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Action agenda for moving into the future

It took more than 50 years to build the sprawling, automobile-oriented transportation system of today. That system is increasingly unsustainable and needs to be redesigned according to different principles. We can all help by advocating the following policy and planning reforms.

Link transportation to a regional land-use plan

The demand for transportation is rooted in land-use patterns, so the first task is to promote smarter land use in Northeast Ohio. The problem is that we don’t have regional vision for land use in Northeast Ohio. We don’t even have a public agency capable of doing land-use planning at the regional (i.e., metropolitan or multi-county) scale. Perhaps the best regional analysis we have is the planning for land conservation priorities being done by the nonprofit Western Reserve Land Conservancy.

So we need to support the development of regional planning capacity to set priorities for where to promote growth and redevelopment. In a region where hundreds of local governments have control over land use, this will be hard to do. But interest is growing as the costs of political fragmentation become increasingly apparent. The strongest effort to date is the “Regional Economic Revenue Study” of the Northeast Ohio Mayors and City Managers Association and the Fund for Our Economic Future. This study could lead to a collaborative system to share the tax revenue benefits of development among communities in the region. By sharing the benefits of growth, it will then be easier to gain consensus on where it makes sense for the entire region to concentrate development and redevelopment efforts to be sustainable in the long run.

Such a development/redevelopment plan should then drive transportation planning. Transportation investments should be made strategically to help create the kinds of communities we want in the future, not just to perpetuate the current trends of decline and disinvestment.

As a starting point, the planning should focus on redeveloping places with the highest potential to reduce the demand for transportation — nodes of activity with the highest density and mix of land uses where people can meet their need with the least amount of driving. These are likely to be based on existing city centers, neighborhood centers, town centers, and other historic employment centers of the region.

The overall goal should be to develop a sustainable transportation system that serves sustainable land use and urban redevelopment. To push the concept forward, ask your local elected officials to support regional planning efforts. For more ideas on how to plan for a sustainable transportation future, see model programs from Portland and Vancouver.

Create transportation metrics for long-term sustainability

If all of our transportation agencies measured success with the following three, simple metrics, we would quickly develop a very different — and much more sustainable — transportation system:

  • Vehicle miles traveled (VMT) — A goal of steadily reducing VMT in the region would require investments to promote more walkable neighborhoods and transportation alternatives, achieving a more balanced mode split between driving, transit, biking, and walking.
  • Household transportation cost — Like the goal of reducing VMT, a goal of making transportation more affordable also will require increasing choices for more people, helping more people live a lifestyle less dependent on expensive driving.
  • Carbon emissions — Sooner or later, we will have to reduce carbon emissions from the transportation sector. The faster we learn to adapt, the more competitive we will be in Northeast Ohio. Transportation plans should be required to explain how carbon reductions will be achieved.

Together, these three metrics can measure the transition to a transportation system that gives people easier access to what they need, is cheaper, and is cleaner. To help advocate for such metrics, talk to the board members of local transportation coordinating agencies, the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA) and the Akron Metropolitan Area Transportation Study (AMATS). Also talk to state officials who can influence ODOT policies. Tell them you want transportation plans to produce measurable results.

Make transportation funding flexible

The inflexibility of funding is a major barrier to transportation reform. We need to move away from restricted pots of funding (like the state gas tax) to general capital investment budgets that allow for more creative solutions than widening roads. In some cases, for instance, the best cure for traffic congestion might be a housing development strategy that encourages more people to live near jobs. Or the cure for truck congestion might be expanded freight rail capacity.

To help advocate for this reform, talk to your state elected officials about alternatives to the gas tax.

Steps in the right direction

The above reforms may sound hard to achieve, but our work can build on a number of positive steps that have already been made in recent years. For instance, NOACA has promoted better bike planning and has adopted planning goals that call for urban reinvestment, multi-modal solutions, environmental quality, and other laudable principles. The next step is to help the agency be more strategic about allocating transportation funds to implement the goals and measure results.

ODOT is also starting to rethink its policies. In 2008, it proposed new criteria for major new projects. And it convened a state task force to propose transportation priorities for the 21st century. The task force report, released in January 2009, announced Ohio Department of Transportation's new priorities, including a dedicated funding stream for public transit and statewide passenger rail and a goal to reduce the state’s carbon footprint. Also, it sought a Complete Streets policy so that all new streets have bike lanes and pedestrian areas. Much of these goals were erased with the change in the Executive office in 2010. Ohio can join other states which already have set goals to reduce VMT or carbon emissions from transportation.

At the federal level, recent transportation bills have made funding more flexible and have allocated more money for non-motorized modes of travel. Go here for more information on the federal issues.

The imperative for change

During the next few years, we will have many opportunities — at the local, state, and federal levels — to change the transportation system. This is one of the most important things we can do to build a sustainable society.

Transportation consumes much of our wealth, shapes our communities in countless ways, and has a huge environmental impact. We must summon the imagination to envision a transportation system that meets our need in different ways. And we must summon the will to work steadily over many years to turn this vision into reality.

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