Blog › A look inside Cleveland's complete streets: Is it working?


A look inside Cleveland's complete streets: Is it working?

Marc Lefkowitz  |  12/12/14 @ 11:00am  |  Posted in Biking, Transportation choices

When Cleveland passed its Complete Streets ordinance in 2011, it was hailed as a watershed moment. The city was struggling, as it is now, to meet the needs of a large population living in poverty and also attract new, younger residents. Complete Streets presented possibilities for both.

<br />Critical Mass in the summer of 2014<br />Bioswale bump outs calm traffic and make it easier for pedestrians to enjoy Literary and Professor in Tremont.<br /><br />A family enjoys the use of the new Detroit Avenue bike lane installed in 2014

Cleveland joined 268 other cities in the Class of 2011 who were committed to a new vision for roads. Complete Streets asserts that roadways aren’t conduits for cars but can be attractive places for biking, transit and walking as well. Cleveland was even at the vanguard of its class—only 18% of the cities, counties, regions and states passing Complete Streets that year rose to the level of an ordinance.

But four years have passed, and the excitement over Complete Streets has been muted by the realities of how slow cities can be in adopting sweeping change. Despite the romantic notion put forth by Bruce Katz and Richard Florida that cities are less bureaucratic than Washington, cities have legacies to contend with, and that hasn’t helped Cleveland transform into a Copenhagen-like bike mecca. At least, not just yet.

As of 2014, Cleveland has one Complete (and Green) Street project underway—the redesign of Fleet Avenue in Slavic Village. To its credit, the plans for Fleet look amazing.

Also to its credit, Cleveland introduced a Bikeways Implementation Plan in 2014 which commits it to building 80 miles of bike lanes, sharrows and trails by 2017. And the city will invest $1 million annually from its capital budget to the plan.

Thanks to some great advocacy work from BikeCleveland and others, the city has signalled a willingness to accelerate its pace. In 2014, the city completed:

  • The 1.7-mile Detroit Avenue bike lanes
  • The 1.1-mile Puritas Road bike lane
  • W. 41st and W. 44th Street bike lanes
  • Denison Avenue bike lane
  • Bike lanes on short stretches of Superior and E. 72nd Street.

The city’s redesign of Professor Avenue—with its traffic calming intersection bump outs that double as rain gardens—are particularly worth mentioning as a model treatment for improving walkability on neighborhood main streets.

That’s the good news.

The bike lanes installed in 2014 (9.41 miles), Sharrows (3.95 miles), and the bike trails (0.7 mile Scranton Road path) are better than in recent years, but still less than what the city needs to paint on an annual basis if it hopes to reach its 80-mile goal. It is also unclear what the next Complete and Green Streets project will be.

The city hasn’t lacked for chances to make good on its policy. Cedar, Woodland, Chester—there were plenty of streets that the ordinance was supposed to transform but were rebuilt looking eerily devoid of features that the city promised to deliver.

What happened? What needs to change? And have the other Class of 2011 Complete Streets cities fared any better than Cleveland?

Some of the answers to the first question can be found in the National Complete Streets Coalition annual report card for 2011. It was clear from the ranking that Cleveland had written a weaker policy than many of its peers (GCBL reviewed the ranking and offered ways Cleveland could strengthen its policy). Specific critiques laid out by the national group, which is part of Smart Growth America (SGA), include:

  • Cleveland’s Complete Streets policy did not include a vision for building a network of streets that are designed with all users in mind. As a result of this grey area for cycling, the city had room to fall back on its outdated 2007 Master Bike Plan as the default blueprint for how it would approve which streets get bike facilities. Nowhere in Cleveland’s ordinance was the intent to limit complete streets to only the small percentage of roads that the city deemed capable in 2007 of serving the needs of the cycling community.
  • Cleveland also lost points in the national ranking for including a $1 million cap on all projects. Best practice, the Coalition reports, is to justify the need for a cap and, if a compelling reason can be proven, then a cap of no less than 20% of the total cost of the project should be considered. The city would prove no such hardship existed. Its cap hamstrings the policy, observers note.
  • Third, in its ambition to include ‘green infrastructure’ with every complete streets project, Cleveland created friction, observers familiar with the process share, between very expensive green engineering and the far less expensive but harder to accept (in the minds of traffic engineers*) “road diets.”
  • Rounding out the list of reasons the National Complete Streets Coalition ranks Cleveland’s ordinance below average include the city’s lack of performance measures and its unwillingness to assert jurisdiction over ODOT in deciding how it designs streets within their borders.

But, all of these things, SGA concludes, can be revisited and fixed.

Also on the bright side, evidence of the direction in which Cleveland wants to go can be seen in the 2014 report, Rethinking Streets: An Evidence-based Guide to 25 Complete Streets Transformations. Cleveland has something to learn from these cities. They leveraged Complete Streets as a way of trimming the fat from roads while improving commerce and safety.

Ironically, even though Cleveland isn’t included in the 25, its Euclid Avenue redesign is included in the Forward. The authors give credit to Cleveland for doing a road diet on Euclid Avenue and coming up with “two lanes of auto traffic that still accommodate 20,000 vehicles per day, while also providing a rich pedestrian experience and Bus Rapid Transit facilities.”

How are some of the other cities from the Complete Streets Class of 2011 faring?

  • In Baltimore, which was praised for writing one of the best complete streets resolutions in 2011, the city has also struggled to implement projects. B’More Bikes reports that, despite a city council-approved Complete Streets Master Plan, the state’s department of transportation has continually ignored the city’s intentions to build complete streets. (A resolution is not as effective, generally, as an ordinance).
  • New Orleans is reportedly doing a lot better. With one of the best Complete Streets policies in the nation and champions for multimodal transportation on the City Council and public agencies, New Orleans, LA is taking concrete steps to build a post-Katrina transportation network that’s safer, more equitable and more fully connected than before, writes Smart Growth America.
  • In Ypsilanti, Michigan, also a top-rated Complete Streets ordinance from that year, it appears that four years is about the same timeframe it has taken to implement the first complete streets project. It looks like the city believed it needed to wait for a large planning grant before doing the project.
  • In St. Louis, which also had some vagaries in its ordinance (like not naming cyclists, pedestrians and transit), the city has done a handful of pilots that led to about six more permanent road diets and complete streets elements being introduced on roads that were deemed too wide, NextSTL blogs.
  • In Buffalo, the city installed 11.3 miles of bike lanes and ended 2013 with 18.5 miles of planned projects already funded and proposals for over 45 miles more, GoBikeBuffalo reported. And The Buffalo News reported that the makeover of downtown streets was happening at a breakneck pace.
  • In Rochester, New York, since the passage of its complete streets ordinance in 2011, the city installed 45 lane miles of on-street bicycle facilities, BikeRochester reports. The city also expanded its off-street trails network and added a significant amount of bicycle parking around the city.

Next up: What can be done to accelerate the pace of change and improve the rate of implementation so that every street reconstruction project is a complete street?

*I contend that road diets are hard only in the minds of the technocrats like traffic engineers working at the city whose view of roads often adheres to a set of rules which are being rewritten faster than even they are keeping up with.

You know the situation is bad when traffic engineers start confessing the sins of their profession—the grumpiness aimed at bikes and pedestrians, even though treating them as objects that slow cars has created some of the most dangerous places to be in America. Road diets are, in fact, the fastest and easiest way to produce a network of bike/transit/pedestrianized streets that the city intended to create. So widely accepted is the practice of reducing car lanes to fit bike lanes, that the Federal Highway Administration is now approving its use.

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Sam Bell
3 years ago

I remember being told when the ordinance was first passed that it would take several years to see the results, as the ordinance would apply only to road projects which were not already in the planning stage at that time. Here's hoping that we start seeing more complete street projects actually get built soon!

Complete Streets?
3 years ago

Woodland, which was basically reconstructed recently between E. 55th and Woodhill, seemed like a prime candidate for a road diet. Why wasn't it restriped to have one lane in each direction with a turning lane?

More generally, what "official" step does the Complete Streets Ordinance require City traffic engineers to perform when determining that complete street improvements do not apply to a project or recording which complete street improvements do apply to a project? Is there a form that someone signs-off on? That is the kind of check-and-balance that should be built into an ordinance like this one to help with transparency and, thus, compliance.

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