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No way out: Ohio is not ready for Complete Streets

Marc Lefkowitz  |  03/27/13 @ 12:00pm  |  Posted in Transportation choices

When it comes to bike lanes and innovative ideas for multi-modal roadways, is Ohio's Department of Transportation walking the talk?

Share and share alike<br />Green Sharrow lanes provide shared space for bikes and cars.Share the road<br />This example from San Francisco of a bike lane adjacent to parked cars is a best practice for Cleveland to consider when retrofitting its streets.The Green Sharrow<br />Vancouver innovative solution to a shared lane: A share the road lane doesn't require 'taking' a whole lane for bikes.

ODOT claims it will accept context-sensitive solutions including traffic-calmed streets, bike lanes and narrower car lanes, but the agency's Byzantine structure of design rules and funding requirements leaves cities like Cleveland in the dark come time to actually build Complete Streets.

Take the case of trying to build bike facilities on W. 65th Street, a main link in Cleveland's Bikeway Plan. It is only the latest example of the city punting (with an off-road bikeway) in part, because it cannot parse through the state's thinking on bikes and pedestrians.

In designing bike and pedestrian facilities, ODOT uses AASTHO's 2012 Green Book and FHWA's 2009 Manual of Uniform Traffic Code Devices. AASHTO's guidance is clear: It will accept a narrower lane width of 10-11 feet on lower speed streets.

ODOT promises to adopt a new design standard for bike and pedestrian facilities in spring 2013. It would help if the state could interpret its current guidelines which have been on the books since 2009. The last update ODOT made was to accept Sharrows, in 2011.

How state DOTs 'read' these guidelines makes a tremendous difference for cities trying to build Complete Streets. Contrast Cleveland with Minneapolis. If Cleveland wants to compete with Minneapolis, recently named the Best Cycling City in the country, it will need to get clarity on how to build its Complete Streets, internally and in Columbus. There is plenty of roadway to work with in Cleveland, what it lacks at the moment is expertise from its bike/ped coordinator and its Traffic Engineer's office, and a helping hand from ODOT. Nowhere has the agency decoded its rules. It's time to clear up and streamline the process for applying its bike and pedestrian design standards to state-funded projects.

Minneapolis has earned its reputation as one of the country's top biking cities because it has a flexible interpretation of the FHWA guidelines for bike lanes on urban roads, such as Minor Arterials (which is the 'functional classification' for W. 65th Street). The easiest option is to remove on-street parking and replace it with a bike lane (just as Cleveland is doing on Triskett Road on the far west side).

But Minneapolis has other options for fitting bike lanes and parked cars on the same road. It accepts a narrower, 7-foot wide 'bay' for parked cars next to a bike lane (DOTs will often cite 8-10 feet as required, but the design code uses the term 'desired' not required). To add in a safety feature for smaller buffers between parked cars and the bike lane, some cities paint a diagonal 'hash' line in the bike lane indicating where a car door would swing.

Ohio's interpretation of lane widths from FHWA is inexplicable and as embarrasingly mollycoddling as a helicopter parent at the playground. FHWA sets a range of lane widths for urban arterials at 10 ft. to 12 ft.

FHWA doesn't require any exceptions for 11 ft. lanes on urban arterials, which means Cleveland should be able to reduce the lanes on W. 65th to 11-feet today. Since ODOT is paying for the W. 65th Street project, the blinders were lowered.

If lanes were narrowed from 12 to 11-feet wide on W. 65th Street and two (5-foot) bike lanes, a buffer between it and two 8-foot parked car lanes, the roadwould need to be a minimum of 50-feet wide curb-to-curb.

Again, FHWA takes a more expansive and trusting view of traffic engineers' ability than Ohio to design a multi-modal roadway, especially where cars are not moving very fast or at great daily volume. If W. 65th doesn't average above 15,000 cars a day, FHWA would accept 11-ft. lanes and likely would allow an exception for 10-ft. wide lanes, making bike lanes a cinch.

FHWA explains its view that narrower lanes are no less safe:

"In a reduced-speed urban environment, the effects of reduced lane width are different. On such facilities, the risk of lane-departure crashes is less. The design objective is often how to best distribute limited cross-sectional width to maximize safety for a wide variety of roadway users. Narrower lane widths may be chosen to manage or reduce speed and shorten crossing distances for pedestrians. Lane widths may be adjusted to incorporate other cross-sectional elements, such as medians for access control, bike lanes, on-street parking, transit stops, and landscaping. The adopted ranges for lane width in the urban, low-speed environment normally provide adequate flexibility to achieve a desirable urban cross section without a design exception."

The sticking point then isn't with FHWA, but again, with ODOT and its reading of the federal design standards. The only conclusion can be, Ohio is snuffing out innovation and working at cross purposes with FHWA's intent for cities to have streets with "context sensitive solutions."

Recalling a similar conversation—Ohio's interpretation of funding sources and design manuals relative to bike and pedestrian facilities—GCBL had with Ohio's Bike/Ped Coordinator Heather Bowden in 2011, she stated that ODOT had not adopted the federal Highway Capacity Manual which would allow roads to go down to 10 ft. lanes.

Another option if ODOT cannot see fit to allowing Cleveland permission to reduce the lane widths on W. 65th would be a Green Sharrow Lane. According to Bowden in 2011, these solid, 4-foot wide 'lanes' with Sharrow instead of bike lane symbols were being adopted by ODOT as a "permanent variance."

"ODOT has a variance on a just-approved, temporary but indefinite variance on those green sharrows, Bowden said. "Before you had to get variance now you’re allowed. It’s temporary."

Confused? We were. Bowden did say ODOT has a description of green sharrow lanes on its web site. The Green Sharrow doesn't appear in the 2009 MUTCD, but perhaps it will it be part of new design standard coming out this spring?

Another oft-cited roadblock to getting more bike and pedestrian amenities in the metros of Ohio is traffic engineering and planning cannot parse through the design rules attached to each and every funding source (if ever there were a need to streamline government, making uniform the many rules for all the funding streams under the same umbrella of transportation is a must).

For example, back in 2011 when GCBL was advocating for bike lanes on South Taylor, we traced the source of funding for the project and tried to parse the rules.

South Taylor was a Cleveland Heights-sponsored job funded with Ohio Public Works Commission (OPWC) District 1 SCIP (State Capital Improvement Program) money that NOACA administers. OPWC District 1 has its own scoring criteria, and the city was laboring under the (false) assumption that a provision would restriction to 50/50 funding (not the 80/20) if a plan included bike lanes. Quite the contrary, said Ohio's Bike/Ped Coordinator.

"Most of time it's the opposite," she said. "If it has state and federal funds, (USDOT) Secretary LaHood and FHWA will only consider projects when it include (bikes and pedestrians) as part of your facilities."

Citing funding and the turf that comes with it is often a mask for other problems such as a capacity to understand and work within a disfunctional system. When we asked Cleveland's Chief Traffic Engineer about bike lanes fitting on W. 65th Street, he, understandably, didn't know why they were not part of the plan. The answer, he admits, is unbelievably complicated. And that leaves even the professionals with the best intentions in the dark, and the city in a quandry: How do you have a Complete Streets law when the state DOT doesn't care a whit about Complete Streets?

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5 years ago

Good job with the extra investigation. Implementing complete streets should get easier as federal design standards are updated to include more bike facilities. However, it will take some time and leave Ohio 10 years behind the rest of the country.

Complete Streets?
5 years ago

I think an analysis of the Complete Streets Ordinance would be helpful for everyone: To which projects does it apply? Which projects are excepted from its application? Etc. It just seems that the ordinance is not as far-reaching and game-changing as first thought.

Angie Schmitt
5 years ago

Also, I submit, if Cleveland were actually motivated to implement this stuff, they would find ways to get around ODOT. I feel like the MO in Cleveland is to read off a list of excuses, so they don't have to do anything extra.

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