The Plan to Build Bicycle Highways Where Cleveland’s Streetcars Once Ran

A local group is proposing repurposing old streetcar rights of way into protected bike lanes. Image: Bialosky & Partners
A local group has proposed repurposing old streetcar rights of way as protected bike lanes. Image: Bialosky & Partners

Like many cities in America, Cleveland grew into its own as a streetcar city. In the early part of the last century, hundreds of miles of streetcars connected all corners of the city as well as its inner suburbs. The streets where tracks carried passengers — Lorain, Superior, Euclid — were the circulatory system of the city, around which neighborhood life was organized.

St. Clair Avenue in Cleveland was once bustling with activity, when it was a streetcar route. A group of Clevelandites wants to make it active again with bike infrastructure. Image: Google Maps
St. Clair Avenue in Cleveland bustled with activity when it was a streetcar route. A group of Clevelanders want to make it active again with bike infrastructure. Image: Google Maps

But around the middle of the 20th century, streetcars gave way to private cars — upending this way of life. Many Clevelanders got in their cars and abandoned historic urban neighborhoods at disastrous rates, moving to former farmlands where they could shop in big box stores. Streetcar tracks were mostly paved over and forgotten, leaving extra-wide streets behind. The retail spaces that lined those routes are now pocked with vacancies.

But some local residents see an opportunity to transform these historically significant corridors back into something vital and attractive. They call their plan the Midway — a proposal to transform former streetcar rights-of-way with landscaped, center-running bike lanes.

“It seems so obvious to me,” said Barb Clint, director of community health and advocacy at the YMCA of Greater Cleveland. Clint is also a board member at Bike Cleveland, the city’s bike advocacy group. (Disclosure: I’m also on the board of Bike Cleveland and have helped promote the Midway in Cleveland.)

Clint is a veteran of the Cleveland public sector and non-profit scene, and she knows the problems with the city’s streets well. “We have these massive streets, with severely low volumes of traffic. They’re not comfortable to walk along, they’re not comfortable to bike along because people are driving so fast,” she said. “We can’t preach at people and tell them they should be more physically active if we’re not providing them safe places to do so.”

Two years ago, Clint and another Bike Cleveland board member, John McGovern, came up with the first iteration of the Midway plan. The beauty of the streetcar routes is that they’re nicely dispersed throughout the city. And in almost all cases, the space is ripe for reuse: Cleveland’s streets lack the traffic congestion of larger, growing cities.

Midway advocates think the concept could be realized rather cheaply, with some paint and bollards, and no one would even notice the loss of the lanes, based on informal traffic studies they’ve conducted.

Proponents envision 80 to 100 miles of protected bikeways. Click to enlarge. Map: Bialosky + Partners Architects
Proponents envision 80 to 100 miles of protected bikeways. Click to enlarge. Map: Bialosky + Partners Architects

That’s part of what makes the concept so elegant. It can be scaled up or down, depending on the resources available, advocates say. The high-end Midway plan would place the bike lanes inside beautifully landscaped medians. (An auxiliary benefit of this version could be improved storm water management.) The team estimates the full 100-mile buildout could cost as little as $40 million or as much as $150 million, but there hasn’t been a formal study yet.

Clint, McGovern and a core group of other advocates, including transportation engineer Melissa Thompson and design associate Ted Ferringer of the firm Bialosky + Partners, have been compiling data and drawings and taking their project on the road to leading institutions. Clint and her team have the backing of Bike Cleveland and have begun seeking support from major institutional players like Cleveland Metroparks and the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District.

Perhaps most encouraging is that a local community development organization, St. Clair Superior Development, has seized on the idea for St. Clair Avenue, pictured at the top of this post. The organization has teamed up with the Midway team to apply for a grant from the Kresge Foundation to build a pilot of the first segment. Kresge recently conducted a site visit to consider the proposal.

The next step, according to Clint, is to secure funding to do a full-fledged feasibility and economic study. Meanwhile, the team is developing a website and fine-tuning its presentation in hopes of enticing institutions to pass resolutions of support.

So far, almost all the feedback they’ve received has been remarkably positive.

“I honestly think if we were to implement the entire network it would be utterly transformative,” she said. “This would be an utterly defining attribute for Cleveland.”

  • G

    Other than the obvious higher costs, what are arguments for and against reverting these rights of way to streetcar use instead of bike lanes?

  • BBnet3000

    Why center-running rather than on the sides? Because the streetcars once ran down the center? Center can work but only if left turns are restricted/banned or cars turning left and bikes going straight have their own light cycles.

  • JBS

    Notice how Euclid is mentioned at the beginning, but not further down. That’s because it has a BRT line that has done wonders to that part of Cleveland. BRT might be a better answer in this case, as bike lanes really should be curbside rather than median.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    I was wondering when you were going to talk about this, Angie! We already had a rousing, stimulating discussion about this project on APBP.

    I’m pretty convinced that running bikes down the middle will work rather well considering issues with driveways and curb cuts. I wasn’t at first. Still, I wonder if more synergy could evolve if some of the reallocated street width was given over to the sides of the streets. By putting the bike lanes on the sides with the buffer, sidewalks in business districts might be widened too, bringing more opportunities for business and street life.

    I know this is a flexible model that will vary from place to place depending on a number of factors but a concern still lingers that this will be a super groovy bike project at some expense to the sidewalk environment.

  • Bolwerk

    Really. Reserve the center for BRT or, better yet, streetcars.

  • EastBayer

    Great project, but guess I wouldn’t characterize anything where cyclists still have intersections and traffic lights as a “highway” – which I only mention because a real bike highway – something comparable to an interstate highway – is something I’m desperately missing for longer bike trips.

  • Gezellig

    Yeah, I think median bikeways can potentially work if their entry/exit points are designed well (raised intersections, strong visual cues, etc.) but I do wonder how they impact merchants vs. curbside cycletracks, since it’s less given to spontaneous “ooh wow new coffee place let’s stop here” stops.

    If I were a merchant and were given the choice between curbside and median bikeways I’d probably prefer the curbside ones.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    Sorry EB. I got them back home in Jersey. I call them quite country roads. PA has some great ones too!

  • John M McGovern

    IMO, the higher cost is a HUGE factor. However, if successful it may ‘pave the way’ for more investment in human-scale transport.
    Someone savvy in the transport world recently compared the combination of a robust bike share system w/ a protected BikeWay network as the modern (read: livable cities/active living) equivalent to a streetcar system in terms of carrying capacity.

  • Oregon Mamacita

    In my experience, only the well-protected bike lanes- like the one proposed here, will get casual cyclists out more often. It sounds like a win-win for Cleveland because it won’t cause congestion. Thus, cyclists will be breathing better air.

  • Wilfried84

    My limited experience with middle of the road bike paths is I don’t like them. Even when you have the green light, turning drivers do too, and they turn right across your path, and they don’t look for anyone crossing in the middle of the street. So you have to be hyper vigilant at every intersection, no matter what the light says. I find it exhausting. Is there a way to mitigate this issue in the design?

  • Bolwerk

    That’s really unlikely period but, even granting it’s possible that could in theory be true, bikes don’t replace transit. People ride each for different reasons, and the number of trips where people will be indifferent between both is going to be pretty low.

    And that’s not bad news. There is room for both transit and bikes on wider streets.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    From what I’ve been told in the professional circles, left turns would be limited allowing for freer flow of cyclists. Still like Gezellig said below, not being curbside would loose the bike lanes’ “look what’s in that shop” appeal, a concern I share. But Angie said, this is what the people wanted (but people don’t always ask for what’s best for them?).

  • Moses von Cleaveland

    @G In Cleveland we couldn’t even get a streetcar down are busiest (and heavily used) transit corridor (Euclid Ave.). Instead, we had to settle for BRT. So, a streetcar isn’t really an option along these routes.

    @John M McGovern, thank you for your thought leadership.

  • 42apples

    Hmm part of Copenhagen’s “bicycle highway” system goes through intersections, but the lights are also synchronized to minimize idle time.

  • sensible internet commenter

    Those tend to have high design speeds and no bicycle infrastructure. That means people drive very fast on those roads, and it’s incredibly unlikely there will be any sort of bike lane. Not at all safe for biking. Plus, they’re out in the country, so they’re not very useful for getting from point A to point B due to lack of density.

  • No high speed traffic on those 300+ year-old roads in New Jersey where the roadway width is often only 20 to 25 feet. Plus with a car only going by every 5 to 10 minutes, stress is almost non-existent and drivers are much more likely to slow down and pass safely. And EB wanted something for longer trips so we weren’t necessarily talking urban. I’m always surprised at how amazingly good the country roads are here in NJ and PA are for cycling and how most other states have nothing like them.

    Don’t knock ’em till you ride ’em! 🙂

  • sensible internet commenter

    Um, most of New Jersey wasn’t developed until after 1950. The state underwent extensive suburban sprawl development (as did most states) and many highways were built that are much wider than 25 feet and have design speeds upwards of 70 mph. People did not live in the countryside 300 years ago! Cars didn’t exist. People lived in cities.

  • Urban Planning 101: New York City and Philadelphia were able to grow so large and so close to one another before the motor because of all the rich agricultural lands in New Jersey, Long Island and in Eastern PA that were able to feed these cities. New Jersey was called the “Garden State” for a damn good reason.

    I just went riding on these roads yesterday and passed houses everywhere built in the early 1700’s. My ride was pleasant and stress free and filled more with the sounds of birds and the rustle of the wind than anything else. The Suydam Farm (a Dutch family farm not far from my house) proudly has a sign in front that states “A part of NJ agriculture since 1713.”

    If you insist on waiting for protected infrastructure everywhere you’re missing out on great cycling today and the reality that it ain’t never going to come to most places anyway (because it’s not needed).

  • sensible internet commenter

    Right, but those were simply rural paths laid out to serve the extremely small (compared to the cities) farming population. Barely anyone lived in New Jersey, except in the older towns and cities (Camden, Trenton, Princeton, etc.) until the mid-twentieth century.

    I generally don’t cycle just for the sake of cycling. For me, and for many people, biking is a mode of transportation. It is the most practical in dense, urban settings (such as Philadelphia and New York) and not at all practical in rural areas for getting from point A to point B. I don’t wait for protected infrastructure, but I know that it is the key to making our cities safe places for an incredibly efficient and sustainable mode of transportation, and that can help encourage people to live in cities, further helping to spur urban development rather than sprawl.

  • Joe R.

    I think the point here is non-stop bike highways are probably needed much more in places like NYC than in the country, irrespective of whether many cyclists take longer trips. Unlike the compact Dutch cities, NYC is huge. The streets are also congested. To make things even worse, there is NYC’s pathological obsession with traffic signals and stop signs. These things all make cycling slow and tedious. If we want to grow cycling here, we have to enable people to do most of their trip on infrastructure free of motor vehicles, pedestrians, stop signs, and traffic signals. It seems almost nobody in the livable streets community, let along those in the DOT, understand this. Cycling in NYC now is largely a very stressful chore, particular if done at the times or places where it might be useful as a mode of transport. We need to fix this, or we’ll never grow cycling past a few percent.

  • Joe R.

    Calling things something they really aren’t seems to be a trend these days, as if people will only pay attention to the name while ignoring the reality.

    I’m with you. I want bike routes comparable to interstate highways, particularly through congested urban areas where street riding is a slow, stressful, tedious chore.

  • EastBayer

    No, I get you. I used to live out East, and one major difference between here and there is that here there are very few roads that connect regions. You’re pretty much funneled right onto the interstate, where bicyclists are usually prohibited. I miss being able to get on some random back road that takes me into the next town or metro area.

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