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Best and worst cities for cycling safety, breathing clean air

Marc Lefkowitz  |  11/18/15 @ 11:00am  |  Posted in Biking, Transportation

US DOT has an interesting new methodology to compare the health impact of local transportation systems. We pulled some examples to compare the Cleveland Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) and some peer cities. You can see the results in the charts below. We encourage you to dig into the data and come up with your own comparisons. This is good tool for local transportation planners as they frame discussions / think about the need for more transportation options in Northeast Ohio.

<br /><br /><br /><br />Source: U.S. Department of Transportation. Transportation and Health Tool, 2015.<br />Cleveland MSA seen in top right of Ohio MSA map (source: US Census Bureau).

Using the U.S. DOT’s Transportation and Health Tool, we compared the MSA of Cleveland to that of peer cities Columbus, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Buffalo and St. Louis on some key indicators of mobility and health.

The data is from 2008-2012—before categories like share of bike commuters started changing between these cities (for example, Pittsburgh was a bottom dweller at 0.3% of the population bike commuting and is now the leader in this group at 2% bike mode share).

One stand out: Bike commuters in the Cleveland MSA were exposed to nearly double the risk of a fatal collision on the roads as cyclists in Pittsburgh’s MSA. While the exact cause may be hard to pin down, the data does show that Pittsburgh has a vastly better walkability score and far fewer residents living near noisy, polluting major roadways than Cleveland.

But, that snapshot may be more revealing of how other factors affect the exposure for cyclists to fatal crashes. To measure exposure, the report divides bike commute share by traffic fatalities involving cyclists. So, when biking levels were about even, bicyclists commuting in Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati are exposed to nearly double the risk of dying in a crash on the roads than cyclists in Pittsburgh (46, 45 and 41 vs. 76 out of 100). Why is that?

Does the data mean being a bike commuter in Ohio’s major metros is more dangerous than in most cities in the U.S.? Conversely, what does the Cleveland region’s good score (93rd percentile) in safety for motorists reveal. Why is it so much safer to drive a car than ride a bike here?

While it is hard to pin down the cause of the disparity in cyclists commuting safety between cities, a comparison of the underlying character of place, i.e. Land Use Mix, and the transportation network reveal a lot, actually.

Cleveland (23), Columbus (36) and Cincinnati (34) score noticeably worse than Pittsburgh (66) in Land-Use Mix—a measure of walkability. Pittsburgh is probably better off by nature of its geography (its hemmed in by hills). Cleveland could be less walkable overall than its Ohio peers because of the legacy of heavy industry and its liberal use of “euclidian” zoning which put houses far away from smokestacks. Now that the industrial era is over in Cleveland, its future health and prosperity (with a turn to more of a knowledge-based economy) could get a boost from a focus on higher density and proximity of uses. A burgeoning effort at Cleveland (led by City Planning) to move away from euclidian and toward form-based zoning promises to help.

Proximity to Major Roadways is another factor. It may be the transportation equivalent to how close you live to a factory. The vehicle traffic on these roadways is a major source of noise and air pollutants, such as particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and ozone, which are known health hazards, the report reads.

Because of the urban highway system, many residents in Ohio’s MSAs of Cleveland (44), Columbus (37) and Cincinnati (36) live within 500 feet of a Major Roadway which increases concentrations of air pollution levels by as much as 50%.

How can transportation play a role in promoting the good type of land-use mix and enviable growth in (safer) bike commuting found in Pittsburgh?

U.S. DOT suggests that metro regions like Cleveland employ “traffic calming strategies such as lane reduction (road diets) which are effective in increasing pedestrian safety. City planners can use these data when developing pedestrian and bicycle master plans, which use multiple strategies for improving safety for pedestrians and cyclists."

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