Skip to Content
Streetsblog USA home
Streetsblog USA home
Log In

In Cleveland, An Old-School Planning Agency Sees the Light

1:06 PM EDT on October 21, 2013

Cleveland's metropolitan planning organization was one of those transportation agencies that had never quite gotten over the Eisenhower era. Sure, it threw some money at the transit agency every year. But for the most part, the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA) treated its mission as a simple matter of expanding roads to reduce congestion.

My favorite thing about this photo is the emptiness and the screwed-up-ness of the road in the background. Grace Gallucci, director of Cleveland's metropolitan planning agency, NOACA, (foreground) has her work cut out for her. Image: ##

This is a common attitude on the part of regional and state transportation agencies, and not without some encouragement by the federal government. But this "business as usual" approach was especially damaging in a shrinking region like Cleveland, where the road network was expanded into ever-more-distant suburbs while the city and inner-ring suburbs hollowed out.

Despite the dynamic of suburban sprawl and urban abandonment that prevailed for decades, NOACA refused to consider how its decisions affected land use. Its erstwhile director, Howard Maier, simply said that the agency wasn't empowered to do land use planning, which was technically correct, but not especially helpful.

NOACA was so notoriously averse to change and ineffectual that it acquired the nickname NO ACTION. Agency employees once even fielded a company softball team by that name. (Full disclosure: I interned there in grad school.)

But as impossible as it seemed even a year ago, things are changing at NOACA. They're changing fast, and for the better. Last year the agency hired a new director, Grace Gallucci, who had been the head of finance for the Chicago Transit Authority. Since the Cleveland native assumed her role at the head of the NOACA, the region agency has adopted a completely different tenor.

“We’re shifting because the times are shifting,” Gallucci recently told local website Freshwater Cleveland. “We’re about thinking about transportation holistically -- not auto, bike, pedestrian or transit, but all of them. How do you give people more choices to get from A to B?”

NOACA is working on a new strategic plan that appears to be premised on the concept of "fix-it-first." The agency's annual summit a few weeks ago was focused on the theme of "multi-modal innovation." Gallucci told attendees that the region needs to shift toward supporting transit, walking, and biking -- and not so much on expanding the road network.

“Our planning efforts can’t be just about pavement and the automobile," Gallucci said at the summit. “We are working toward a greater sense of balance in the region and being responsive to the upcoming generations is important to us. It’s about attracting and retaining our best and brightest by enhancing the livability of our communities and our region.”

Gallucci has also served as chair of the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium, the region's "sustainable communities" planning effort. Her remarks have been in line with that organization's recommendations: a focus on infill development and expanding transit in the city.

That said, NOACA is still governed by a famously parochial board of directors made up of about 50 political leaders from around the region. And any policy changes NOACA institutes will likely take a long time to be felt. After all, we're talking about an agency that's responsible for planning transportation projects on a 30-year time scale.

Even so, this seemingly immovable agency has come a long way in a short time. It's an exciting thing to witness.

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter

More from Streetsblog USA

NYC Debuts Public E-Bike Charging for Delivery Workers

Finally, they’re taking charge! The city’s first public e-bike charging station opened in Cooper Square on Thursday — the start of an overdue six-month pilot that is part of a “Charge Safe Ride Safe Action Plan” for delivery workers that Mayor Adams announced last year.

March 1, 2024

Friday’s Headlines Have Questions

What's an optimal rebate to get people to buy e-bikes without wasting money on those who were going to buy one anyway?

March 1, 2024

To Recruit Transit Workers, More Than Just Higher Pay Is Needed

Labor shortages continue threatening public transit systems, and a new report adds another layer to the conversation.

February 29, 2024

Talking Headways Podcast: Streets for Skateboards

Aaron Breetwor on skateboards for transportation and designing streets for safer skateboarding.

February 29, 2024

Agencies Need to Use Federal Funding to Buy Land for Transit Oriented Development

Transit agencies do not prioritize transit-adjacent housing development often because they lack funding to acquire land.

February 29, 2024
See all posts