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Sustainable Cuyahoga toolkit: An illustration of how hard it can be

Marc Lefkowitz  |  03/14/16 @ 10:00am  |  Posted in Transform

We have received a lot of positive feedback and questions about the Sustainable Cuyahoga Toolkit released last week by Cuyahoga County’s Department of Sustainability and the GreenCityBlueLake Institute at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

<br />Ian Lockwood uses this language chart to test the assumptions of traffic engineers against community vision.

Good questions are coming our way since the Sustainable Cuyahoga Toolkit was released, including, are there priorities? And, what recommendations are there for developing the capacity for change?

On the latter, we agree with the comment from Greg Studen on this post that leaders who have vision and can muster the will to change things will be essential. For example, Cleveland's green building standards and incentives, South Euclid's ideas for vacant properties, and Lakewood and Shaker Heights' work on bikes as transportation. They wouldn’t be happening without leaders believing sustainability provides benefits to their citizens and the environment.

We’re not naive enough to suggest implementing the ideas found in the Sustainable Cuyahoga toolkit will be easy. Take transportation, for example. An area we’ve studied and advised cities on for the better part of a decade. A story will help illustrate the obstacles to implementing an item from the toolkit.

A recent conversation with a city official about an effort to introduce bike lanes reveals something of the challenge. This official supports an effort with the city’s Planning Department to put a four lane road on a “diet”—to convert it to three lanes. With pedestrian fatalities on the rise across the U.S., they can make a case that slimming down the road will reduce aggressive driving and make it safer for everyone. The road was identified as a priority in a regional bike plan, so they proposed adding bike lanes by reusing space for cars. The road went through some preliminary design analysis—average daily traffic (ADT) was measured during “peak” morning and evening hours at intersections. It all looked favorable—ADT was below the threshold that the Federal Highway Administration requires for maintaining that many lanes. But, the plan has been stalled by a traffic engineering firm hired by their colleagues in Public Works who challenged the Peak Hour analysis. Citizens often ask for bike lanes, but it only takes one city official more concerned that car or two might have to wait an extra traffic signal cycle to nix them.

Reforming “peak hour” is included with the Sustainable Cuyahoga toolkit. It is often cited by traffic engineers as the reason bike lanes “won’t work.” Thankfully, some enlightened engineers like Ian Lockwood and Dan Burden devised a solution. Lockwood and Burden have been doing road diets since the early 1990s in West Palm Beach, Florida where wide and fast Dixie Highway got a Level of Service (LOS) grade A. West Palm Beach used to be a ghost town until they convinced the city to try road diets.

“Our mayor agreed to change the language we use," Lockwood said. "So you could no longer say Level of Service. If an engineer working with the city violated that code, I could say, ‘Level of Service for whom?’”

Engineers are finding that by adjusting the peak hours from two to four hours to reflect how a road performs over the course of a day improves the outlook. Broader community goals like bringing cyclists and pedestrians back to our streets become achievable.

Unlike civil engineers, traffic engineers are not fighting the immutable laws of physics; they are working against time and the impatience of people behind the wheel of a car.

We have heard this example play out a hundred times across the region. Some cities in Northeast Ohio have learned from this new generation of traffic engineer. They may be in short supply—as the frustrated city official confessed to us—but they exist and cities like Shaker Heights and Lakewood are employing them to move ahead with road diets on Lee Road and on Madison Avenue. Yes, in both cases mayors could see the advantage of challenging the status quo. Whether they were interested in promoting more biking, bringing vibrancy and walkability back, reducing air pollution or bringing more Millennials to town, the Sustainable Cuyahoga Toolkit will need leaders who can see the big picture and can accept that, in this example, driving in some places will be slower.

One final thought on cultivating leadership. The formation of coalitions to advocate for the benefits of sustainability made it conceivable for Cleveland leaders to talk about green building and vacant land reuse as urban agriculture about nine years ago, and start writing policy, like the chickens and bees legislation (in the toolkit) into a sustainability vision for the community. With its economic troubles, Cleveland could have held off on adopting sustainability as a path to reinvention. Instead, it is using the carrots and the sticks approach outlined in the new Sustainable Cuyahoga toolkit. We hope the toolkit—where recommendations can be selected like a menu depending on the community’s state of readiness—will inspire more reinvention.

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