If you had billions of dollars to invest in transportation improvements to make Northeast Ohio a better place, what would be your priorities? That’s the question facing the transportation planning agency, NOACA, as it updates the region’s Long-Range Transportation Plan. Here’s a quick guide to the issues.
Do we want to keep building a transportation system that forces us to drive cars, degrades urban life and the environment, and is too costly to maintain? Or do we want to build livable and sustainable communities where more people can choose to access what they need by walking, biking, or taking transit?
In stark terms, that is the choice facing Northeast Ohio. And in the coming months this choice will come into focus, as the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA) updates the region’s Long-Range Transportation Plan (LRTP). The plan will influence the spending of $12.9 billion dollars of transportation funds over the next 20 years.
If you believe the current system is unsustainable and you want better transportation choices, then here’s what to demand in the new plan:
Live up to good intentions
The last version of the LRTP, called Connections+ 2035, had some good goals and principles. They included planning principles that called on NOACA to:
- Minimize the adverse impacts of incremental transportation investments on the environment and on existing communities in the region (such as when new roads siphon population and jobs from older cities).
- Encourage the use of public transit in the region.
- Encourage efficient, compact land use development that facilitates mobility, saves infrastructure costs, preserves environmentally-sensitive and agricultural lands, and enhances the economic viability of existing communities within the region.
There also were goals calling on NOACA to:
- Promote sustainable development that does not transfer benefits (tax revenues) and burdens (increased infrastructure maintenance) from one community to another.
- Reduce the risk of climate change by developing strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation.
- Establish a more balanced transportation system which enhances modal choices by prioritizing goods movement, transit, pedestrian and bicycle travel instead of just single-occupancy vehicle movement and highways.
- Improve the transportation mobility of the transit-dependent and low-income individuals to jobs, housing and other trip purposes.
- Direct the Plan and its investments toward efficient, compact land use development/redevelopment that facilitates accessibility, saves infrastructure costs, preserves and enhances farmland, forests and open space and enhances the economic viability of existing communities within the region.
Now we need to do more to live up to such principles and goals. This can be done by implementing the following steps.
Plan for transition, not maintenance of the status quo
Most of the region’s transportation dollars are now spent on maintaining the current system. While it’s good to “fix it first” rather than building new when resources are limited, the current automobile-centric system is not sustainable. In many places the system needs be changed, not just maintained as is. The emphasis -- as reflected in funding formulas -- should be on transition to transportation infrastructure that supports much more transit, biking and development of walkable places. We need to begin a historic transition to repair the decades of damage caused by over-dependence on cars.
This will require transportation planning to stop being a slave to past trends. In recent decades, the forecast of increased use of motor vehicles has led to more roads, which in turn has led to more driving and sprawl. Now we need to break out of this destructive circular process. The trends in Northeast Ohio are not desirable nor sustainable. We need to change the trends, not perpetuate them.
Focus on transit-oriented development
The transition to a more sustainable system should start by recognizing that transportation is really a land use issue. The best way to give people access to what they want is to develop communities where destinations are close together. The less transportation needed, the better.
Therefore, the LRTP should have strategies for investing transportation funds to promote the development of more compact, walkable, mixed-use places in Northeast Ohio -- what is often called transit-oriented development (an example is the Van Aken District in Shaker Heights).
To its credit, NOACA is already moving in this direction. It recently hired the big engineering and planning firm AECOM to develop a transit-oriented development scorecard and implementation plan. Next, the agency will need to work with communities to help develop projects that will actually begin to alter land use patterns in the region.
Long-term, this will be the smartest way to invest transportation funds in a region that is not growing much overall. And it will be the best way for Northeast Ohio to catch up to the nation’s leading metro areas in meeting the growing real estate demand for walkable urbanism.
Adopt new performance measures for sustainable transportation
At the root of transportation planning are performance measures that define what a successful transportation system is supposed to be like. In recent decades the dominant measure has been level of service -- a measure of freely flowing traffic on a road. Thus the main goal has been to build infrastructure to reduce traffic congestion and enable vehicles to drive faster and farther.
Now NOACA has an opportunity to adopt alternative performance measures for transportation projects. For instance, does a project give people more transportation choices? Does it contribute to more sustainable land use and access to jobs? Does it improve community health? Does it reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from transportation? These are the types of measures for building better communities.
Make equity a priority
The current transportation system is heavily biased against those who can’t afford cars or who can’t drive (children, seniors, the disabled, etc.). Therefore, considerations of equity should be woven throughout the update of the LRTP.
This should be done not just on a project-by-project basis, which is how NOACA has been following through on federal requirements to evaluate environmental justice impacts. Rather the entire transportation system should be evaluated for how it systematically disadvantages certain people. More ideas about this are here.
How to get involved
The transportation system impacts everyone’s issues -- whether you care about the environment, equity, social justice, economic development, health, placemaking, or other issues. So it’s important to speak up about the update of the region’s Long-Range Transportation Plan.
Please get involved and voice your concerns about the need for a more sustainable and equitable transportation system.