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Northeast Ohio considers a new long-range transportation plan

Marc Lefkowitz  |  07/12/16 @ 1:00pm  |  Posted in Vibrant cities, Transportation choices

In many ways, Northeast Ohio has always stood at a crossroad. Between the Appalachian range and the Great Plains. Between a Great Lake and a river that connects to markets across the U.S. When it came to transportation, though, the outward course—the laying out literally hundreds of miles of roads into new, pristine lands—has led to one type of place created and a limit to who has access to this land of opportunity.

The tide may be turning back. As the market grows for living arrangements that are walkable. The metric of how many places are within a 30 minute drive, the fealty to auto centricity, for the first time in 40 years may not drive all of the decisions. In its Long Range Transportation Plan, NOACA, the metropolitan planning organization will continue to engage the public at a session tomorrow (July 13).

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A groundswell is growing to put transportation on a new course. That NOACA set a goal last year to produce a “sustainable, multi modal transportation system” confirms that the 5-county agency is interested in enhancing modal choices by prioritizing goods movement, transit, pedestrian and bicycle travel instead of just single-occupancy vehicle movement and highways.

In many ways, what’s happening today had a precursor in 1969, the year NOACA was formed. At the time, the region stood at a similar crossroad as it attempted to plot a course in its first Long-Range Transportation Plan. That first LRTP makes for an interesting historical footnote as NOACA embarks on a series of public meetings this summer for its next 20-year plan—including tomorrow’s session, a review of the history of the LRTP (starting in 1969).

At the time, moving away from the city was a new, untested idea. Cleveland was being destabilized by major social and economic upheavals, but also federal policy on housing, The Urban Renewal program, and the National Highway System all of which favored the suburbs. It lent the 1969 long-range plan a schismatic viewpoint. It’s black and white maps include hydra like expansions of urban highways all based on a population growth figure of 4 million inhabitants. NOACA was the scene of an epic battle that year known as “the highway revolts” when Cleveland and a few eastern suburbs banded together to relegate two proposed urban highways to the dustbin of history.

Tempering the notion of infinite highways, the first long-range transportation plan in 1969 also included an option to connect suburb and city with train lines. To build like the Van Sweringens did in the 1920s in connecting Shaker Heights and Cleveland with the Rapid. It is telling that the wildly off-base population projections in 1969—forecasts that were two times the current 2 million inhabitants—set the course for highway style development for years to come.

Back to the future

This summer, NOACA revisits the question, what kind of city would we prefer to build with the billions of dollars that will flow here from state and federal coffers in the next 20 years?

The question really turns on how the region defines performance or what it can expect from that mammoth investment. “Performance measures” are attempts to convert broad values into fine filters for projects. Is the focus on the mobility needs of many, for instance. Or decreasing the risks associated with climate change.

Wonkish though it may sound, the push for Northeast Ohio’s transportation agency, NOACA, to bring new evaluative tools to the table is as important a sustainability topic as any. It could acknowledge decades of following bad trends that forecast infinite growth in population and motor vehicle travel, and instead make plans based on how well a road or transit project connects people to jobs, improves safety and provides choices in low- or no-carbon alternatives.

GreenCityBlueLake Director, David Beach, writing about the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency’s Long-Range Transportation Plan offered a new way to think about transportation—and some concrete goals to improve things:

“At the root of transportation planning are metrics that define what a successful transportation system is supposed to be. 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.”

As NOACA Executive Director Grace Gallucci explained recently, performance measures are good business practice. They are an opportunity to strengthen the trust between the public and government because with them comes transparency and accountability. Ultimately, MPOs are required by federal transportation law (MAP-21) to build performance measures into their plans and programs.

The mood for mode shift

For MPOs considering mode shift as a performance goal, two regions in Ohio—Miami Valley Regional Planning Commission (MVRPC) and The Mid Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC)— offer nationally recognized models.

The Dayton and Columbus regions have received accolades for their plans to shift modes. For a start, their Complete Streets policies ranked #1 and #2 nationally.

Columbus introduced a goal in its current Long Range Transportation Plan to “reduce per capita energy consumption.” It includes a 1% mode shift to low-carbon modes of transportation by 2020.

The Dayton region is constructing a bikeway network to connect city and towns that currently is the largest in the nation for miles covered. MVRPC has been encouraging growth in biking by setting a goal of shifting 5% of the region’s trips to a bike. Here are just a few examples from the MPO on how its policies have already inspired change. Most of the projects submitted by local jurisdictions now include bike, pedestrian, and/or transit infrastructure elements.

  • Very few projects seek an exemption for Complete Streets.
  • Surface Transportation Program (the MPO’s largest source of funding) has become more flexible in allowing multi-modal project elements.
  • Communities are applying to the State of Ohio for Safety and Utility Improvement funds to implement new bike lanes and paths.
  • A bikeway as part of road reconstruction project will score better than a stand-alone bikeway/lane in most cases.

The role of an MPO, after setting a goal, is to operationalize mode shift. This can happen in a number of ways. An MPO operates at a scale of a region which is where transportation decisions are typically made. The MPO convenes community leaders, it provides the research to frame the benefits of mode shift, it plans for the most efficient use resources, it aggregates funding and moves the region on a path toward implementation

“We can’t design around bad behavior”

National leaders on mode shift include Seattle and Boston. Seattle’s process for mode shift started with a visionary plan, Move Seattle. Statements like above point to an amazing recognition that design influences behavior on the road. Seattle backs it up with a goals such as "Reduce single-occupant vehicle (SOV) trips and to Increase transit access." Seattle has a biennial Mode Split Survey and report. Most impressively, the plan was a springboard to win voter approval for an astonishing $930 million transportation levy that voters approved in 2016. Major employers, like the Seattle Children’s Hospital, also signed on and set impressive goals of their own to reduce SOV trips (by 16%). An inspiring vision for safer and greener streets rallied a wide base of support, led the community to fund it and find new ways to move Seattle.

How do we get there?

In its “Model Long-Range Transportation Plans: A Guide for Incorporating Performance-Based Planning” The Federal Highway Administration offers best practices at MPOs, and describes how they set goals, gathered public input, developed targets and monitor those goals. It will be worthwhile as NOACA considers how to translate loft strategic goals into performance measures to take the nation’s best practices, including those in Ohio’s other major metropolitan areas, into consideration.

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 quality of life here in the region. It’s important to speak up about the region’s Long-Range Transportation Plan.

NOACA has schedule several meetings in the coming months to allow the public to learn about the process and provide input (see www.noaca.org for details). You can also send comments to publicinv@mpo.noaca.org.

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