For the past year and a half, the massive Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium has chewed over what we need to do differently as a 12-county region. There are a plenty of smart people in the room who can speak at length about how our current low density, high-energy pattern of development is the cause of so much damage to the environment and our health. They can even identify what needs to change in order for us to act intentionally and grow in ways that are more efficient and attractive.
Is it possible that the members of the Consortium will take these lessons from the past, create a new vision and inspire Northeast Ohio to act on it? That's the four million dollar question.
NEOSCC is an assemblage of government and NGO officials and planners, most of whom work for institutions responsible for our region's makeup today. Some more than others are products of a line of thinking that has brought us to where our current transportation, housing and air and water quality are degrading not improving.
Sustainable Communities is a well-intentioned effort to try a break with this past. But Northeast Ohio also has a streak of mistrust stemming from corruption and mismanagement that taints even the best effort to reform. Revolutions in leadership only seem to happen at the cusp of criminal investigations instead of with more natural, generational shifts. Or with the impulse to get better. If they've kept their nose clean, the old linger here. They hold tight to the purse strings to the most important funding streams that shape the region. It is fair to ask, does the current generation of leaders who decide the region's future have enough passion, a burning fire in their bellies to do the hard work of moving away from the unsustainable status quo?
An example will help here. One of the big shapers of our transportation and land use patterns are Metropolitan Planning Organizations like NOACA. NOACA is made up of a region that varies widely in its demographic make up: Cuyahoga, Lorain, Medina, Lake and Geauga have been cobbled together because they add up to the pull in resources at a level that can deliver big projects like the Euclid Corridor (at the same time it helps the region sprawl with highway expansions and interchanges).
NOACA has the potential to be so much more than a pass through for millions of dollars in federal transportation funding. For the last twenty years, our region added 3,000 new miles of highway lanes. At the same time, population shrank in city and suburb alike by a combined 7%, NEOSCC uncovered in its draft summary of Existing Conditions. Northeast Ohio has the third highest ratio of road lane miles to people in the entire country.
With the Euclid Corridor, NOACA proved it has the capacity to do something about this trend. It stepped up its game and worked together with a consortium including Cleveland, RTA and NGOs like EcoCity Cleveland to create a game-changing Complete Street corridor that has spurred more than 4 billion dollars in new development, thousands of new transit rides and hundreds of new bike commuters. But where is the next Euclid Corridor? It took a lot of fight to get the Euclid Corridor done; do our current leaders have anything left in the tank to do another one, two, five more Euclid Corridor-type projects? Right now, no projects like Euclid Corridor are even being considered. We need to start cultivating leaders with a passion to form the new public-private partnerships that will build up the future Euclid Corridors (which was completed in 2008).
How did we get here? These two statements from the work-in-progress NEOSCC report on existing transportation conditions shed some light on the problem. First, it states baldly that, "the region's highways are the most important element of the transportation system." Followed by "Jobs are shifting from the Urban Core to the outer fringes and are not very accessible. Forecasts indicate that commutes will lengthen for motorists and the pain at the pump will be greater."
We would argue that communities, specifically, people, not highways, are the most important element of the transportation system. Does NEOSCC, city leaders and people who live here agree? Is transportation just another word for highways and their feeder roads? Or will this process help more people understand that transportation can be about quality, connected places?
Visionary leaders are needed if we hope to improve our quality of life, not shorten the time to get on the highways. Even with its odd make up of urban-exurban communities, NOACA has a prime opportunity as its current executive director prepares to retire and a new leader is selected. If they select well, top level management at NOACA should vigorously pursue the vision of its long range plan which calls for vehicle mile reduction and quality communities at the heart of transportation funding. Leaders throughout the region need to work with NOACA to start planning the next few Euclid Corridors which take some time to develop and fund.
Rather than ignore realities, real change is messy; you have to be willing to make tough choices. It starts with reforming the big money players like NOACA. But MPOs only take us so far. It must also come with reform of every city zoning code-like what Cleveland Heights is doing by rejecting cookie cutter solutions to development i.e. minimum parking lot sizes for retail centers-across the region. Otherwise, what hope do we have for solving problems on a regional scale like flooding, water pollution, and communities that are so car dependent that no practical options are there to walk or bike from home to the store or to a transit stop that takes you to work.