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Akron’s Jason Segedy: Shrinking Cities Need a New Approach to Mobility

There are people like Jason Segedy in every region -- people who are trying to move the region forward on a more sustainable and competitive path. But Segedy is a little different: He actually has some power.

AMATs' Jason Segedy is trying to change the way people think about transportation in the heartlands. Image: ##

Segedy is 40 years old and a lifelong resident of Akron, Ohio. He's also the head of AMATS, Akron's metropolitan planning organization. Through his leadership there, as well as his work with the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium, Segedy has been  advancing a new approach to transportation in a region that has experienced population loss and stagnation.

We caught Jason on the phone recently to hear more about his efforts to take transportation in a different direction in northeast Ohio. Here's what he had to say:

Angie Schmitt: You've made the point before that northeast Ohio should not be focused on expanding highway capacity and instead should be focused on maintenance and transit. Why?

Jason Segedy: I started working at an MPO in 1997. At that time, in the 1990s -- and the late '90s especially -- there was a lot more optimism about economic growth and population growth. Actually if you look back at it, in retrospect, we weren’t experiencing that much growth. But that is what we were expecting.

At that time, there was a backlog of projects to fix congestion that did have some utility and usefulness. You could argue about induced demand and whether they were really necessary. But we took care of a lot of congestion problems that were going on back then.

If you go back to 2007 and 2008, we had the financial crisis. If you look back to the 2000s, we didn’t grow. All of northeast Ohio lost 100,000 people. When you look at our demographics, the population growth isn’t there at all. Instead we have this pattern of shifting people around.

The fiscal issue is also a big one for me, if you look at the highway trust fund constantly being shored up with general fund revenues. ODOT, by it’s own admission, doesn’t have a lot of funds, that’s why we’re borrowing money from the turnpike.

AS: What kind of projects should regions like Akron -- slow-growth places -- be focused on?

JS: Fix it first. The idea is definitely to focus resources and a lot of our mental energy making sure the existing highway system is in a state of good repair. We’re really trying to promote having better pavements and better bridge conditions. There’s a lot of concern in our region that roads are not being maintained the way they should be. That’s what we’ve been promoting.

Equally important is creating alternatives to driving. I think there are a lot of false dichotomies that people put out in front of us: Either everyone has to drive everywhere and live in big houses with big yards or everyone has to be herded into high-rises and use public transit for everything.

An empty freeway in Akron. Image: ##

I think in our region most people are going to kind of stay where they are. In the most low-density suburb, it’s hard to have any alternatives to driving and you probably shouldn’t live in an area like that if you don’t want to drive everywhere. But especially in places like inner-ring suburbs, there are alternatives that could be created with better land use. Even when you drive less, drive [shorter] distances … I think that’s a really unexplored and underutilized concept in this region.

AS: What are the biggest obstacles to changing our approach to transportation planning to be more in line with current realities?

JS: There’s still a lot of thinking that goes back to that time I mentioned earlier in the '90s: If you add highway capacity it’s good for economic development. The idea that you’re opening up new land for development if you add a new lane, the idea that people are going to spend less time in traffic. I think it’s a very short-sighted approach. A lot of it is not even based on hard data and it can turn into almost wishful thinking.

Where the proponents say, "It’s going to open up jobs for new development," we have to ask ourselves, "Are we just shuffling jobs around?" If it abets sprawl, it’s probably putting jobs in places far away from the people who need them most. It is detrimental to people that live in the inner city.

That idea is still with us in this region, that by adding infrastructure and putting pavement out there, that you’re doing something good for the economy. I do believe the people at the state level that are promoting that do believe what they are saying; I just think it’s short sighted and probably incorrect.

The world is changing. The population in this state is not growing; the population in this state is down. There’s a new generation that’s not as interested in driving. The more that we don’t respond to those as planners and public officials, we end up behind the times. I don’t think we’re spending money as wisely as we could.

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