Wait. What? Already? Cleveland Takes Step Backward on Complete Streets

“Change comes hard, but things do change.” When I saw that quote in a news article last week, it got me thinking about Cleveland, Ohio, the city where I live.

That barely visible gray thing in the corner? That's Lake Erie. Welcome to Cleveland! Photo: ##http://rustwire.com/2011/09/25/cleveland-already-walking-it-back-on-complete-streets/## Rust Wire##

When I’m not writing for Streetsblog, I help run a new group in Cleveland that’s pushing the city to become more bike-friendly. And we have a lot of momentum on our side. Critical Mass has seen growth that can only be described as phenomenal. There are more cyclists on the streets than ever. Plus, the national movement is helping to sweep us along.

Still, I had a strange feeling of disbelief last week when the city passed a complete streets ordinance, and it didn’t take long for City Hall to validate that instinct. First, a little background…

Resistance to change runs deep here, like chemical compounds at the bottom of the Cuyahoga River. Maybe it’s because so much of the change this place has experienced has been for the worse, the result of global trends the average person couldn’t control, but which were tied perilously to their own fortunes. I guess it’s understandable that progress would be difficult if you aspire to be the city you were 50 years ago.

But Cleveland has had an active cycling advocacy movement for more than a decade. We just don’t have a whole lot to show for it. Despite our flat terrain. Despite the excess capacity on our roads. Despite having had a full-time bike planner at City Hall for ages.

I often wonder what Cleveland’s bike planner does all day. But I have a pretty good idea. He makes great plans that include bike infrastructure, and somewhere along the line those plans get X-ed out. He’s just one man up against a powerful and intransigent bureaucracy.

I heard once that Cleveland has 18 miles of bike lanes. Which sounds okay, but we might as well have none: All the bike lanes, with the exception of one, are on out-of-the-way roads. They’re completely disjointed. They end without warning. Sometimes I think that they were designed specifically to antagonize cyclists. Like the one that ends in the middle of a bridge.

When I talk to city officials, I tell them: Just give me one separated bike lane on the west side, and I’ll shut up. Which is why I was so disappointed, but not really surprised, to hear that just days after passing complete streets legislation, the city of Cleveland was setting aside plans for a multi-use, separated path next to the West Shoreway, a major east-west corridor that for decades has been planned as a highway-to-boulevard project.

We wrote last week about how hundreds of people came together to make the complete streets law possible. But all of that may not be enough to change City Hall, if this latest project is any indication. I wrote about it on my personal blog Rust Wire, a charter member of the Streetsblog Network, last night, and I had to share:

Cleveland was, of all things, busy celebrating its third annual “Sustainability Summit” when word came down that the city’s $70 million West Shoreway “highway-to-boulevard” project would be losing one of the last features that made it friendly to pedestrians and cyclists — namely, multi-use paths to the north of the highway.

This is just too perfect: Ken Silliman, chief of staff for Mayor Frank Jackson, is quoted in the Plain Dealer for saying this: “That is a convenience,” Silliman said last month of a western section of trail that was to link with Edgewater Park. “But we view it as not a necessity … That’s the way we’re looking at things now.” Someone should tell that guy about complete streets — or the whole of City Hall for that matter!

Pedestrian and cycling improvements will make the city nicer, more attractive. And rushing cars through the city as fast as possible, well, that has the opposite effect. Rushing cars through the city as fast as possible on limited-access highways was the beginning of the suburban flight that decimated Cleveland. Now is the city’s big chance to begin reversing that. And it can’t even see it. That’s what discourages me.

Elsewhere on the Network today: One Speed: Go! analyzes bike commuting rates in the 25 largest U.S. cities, comparing for density, and finds a pretty striking correlation. Baltimore Spokes shares a video of Strong Towns blogger Charles Marohn discussing the important distinction between roads and streets. And Twin Cities Streets for People pays homage to the under-appreciated inner-ring suburb.

  • We Un-Built This City

    As a former Clevelander, it’s sad to watch the city continue its 60-year mission to turn the entire downtown into a giant surface parking lot, expressway interchange and on-ramp for far-off suburban commuters.

    With the exception of the Euclid Ave BRT project it just seems like it’s one bad decision after another in Cleveland. 

    I guess the good news here is that Cleveland’s city fathers have been so successful in gutting and killing the city that there isn’t all that much car traffic anymore at most times. Who needs a bike lane when most of Chester Avenue is completely empty at 3pm on a weekday? Feel free to take the whole avenue, cyclists!

  • Lots of the same resistance-to-change attitudes in Baltimore, too.

    I wouldn’t call an increase in Critical Mass ridership an indicator of a successful grass roots bicycle advocacy group, however.  In my experience, the choice riders it takes to build a succesful and politically influential coalition aren’t turned on by Critical Mass, not to mention the event is often seen as a “protest” and disruptive to traffic.

    Sorta playing devel’s advocate, but sometimes image really is everything.

  • John Wirtz

    Don’t worry, Cleveland doesn’t need to use it’s lakefront as an asset.  I’m sure the casino will save Cleveland.

  • This is why the next challenge for the complete streets movement is ensuring that the words in a complete streets policy are followed by implementation!

  • Brandon

    The problem with every Ohio is the power of ODOT and missing regional planning.  It really is race to the bottom amongst the cities.

  • Wow, that’s really too bad. The region’s more underutilized asset–the lake–would be wonderfully accessible if the west shoreway had good quality walking/biking access on the north side. But Cleveland never understands that Lake Erie is an asset; it’s just a big pool of water that you can’t build suburbs on. Oh well.

  • Mark Elliot

    Thanks for the very useful account! Much rings familiar to a lot of folks, obviously. Here in Beverly Hills, I’m pushing against the same kind of headwinds: a failure of the mobility imagination; a disregard for the safety of road users other than motorists, in contravention to the spirit of Complete Streets; and a general intransigence to anything that whiffs of change. 
    Beverly Hills is different than Cleveland, of course. We’re small (<40,000 pop) and largely built-out. But we're planned very well, without some of the most unfortunate changes to accommodate suburban drivers as has befallen Cleveland and elsewhere. But like Cleveland, policymakers just don't see past the tip of their noses to move the city forward. 
    You'd think we'd build on our advantages by making ours a model mobility city. Forget it. Read about this intersection and how even the most obvious situations that call out for relief receive none: http://betterbike.org/2011/09/busiest-intersection-fails/    

  • Emelio DiSabato

    Mark, I don’t have experience with Critical Mass in other cities, but I would say that our CM in Cleveland has a pretty magical thing going. We rarely experience confrontation, and if there is a disruption it’s pretty minor. I’ve heard about young, angry cyclists causing a lot of disturbance in other cities’ CMs, but that hasn’t happened here yet. Certainly I’d say there’s a place for protest and disruption in any advocacy effort, but Cleveland’s Mass here hasn’t taken on that edge. It also, in the absence of a strong advocacy organization, has been a really amazing venue and forum for the kind of choice riders you’re talking about. Through Cleveland’s CM network, we were able to tap into riders who could demonstrate support for the Complete Streets legislation that Angie is writing about.

    And I should of course note that Cleveland now *does* have an advocacy organization, Bike Cleveland, which I’m expecting to push our Critical Mass momentum so much further (and Angie has a significant role on the Board of that new org!!).

  • PhilipGlassRules

    Bike lanes/paved shoulders > shared use paths.

    As a cyclist, I detest riding on facilities also used by pedestrians (often with baby strollers, dogs, etc).

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