Last week, federal authorities allegedly told the City of Cleveland that re-opening downtown Public Square to buses would honor their agreement (and help the city avoid a $12 million penalty). It provides impetus for the city to re-consider its ill-fated but well-intentioned decision.
Mayor Jackson and leaders like the Cleveland Foundation earned praise for the $50 million make over of the square. It vastly improved the space for walking and taking in what’s great about city life: A more natural respite from the daily grind.
We visited the new square during the grand re-opening. Like most, we were blown away. The diversity of people who came to enjoy the new park-like amenities and views—it is enclosed by some of the most charming examples of early 20th century architecture in the country—were what stood out.
Understandably, the city was excited to see a lot of people flock downtown; again, the city’s willingness to take a bold step in renewing the square’s purpose as a functional space is cause for celebration. The new design has reinvigorated the gathering spaces and activities. That Public Square would continue to serve thousands of people as the city’s major transit hub was well considered in the planning of the square. When people did gather for pure leisure, it clouded the decision that transit belongs.
The size of support to bring transit back to Public Square was a pleasant surprise. Bus riders and those who can appreciate the role transit serves in the city have spoken up and conveyed that transit is a desirable presence in the square. Most people, when asked, have said that transit is a part of a healthy, sustainable city.
Equity is an important consideration in Cleveland’s pursuit of being sustainable; the current condition, with Superior closed to buses, asks too much of elderly and disabled bus riders to try and run across the square to catch a bus. And while NOACA calculates that the re-routing of buses around the square adds negligible amounts of air pollution (when considered within an area the size of a 5-county region), the decision to close the square to buses would add traffic and some localized pollution. In other ways, congestion detracts from the investment and may even create a situation where buses are in more conflict with pedestrians.
Certainly running a city involves tradeoffs, and the mayor has done a good job balancing the needs of many. The mayor has made a commitment to both sustainability and equity. The heat he is catching for closing Public Square is testing this. Going forward, it will be important to remove the “us versus them” rhetoric: Public Square brings together all. The white collar office workers and the blue collar folks. What brings them together in that space, what unites them in a common bond, is being a pedestrian. Whether they are catching the bus or walking back to the office from lunch. For that reason, the Superior Avenue bus lane needs to be re-opened, because it will benefit all.