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What Peak Miles means for Cleveland

Marc Lefkowitz  |  05/15/13 @ 3:00pm  |  Posted in Vibrant cities, Transportation choices

“God made the automobile. For the boys to drive past the pretty girls...” —Iron and Wine

Downtown urban center<br />The centers of Cleveland, Akron and other cities are the vibrant hearts of the region.  Villa Carabelli in Little Italy<br />Infill development is restoring well-designed density to Cleveland neighborhoods. Cyclist at Market Square in Ohio City<br />Cities make low-energy, low-mileage lifestyles possible. Tremont stroll<br />Young families are choosing city life in neighborhoods like Tremont in Cleveland.Historic county seat<br />In rural areas, town centers like Chardon are locations for redevelopment. City and country<br />One of the best ways to conserve farmland and natural areas is to build great cities that attract more people.

It’s being called a watershed moment. For eight years running, Americans have driven fewer miles, and all signs point to a future where cars factor in less to where and how we live.

A report from the Ohio PIRG Education Fund, “A new direction: Our changing relationship with driving and the implications for America’s Future” feels pretty confident in declaring the driving boom—a six decade-long period of steady increases in per-capita driving in the United States—over. What does it all mean that America, in 2005, reached Peak Miles?

That we’ll continue to shed car miles as a demographic shift leads an in-migration to cities where bikes and transit are often more convenient and less costly will register, we expect, with even the most ardent supporters of the status quo in the Rust Belt.

“Under any reasonable scenario, the number of miles driven annually will be far fewer in the future than if Baby Boom trends had continued,” Ohio PIRG says. “During the second half of the twentieth century low gas prices, rapid suburbanization, and an ever-increasing number of women commuters entering the workforce fueled the Driving Boom. The factors that defined that period have since taken a back seat. Under some conservative scenarios outlined by the report, driving won’t ever regain its 2007 peak during the range of the study, which extends to 2040.

The return to urban life has been a trickle for so long, it’s hard to imagine what a torrent could mean in Cleveland.

It began in the 1980s as the city finally put the brakes on the destruction of warehouses that served early manufacturers, like the garment trade, and repurposed them as blocks of mixed-use space (the first of that form in two or three generations).

Now, developers are lining up to convert abandoned mid-century skyscrapers like the Ameritrust and East Ohio Gas as hundreds of new living spaces. Some have set a goal of 25,000 residents downtown. Is that too modest?

Can we imagine a downtown Cleveland with 50- or 100 thousand residents? Downtown saw the largest percentage of growth in population since the 2010 Census. What conditions will make the micro-trend a full-blown demographic shift?

“Walkable Urbanism” author Jeff Speck, when he spoke in Cleveland, noted how early American cities have a leg up on the sprawling metropolises in the Southwest. Cleveland was built for a million people walking; it has the capacity to be much more dense—and vibrant —than it is currently. Unlike high growth areas, Cleveland can afford to offer big spaces in attractive old buildings on blocks with big old trees, or in a lightly trafficked city center. These are tremendous assets from which to build.

Slowing job sprawl will figure in, and whether developers who made fortunes building the suburbs, i.e. the Geis Company (who were selected to retrofit the Breuer building downtown), have what it takes to produce attractive urban living spaces that a carfree generation wants.

Slowing sprawl matters in the competition for talent. Building inwards and fixing the streets to encourage freedom of movement on bike, foot, trolley or bus-rapid will put Cleveland in the game. The implications of Peak Miles for the managers of the city’s “brand”—including the next mayor and next County Executive—should be obvious. The transportation paradigm will need a similar shift.

Here’s a concrete goal for Cleveland: make complete and green streets the centerpiece of your reinvestment strategy. Think how the great squares and largess of the high age of road building in paving wide avenues were the savings for today’s complete streets. The urgency to move complete streets with its policy arm at this point is in making downtown a bigger and active but also more real life neighborhood.

How to make it authentic to who Cleveland is this time? The 1990s was all about focusing on the baubles of stadia and convention centers. Cleveland’s renaissance narrative this time needs to be about freedom of movement; more about building community and local economic good that comes from making neighborhoods safe and walkable. The litmus test will be how safe are the streets as seen through the eyes of the most vulnerable. A big part of doing that is in reconstructing a social fabric so that residents feel engaged with what’s happening on their block.

How many residents feel they can sit on a front porch, walk their dog, or even keep their curtains open and sit in a front room with an eye on the street?

Not to downplay the amount of work it takes to bring that level of comfort back to streets where normal social order has been defined by what goes missing, the loss of families, of children to play with and adults to count on. As much as we like bike lanes and urban farms, the missing element is the comfort and ability of women and children to walk down or play on their block without the specter of violence. The renaissance foremost concerns a standard to aspire for every plan and every investment (which is what makes Gina DeJesus‘ father’s comments on the subject so very necessary for the city to take to heart) to go beyond the infilling of bricks and mortar to people, to family, who care for one another.

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