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Report from Cleveland Bike Week forum

Marc Lefkowitz  |  05/15/09 @ 4:45pm

Why is Cleveland, with so many pressing issues, working on improving its cycling? Cities investing in cool urban amenities-like bike lanes and Complete Streets-are attracting new minds, answered Cleveland Planning Director Bob Brown at the opening of yesterday's Cleveland Bicycle Week forum.

Cleveland wants to compete, and so it will continue to invest in cycling-both to reshape its fortunes with sharp young minds (and because 25% of its current citizens cannot afford to own a car). It is investing $320,000 in a downtown bike parking station at Gateway this fall. It fought for Euclid Avenue to be a Complete Street, with bike lanes. It's why the Towpath will connect to Cleveland and its neighborhoods with connector trails festooned with sports, fitness, cultural and camping features. It's why Cleveland is pitching a $50 million plan to improve bicycling and walking-just like 50 cities around the nation-to Congress.

Still, we have much work to do organizing and building a movement that will improve the status quo from roads designed solely for cars. Cleveland has lessons to learn from bike meccas like Chicago where some roads have 22% cycling commuters.

Cleveland's more fierce competition will be with other Ohio cities who have as much work to do on improving bicycling infrastructure. It has a lot going right in its plans, said Keith Laughlin, executive director, Rails-to-Trails Coalition, a national bike advocacy group. Laughlin likes Cleveland's Bikeway Master Plan ? which would put 67,000 households within a 10 minute bike ride of a bike lane or route connected to parks and centers of activity ? so much that he placed a slide from it in the Powerpoint presentation he gives to every city in the nation.

"Cleveland has become a national model for how to think about and make the case for bicycle infrastructure," Laughlin said.

Rails-to-Trails represents 120,000 members pushing for a $50 million for 50 cities by 2010 campaign-a ramp up from five cities that received $25 million each for their bike plans in 2005. Recent federal stimulus funds infused cities with $800 million to spend on bike amenities, and will help pay for projects like Cleveland's downtown bike station. A recent RTC study found even a minimal investment in bike amenities can pay off in improved health (Laughlin thinks health is as important a metric in regional long-range transportation plans as reducing carbon emissions).

"Our recent poll showed that Americans would spend twenty two cents for every transportation dollar on improving bikes, walking and transit. Right now, we spend the equivalent of one cent. So, what we're trying to do is just move from one percent to three percent of the total."

Although it's like comparing apples to oranges, Cleveland can't help but compare itself to Chicago. In that vein, what has Chicago done in building itself from one city staffed bike planner to 36 paid staffers who have stripped in 120 bike lanes, installed 11,000 bike racks and who influence policy like a goal for the city to reduce its Vehicle Miles Traveled by 50% in the Chicago Climate Action Plan? Cleveland has made a lot of progress since the 2002 formation of the Mayor's Bike Pedestrian Advisory Committee. The more pressing question is, what works in Cleveland? Attendees of the forum, like Ohio City Bike CoOp director Jim Sheehan asked, how do we build a stronger coalition of bike advocates and policies.

Build your network, but also market it and get people exciting about cycling through education and events, said Rob Sadowsky, executive director of those 36 staffers at Active Transportation Alliance in Chicago. In other words, build the coalition and the future for cycling as much as the bike lanes and racks.

How? Chicago has launched many innovative programs, including a Bike Buddy program where you can schedule a house call for a free bike tune up and to have an expert ride and coach you on how to safely ride on the road. They have Complete Streets Ambassadors who share safety tips and lead bike education programs at schools. They've set up transportation management plans with universities to convert car fleets to bikes and set aside parking for bikes. They produce biking maps. They're piloting a bike safety program in driver's education class. They are working with doctors to write prescriptions for biking (with contact information to get free coaching).

Cleveland city planner Marty Cader, who spends most of his time working on bike projects in the city, provided an update on the city's bike projects and on its Bike Plan. Most of the neighborhood connector trails from the Towpath have been designed and are ready to be funded. The south west side of the city (Old Brooklyn) is now connected to the Cuyahoga Valley via the Treadway Creek trail. The Cleveland Metroparks is working on a trail connecting Garfield Heights to Mill Creek to the Towpath. Read more updates here.

What can Clevelanders do to improve our chances of getting the $50 million for bike amenities? asked David Pauer, wellness program manager at the Cleveland Clinic, during the Q&A session.

Get organized and communicate how important biking is to Cleveland, Laughlin said. You can contact Rails-to-Trails through him and Ohio regional director, Rhonda Border-Boose Rhonda@railstotrails.org . Also, let your congressman know Cleveland has "put together a really good plan."

Build an alliance with transit and health advocates, said Sadowsky, answering Sheehan's question about building the bicycling movement in Cleveland.

Also, partner up with watershed groups, naturalists, and neighborhood activists like the thousands who joined Friends of Big Creek at last week's RiverSweep clean up events, said Cleveland planner George Cantor. "They're building a sense of ownership (where a future Towpath connector will be built)."

For news, pictures, and descriptions of the (back-to-back) bike events and tours happening this weekend, check out the Cleveland Bike Week web site.

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