What would happen if Americans stopped loving cars and all that comes with them? Look at Houston, which may be forgiven for regretting its decision to spend $2.8 billion in 2014 to widen its Katy Freeway only to find that car travel times went up by 51 percent.
With so much of the American identity wrapped up in the car, this is going to be a hard one to untangle. But we must if we ever expect to challenge the single growth model of highway building. Cleveland may be in an enviable spot to do so.
1. First, as Millennials move in greater number to Cleveland, the city wants to provide a compelling argument to stay, in addition to the affordable rents and big spaces. As obscure as it may seem, transportation is about investing in what makes Cleveland their “forever” place.
2. As Cleveland embarks on its Year of Sustainable Transportation, a bright spot for Mayor Jackson has been his idea that sustainability equates to more equity. Arguably, what is more equitable than investing in “modes” of transportation for the fully 30% of city residents who rely on them, including walking, biking and taking public transit?
3. Federal transportation officials are helping cities like Cleveland pursue policy changes to make this practical. The Federal Highway Administration expects cities to be more accountable in the form of “performance measures.” This month, Cleveland found out, it will get a leg up on other cities in setting metrics. It was selected along with six other cities to a yearlong “transportation academy” led by nationally respected, Transportation for America.
5. T4A may help the region’s transportation agency, NOACA, achieve its goal to build a “multi-modal and sustainable transportation system.” In part, it can do this by helping Northeast Ohio set targets, like Columbus, to increase mode choice, like biking, and to promote projects like the protected bike lane on Summit Avenue in the state's capital that will contribute to its reduce vehicle miles traveled goal.
5. When Northeast Ohio has targets for mode share, it will help the region make a stronger case with state lawmakers to harness funds not only to build highways but repair and “complete streets”—equipping them with more bike lanes and crosswalks.
6. Another reason to make transportation a primary focus of the city’s body politic: Emissions from motor vehicles cause a significant air pollution problem. NOACA, in its 2015 report on what the region is doing to bring itself out of “non-attainment” of the 1970 federal Clean Air Act, noted, “As Northeast Ohio has become less reliant on heavy industry and coal-fired electric generation, transportation has emerged as the primary driver of the region’s air quality issues. The two pollutants most closely linked to mobile emissions—ozone and fine particulate matter—have fallen by a smaller margin than the other pollutants of concern. Accordingly, transportation infrastructure and choice will continue to be intricately linked to the quality of the region’s air in the coming years.”
7. As GreenCityBlueLake calculated in 2008, transportation generates 28% of the region’s carbon footprint. Expanding the system of roads and highways—by 300 lane miles since the 1990s— contributed in a significant way.
8. The Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) noted this week in its 2015 Highway Boondoggles report, building new comes at the expense of fixing the roads we already own. PIRG examines a dozen highway projects that have been thrust upon the public. It says Ohio’s Portsmouth Bypass, a half-billion dollar highway in rural and scenic Scioto County threatens wildlife and farms for a road of dubious benefit (2014's report called out Cleveland's Opportunity Corridor).
9. Unfettered road building also erodes wellness, and that can be measured in ways like social cohesion (there are more of us “bowling alone”) and in ways that our health care institutions should easily recognize. A single serve system also robs from those who don’t drive—taking from the coffers of public transportation. Finally, transportation contributes to place, by making the public realm friendly or hostile, literally safe or deadly.
10. As cities race to build streetcars and bus-rapid transit systems they discover, transportation can be as much about the formation (or preservation, in the case of Cincinnati’s Over the Rhine) of first-rate neighborhoods.