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Moving into the future: What we need from NOACA's Long-Range Transportation Plan

David Beach  |  06/21/16 @ 1:00pm  |  Posted in Transportation choices

If you had billions of dollars to invest in transportation improvements to make Northeast Ohio a better place, what would be your priorities? That’s the question facing the transportation planning agency, NOACA, as it updates the region’s Long-Range Transportation Plan. Here’s a quick guide to the issues.

One-way travel<br />NOACA's update of the region's Long-Range Transportation Plan is an opportunity to change direction and promote better transportation choices.

Do we want to keep building a transportation system that forces us to drive cars, degrades urban life and the environment, and is too costly to maintain? Or do we want to build livable and sustainable communities where more people can choose to access what they need by walking, biking, or taking transit?

In stark terms, that is the choice facing Northeast Ohio. And in the coming months this choice will come into focus, as the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA) updates the region’s Long-Range Transportation Plan (LRTP). The plan will influence the spending of $12.9 billion dollars of transportation funds over the next 20 years.

If you believe the current system is unsustainable and you want better transportation choices, then here’s what to demand in the new plan:

Live up to good intentions

The last version of the LRTP, called Connections+ 2035, had some good goals and principles. They included planning principles that called on NOACA to:

  • Minimize the adverse impacts of incremental transportation investments on the environment and on existing communities in the region (such as when new roads siphon population and jobs from older cities).
  • Encourage the use of public transit in the region.
  • Encourage efficient, compact land use development that facilitates mobility, saves infrastructure costs, preserves environmentally-sensitive and agricultural lands, and enhances the economic viability of existing communities within the region.

There also were goals calling on NOACA to:

  • Promote sustainable development that does not transfer benefits (tax revenues) and burdens (increased infrastructure maintenance) from one community to another.
  • Reduce the risk of climate change by developing strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation.
  • Establish a more balanced transportation system which enhances modal choices by prioritizing goods movement, transit, pedestrian and bicycle travel instead of just single-occupancy vehicle movement and highways.
  • Improve the transportation mobility of the transit-dependent and low-income individuals to jobs, housing and other trip purposes.
  • Direct the Plan and its investments toward efficient, compact land use development/redevelopment that facilitates accessibility, saves infrastructure costs, preserves and enhances farmland, forests and open space and enhances the economic viability of existing communities within the region.

Now we need to do more to live up to such principles and goals. This can be done by implementing the following steps.

Plan for transition, not maintenance of the status quo

Most of the region’s transportation dollars are now spent on maintaining the current system. While it’s good to “fix it first” rather than building new when resources are limited, the current automobile-centric system is not sustainable. In many places the system needs be changed, not just maintained as is. The emphasis -- as reflected in funding formulas -- should be on transition to transportation infrastructure that supports much more transit, biking and development of walkable places. We need to begin a historic transition to repair the decades of damage caused by over-dependence on cars.

This will require transportation planning to stop being a slave to past trends. In recent decades, the forecast of increased use of motor vehicles has led to more roads, which in turn has led to more driving and sprawl. Now we need to break out of this destructive circular process. The trends in Northeast Ohio are not desirable nor sustainable. We need to change the trends, not perpetuate them.

Focus on transit-oriented development

The transition to a more sustainable system should start by recognizing that transportation is really a land use issue. The best way to give people access to what they want is to develop communities where destinations are close together. The less transportation needed, the better.

Therefore, the LRTP should have strategies for investing transportation funds to promote the development of more compact, walkable, mixed-use places in Northeast Ohio -- what is often called transit-oriented development (an example is the Van Aken District in Shaker Heights).

To its credit, NOACA is already moving in this direction. It recently hired the big engineering and planning firm AECOM to develop a transit-oriented development scorecard and implementation plan. Next, the agency will need to work with communities to help develop projects that will actually begin to alter land use patterns in the region.

Long-term, this will be the smartest way to invest transportation funds in a region that is not growing much overall. And it will be the best way for Northeast Ohio to catch up to the nation’s leading metro areas in meeting the growing real estate demand for walkable urbanism.

Adopt new performance measures for sustainable transportation

At the root of transportation planning are performance measures that define what a successful transportation system is supposed to be like. In recent decades the dominant measure has been level of service -- a measure of freely flowing traffic on a road. Thus the main goal has been to build infrastructure to reduce traffic congestion and enable vehicles to drive faster and farther.

Now NOACA has an opportunity to adopt alternative performance measures for transportation projects. For instance, does a project give people more transportation choices? Does it contribute to more sustainable land use and access to jobs? Does it improve community health? Does it reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from transportation? These are the types of measures for building better communities.

Go here for NOACA’s latest thinking about performance measures. And go here for ideas on performance measures for sustainable transportation.

Make equity a priority

The current transportation system is heavily biased against those who can’t afford cars or who can’t drive (children, seniors, the disabled, etc.). Therefore, considerations of equity should be woven throughout the update of the LRTP.

This should be done not just on a project-by-project basis, which is how NOACA has been following through on federal requirements to evaluate environmental justice impacts. Rather the entire transportation system should be evaluated for how it systematically disadvantages certain people. More ideas about this are here.

How to get involved

The transportation system impacts everyone’s issues -- whether you care about the environment, equity, social justice, economic development, health, placemaking, or other issues. So it’s important to speak up about the update of the region’s Long-Range Transportation Plan.

NOACA has scheduled several meetings in the coming months to allow the public to learn about the process and provide input. You can also send comments here.

Please get involved and voice your concerns about the need for a more sustainable and equitable transportation system.

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Received
8 months ago

There are lots of job centers in our region that are unfortunately located in non-densely populated areas with crummy transit access. I think that we have a better chance of providing the poor with access to those jobs via transit than bringing those jobs to the poor.

Marc
9 months ago

My interpretation of the comment about commuter rail and density -- its less about ideology and more about empirical evidence. There are more examples of commuter rail lines built in low density areas that have low ridership than the reverse. That said, a plan for commuter rail serving Northeast Ohio might identify an existing train line (like previous studies done by All Aboard Ohio) and line up community support. By that, I mean, communities would be willing to update zoning for transit supportive (higher density) land uses. Incentives to build in these areas could be part of the plan. Commuter rail in Northeast Ohio could work under the right conditions, but to build it first then try to infill the market around it when everyone's comfortable driving is folly, probably.

Received
9 months ago

Transit also makes sense in areas that are less dense. So, just because Medina County (just an example) is not dense, doesn't mean that a line originating in Medina County, traveling through Cuyahoga County to Downtown, wouldn't make sense. Again, this line isn't exclusive to Medina County riders; instead, it benefits Medina County riders and all of the riders in communities that it has stops in, including riders using the Downtown transit hub, who now have better transit access to job centers south of the City of Cleveland. And, as a bonus, Medina County voters (and voters in other communities in which the line has stops) are more likely to support transit (not only by riding it but at the ballot box), instead of looking at is as a social service from which they derive no benefit. And as another bonus, it might actually encourage denser development all along the line, even in Medina County.

In my humble opinion and limited view, the advocacy around transit seems to strive toward ideological purity: it must serve the poor or urban dwellers, it must be dense, and oh yeah, business can't benefit from it. No doubt that serving the poor and density are laudable goals, but I think that that point has translated into no wealthy people or people living outside of the City may benefit.

David Beach
9 months ago

The comment below raises some interesting questions. I did indeed make the point about equity in the larger context -- that it's not right for the transportation system as whole to disadvantage everyone who can't drive cars. And I agree with the general point that more middle-class riders could give RTA more political clout in battles over funding. But I wonder what is the best way to attract a wider ridership. Transit works best and most cost-effectively in the places with population density. So I would not want to encourage RTA to extend rail lines to low-density parts of the region like Medina County. The emphasis should be on providing better service to attract everybody -- rich and poor -- in the denser areas where transit makes sense.

Received
9 months ago

I don't necessarily disagree with this equity concept, as long as it is based on looking at how transportation is funded system-wide (e.g., cars v. bikes v. transit). Sadly, however, I think that advocates have incorrectly glommed onto that concept during the RTA fare increase and service cut debate, looking only within the public transit system, much to the public transit system's detriment. Fact of the matter is that the best way to build a more robust and reliable public transit system is to increase the likelihood that more middle class people will use it. With more middle class riders, the system has more fares and has more political clout. So, this might mean building a rail line to Medina County, which some would say is inequitable. But, in reality, it pulls more middle class people into the system --- and, incidentally, increases access for folks who live in the City. If we keep trying to build a public transit system that only serves the urban poor, the public transit system will always have limited access and be underfunded.

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