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NEO's top transportation official declares "transportation choice equals freedom"

Marc Lefkowitz  |  09/15/14 @ 2:00pm  |  Posted in Transportation choices

At its annual meeting last week, Northeast Ohio's transportation and environmental agency, NOACA, brought a new emphasis to the area of its mission that would build a "sustainable transportation network.”

“Multi-modal assets give people meaningful transportation choices which equals freedom,” said NOACA Executive Director, Grace Gallucci.

“A network of infrastructure that gives cyclists more mobility would also bring more safety to pedestrians. We’re committed to building an 80-mile bikeway” in Cleveland.

The bikes are coming<br />The popularity of biking is surging in Greater Cleveland, and many cyclists are riding for real transportation, not just for recreation.Ride happy<br />RTA ridership has increased for the last three years.

What would have sounded impossible a few years ago suddenly could be in the realm of the possible. Bikes and transit are being considered a real form of transportation in a region and state that has long treated them as afterthoughts.

Gallucci’s start in Cleveland was as head of finance for RTA, the regional transit agency. Since returning from a similar role in Chicago, Gallucci has restocked the corps of NOACA with young planners, many of whom ride a bike or a bus on a regular basis. She has engaged the agency’s board in a strategic plan that will emphasize fiscal fitness and maximizing the existing network of roads while introducing more options to bike, walk and ride transit.

Conceivably, NOACA will support more multi-modal projects. Picture bike lanes and transit-oriented development appearing on Shaker and Van Aken boulevards and Lorain and St. Clair avenues. These locations have built-in efficiency. They are well-served by transit already. And with a little work, the scenic stretches of road could be retrofit as corridors for bike travel, studded with dense nodes of development at Rapid stations like Green and Warrensville at Shaker, W. 65th and Lorain, or Van Aken and Chagrin.

Location efficiency is an idea that Scott Bernstein, president of Chicago’s Center for Neighborhood Technology, explained to the NOACA gathering. Cleveland and inner-ring suburbs (which, in these days of sprawl, might include Beachwood and Rocky River), save their residents money because of their inherent efficiencies.

CNT calculated and mapped the cost of housing plus transportation for every Census track in the U.S. They found that certain locations cost less to live in because of their proximity (to job centers, schools and daily needs) and their design which makes trips on foot, by bike and transit feasible.

Looking at Northeast Ohio’s Housing + Transportation Index, by counting both H and T costs, the number of cost-burdened households (those spending more than 45% of household income) in the Northeast Ohio region rises from 558,000 to 867,000. But, homes within a half-mile of the fixed guideway of an RTA Rapid or BRT line in Cleveland and the suburbs were spending 8% less on transportation in 2009 than those people living outside of them, says Bernstein.

Meanwhile, transit-oriented development and bike ability are reshaping the country.

“A tsunami of young people and retiring Boomers has created demand not for three- and four-bedroom houses, but for smaller spaces,” he said. “Vehicle miles driven has dropped by 0.8% a year because of a drop in demand for driving, and because of the places we’ve built.

“Even after the recovery, there’s a structural change in the economy.”

That’s the good news. The bad for the Cleveland metro area is that a survey of U.S. investors ranked it 49th out of 51 markets for real estate investment.

“Their top answer is higher income, higher density, mixed use, transit oriented development,” Bernstein said. “So, if you’re not investing in that, don’t expect to get high on the list.”

Salt Lake City and Portland used to be in the middle of the list, he added, but have risen in the ranks because of their investments in light rail downtown and citywide bike networks.

If, as Bernstein suggests, Northeast Ohio is at a crossroads, it could turn to regional entities like NOACA to improve its transportation choices.

“It’s not a good idea, if traffic is decreasing, to invest more in it,” he advises.

Instead, NOACA should use data like the H+T Index to pursue “alternative transportation” grants such as TIGER. Indianapolis did, and won a big grant for a streetcar project, he said. (Greater Cleveland RTA won two TIGER grants in 2011 to rebuild the University Circle and Little Italy Rapid stations. The city of Cleveland won a TIGER grant in the current 2014 round to plan a Glenville to Central bike/transit corridor).

Transit-oriented development is not just about commuters, he adds. “It stabilizes the housing market. During the recession, home equity (of the location efficient) didn’t get depleted.”

TOD also competes favorably with big box development. Bernstein showed data from Woodstock, Georgia (pop. 60,000) which produced more jobs and tax value per acre from a downtown redevelopment compared to a nearby big box center.

His advice for Greater Cleveland is to start applying this data to new mortgages, to leverage bike share and car share expansion, to use it in gap financing for TODs, for a referendum to increase local funding for a new transit line (like they did in L.A.) and to change a policy like tying transportation investments to reducing vehicle miles traveled (Memphis) or cutting in half the households above the unsustainable H+T cost.

“If you don’t want to get caught again in this region, as you did in 2008, then pay attention to location efficiency,” Bernstein concludes. “It’s like a building being energy efficient. It adds up to savings.”

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