Northeast Ohioans are starting to absorb lessons and challenge “sacred cows” about any and all growth being good for the regional economy.
Akron metropolitan planning organization (AMATS) chief Jason Segedy tells Streetsblog D.C. that he’s promoting a ‘fix-it-first’ strategy because he believes a stronger economy will arise from improving legacy cities and suburbs.
We’ve reached a point where it is critical to challenge the accepted wisdom that “if you add a new highway it’s good for economic development,” Segedy, 40, says. In 1997 when he started at AMATS, which allocates millions in federal transportation dollars, regional growth was expected. And so roads and highways were built and expanded. The growth didn’t fill in those new suburbs as planned and cities like Akron wound up with empty highways circling it. That hasn't stopped Akron from seeking to expand its Central Expressway.
Segedy’s approach would be to attract young talent to affordable cities like Akron and Cleveland by investing in more opportunities that build up the city, like new transit. Building up the places where college grads and retirees want to live and then connecting them to jobs, he insists, is a smarter use of resources.
“There’s a new generation that’s not as interested in driving. The more that we don’t respond to those as planners and public officials, we end up behind the times,” Segedy, also vice-chair of the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium, says. “I don’t think we’re spending money as wisely as we could.”
Voicing similar sentiments, there's a growing chorus questioning a $350-million, six-lane access road between I-490 and University Circle in Cleveland.
In a letter to the editor in Cleveland.com, Kent State University political science professor Mark Cassell says “the so-called Opportunity Corridor is a fiscal boondoggle that conjures the worst memories of the urban renewal projects of the 1960s and '70s.”
Cities agreed to highways back then that cut through neighborhoods and displaced residents because they were convinced of the same logic being applied to Opportunity Corridor today—the promise that connecting cities to new suburbs would promote development. Instead, Cassell writes, "City cores were transformed into desolate landscapes pock-marked with parking lots, low-income families were displaced, cars rather than pedestrians became the focus of planners, and the new roads and highways made it a lot easier to leave the city and live elsewhere.”
Cassell asks, "Rather than spend money to make it easier for suburbanites to drive into the city, wouldn't it make sense to invest in improving the quality of life in the city itself?" The Opportunity Corridor millions, he suggests, "could transform our lakefront, make Cleveland a bike-friendly city, improve parks and public spaces, or cover the cost of hiring 10,000 unemployed Clevelanders for one year to clean and improve neighborhoods."
Cleveland.com also posted “ODOT budget is unjust to nondrivers” a letter to the editor from Geza John Vamos, a legally blind resident of Cleveland who notes that ODOT doesn’t have the money to property maintain our roads, and now is asking for $3 billion for new roads that the state admits in charging a debt to the Turnpike that it doesn’t have the funds to keep in good repair.
Urban highways have a poor track record of improving commute times. In many cases, they “induce demand” for building new roads and move the same population farther away from existing centers. They end up making people more reliant on driving. Over time, the new road fills up with cars and the advantage of saving a few minutes is gone, but the city is stuck with the cost for keeping up the road.
Seizing on this idea of induced demand and alternatives to Opportunity Corridor is the reason Clevelanders for Transportation Equity (CTE) are organizing. The citizen group opposes a new road and is promoting ideas. They would like to see the money ODOT plans to borrow from the Turnpike used to fund instead a new transit line on one of the many existing roads that link west and east sides. Ideas are bubbling on its Facebook page, such as investing in a bus-rapid transit line on E. 55th Street that would serve the east side and do more for leveraging re-investment as it did in the Euclid Corridor. A west side BRT line on W. 25th/Pearl Road was floated as a way to improve local economies and the environment.
The CTE group claimed a victory in snatching the web address opportunitycorridor.com where it is helping to frame the debate about two opposing world views (see the Segedy post above). Cleveland, with supportive partners like RTA, could do more to build on its investment in BRT and bike lanes. It would support a stronger city, they reason, pointing to cities like Vancouver, BC, which has not added a traffic lane for cars since the 1970s, and has managed to grow its population while lessening the burden of traffic.
“Vancouver is considered the world’s most livable city. Perhaps there’s a lesson here for places like Cleveland?" CTE organizer and blogger, Angie Schmidt writes.