio, the different regions of the Department of Transportation seem to have more capacity for change than others. In Central Ohio, for example, the regional DOT is helping Columbus build protected bike lanes. In Cleveland, the DOT district office is nowhere to be found on multi-modal transportation planning nor funding protected bike lanes.
An area for ODOT’s district office in Northeast Ohio to help would be in building up the regional transit system. Hoping to strike more of a balance, transit advocacy group All Aboard Ohio says there are three immediate ways the state can pivot to building more of the “multi-modal” infrastructure—sidewalks, bike lanes, transit stations—that act as signals to the market.
There are good equity reasons to invest in transit as a backbone to economic development. The American Public Transit Association figures that transit saves on average $9,238. Not only does it support talent attraction, there are pocketbook economics reasons for Ohio.
Ohio is an urban state; it has the most urban areas of any state outside of New Jersey. In favoring highways over urban areas in its transportation policy, it appears an elite group holds favor.
Many observers noted during the Opportunity Corridor debate that Cleveland sent a signal about how a new road through the east side is its most important transportation priority. Meanwhile, the city was able to achieve a 14:1 private-to-public investment with the HealthLine.
The Akron area’s top boss on transportation, Jason Segedy, puts it this way: “We are fooling ourselves if we think we can widen roads and simultaneously make transit more attractive and viable.”
Speaking to GCBL in 2014 about transit as an economic engine, Segedy lays out a practical path to change. He would beef up cross-county express bus service; realize that jobs moved to the suburbs in the late 20th century and connect them with good transit to a large urban population living car free. And he would up the game of transit so that it attracts more people who would like to ride including those who have a “choice.”
In order to do this, state and local policy needs to discourage development anywhere. They should shift to a more focused approach. Segedy writes:
“From a public policy standpoint, we have to quit encouraging people and businesses to spread out from our core cities and inner suburbs. It’s impossible to have a cost-effective, robust, competitive, and useful public transportation system serve a region that is built at a semi-rural population density, and that is essentially what we have in Northeast Ohio—a semi-rural region, from a built-environment standpoint.”
A specific policy that Cleveland, Cuyahoga County and its transportation agencies could get behind to encourage more appropriate density is directing their transportation budgets with the goal of shifting 20% of us out of cars and on to transit. Some encouraging signs show NOACA is interested again in supporting transit. NOACA and RTA have started to invest in transit with a $40 million ask in the latest budget. That’s a good start, but the lack of state support for transit has cut into RTA’s ability to deliver service. RTA had to cut direct bus links between the suburbs and city recently even though ridership overall has grown in the last 4 years.
Another clear priority for Cleveland, now that Opportunity Corridor has its funding, should be to rebuild RTA’s train lines. RTA CEO Joe Calabrese estimates will take $300 million—to make it fast, clean and attractive to riders and capital investments. As the HealthLine showed, combining that public investment with a strategy to build up walkable, urban places would yield more Uptowns and E. 4th Street success stories.
Now is not the time to rest on our laurels from the HealthLine. RTA cannot do it alone. It needs communities to build in ways that encourage the type of shift toward transit. It’s time to build a robust transit system in Greater Cleveland and Akron to help speed Ohio to a new, urban economy—the kind that works in the 21st century.