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What causes transit to fail? Low density, lack of walkability, chronic underfunding...

Marc Lefkowitz  |  05/29/19 @ 4:00pm  |  Posted in Transit, Vibrant cities, Transportation choices, Walking

Sure, transit has been perpetually underfunded in Ohio. But a big reason transit suffers is because of low-density development that follows highways into farmlands and forests at the metropolitan edge. A deliberate effort to sprawl rather than redevelop dense nodes works against transit.

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First, some good news. We know where transit works well in Greater Cleveland, thanks to tools like Walk- and Transit Score, a national index of density of uses like residential, jobs, grocery, pharmacies and the like. We posted about why transit-oriented development makes sense for Northeast Ohio. The region needs more transit-oriented development (TOD) like the recently built Aspen Place, an affordable, green, transit-oriented multi-family unit at the W. 65th Rapid Station. Of all those qualifiers, affordable may be the most important, because you need a mix of incomes living near transit so that people who want transit as an option are living near high frequency transit (too often TOD is not affordable for the groups that are most willing to use transit!).

More good news - Cleveland is still a relatively dense city for having lost more than half of its population. Cleveland is more dense than Portland even though that bastion of progressive ideas has an urban growth boundary that keeps dense development in and prevents sprawl from plowing under farmland, forest, stream and river. Cleveland has more than 4,000 residents per square mile, the highest density of any major Ohio city.

That is something to build on. But, Cleveland’s dense nodes have a lot of space between them. It’s why one of the options for RTA’s system redesign is to connect these dense nodes with high frequency bus lines.

For all of its sprawl, Northeast Ohio is still way down on the list at #52 of American cities by size aka land use (which says a lot about how Sunbelt cities like Phoenix and Atlanta have super charged sprawl. But also how the other model of growth for “large” cities like Columbus, Nashville, Minneapolis/St. Paul is consolidation).

So, what are the pros and cons of the two options to redesign the bus system that RTA is pursuing? For either option, the Coverage or the High Frequency, the 59 municipalities that comprise Cuyahoga County will have to support a bus system with what redesign consultant Jarrett Walker calls the “Ridership Recipe” of Dense, Walkable, and Linear design. It may require in some cases changing the underlying land use to follow that recipe.

For example, the Mayfield Road Multi-Modal study to redesign a major arterial that runs through four east side suburbs. Most of the suburbs in the study have the type of land use that provides maximum convenience to a driver, but for a dedicated bus (or bike lane) and buses that come more frequently to actually “liberate the service,” as Walker says, you need the zoning to support dense, walkable development (the #9/Mayfield Road bus, by the way, doesn’t get an upgrade to high frequency service - maybe in the future, revenue+ scenario?).

Getting the land use right could be handled deftly through a zoning update like Cleveland Heights did in 2012 to a more transit-friendly code that requires parking behind buildings, glass storefronts, and the like). Whether its the high frequency option or more density, walkability and linear layout of roads in an area that would get new coverage, getting the land use working with transit is a good idea. Another tool for communities is the region's transportation agency transit-oriented development scorecard. It can help cities size up development options and prioritize sustainability and get more funding.

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Marc Lefkowitz
4 months ago

I agree Isaac Robb, with the idea that density doesn't tell the whole story about why Cleveland can't seem to move forward even though there are pockets of growth that all seem to be walkable, as Smart Growth America President Calvin Gladney said today.

The key difference is expressed in the new Cleveland Foundation report Cleveland's Mobility Imperative. On page 42 it states: Cleveland's 4,986 people per square mile ranks as the 28th densest out of the largest 100 cities in the U.S. However, the city lacks the growth dynamics of other major cities, suggesting that the density of a place isn't enough to drive growth. Something else is at play...That something else relates to how ideas circulate within a city...

Isaac Robb
6 months ago

This is a crucial conversation that we need to keep having in Cleveland--your recommendations are spot on.

However, your statement comparing population density in Cleveland to Portland is problematic. If phrased differently, it actually strengthens your later argument about land use reform. If a simple calculation of population density (pop/sq miles) is done, you get the results from the Plain Dealer article that you referenced. However, this leaves out key factors that differentiate the cities. Portland has one of the largest urban forest reserves in the country (Forest Park which is greater than 5,000 acres) as well as miles of river and waterways. What makes Portland unique is the density within neighborhoods and how it relates to the natural features that surround and intersect it, which is why the buses, trains, trails, and trams work so well. Its land use density is much higher when calculated in this way.

Cleveland has great infrastructure and the potential to achieve the requisite density for transit to truly work for our region. But casual comparisons to sister cities undercuts all of the hard work and political will that places like Portland expended to make it such a livable place.

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