Values are Harder to Change than Policy
If there was ever a city primed for complete streets, Cleveland is it. The city, and its streets, were designed for a population more than twice the city’s current size. And Cleveland has a pretty large, mostly low-income, population that doesn’t drive.
Just about two years ago, Cleveland passed a complete streets policy. It was a smart policy, made possible by the hard work of a lot of smart people.
But passing a complete streets policy is just the beginning of the process. The hard part is implementation. Cleveland wasn’t a city with a sophisticated understanding of pedestrian behavior or urban design before, and it isn’t one now. Cleveland has a complete streets policy, but the policy alone isn’t enough to change a city.
Check out how this complete streets policy is playing out on Carnegie and Ontario, my choice for worst intersection in the city. Here is what the area looks like, just outside Progressive Field. You’ll notice in this view, not only are there hardly any cars on this wide asphalt expanse, there certainly aren’t any people, or businesses for that matter.
Unfortunately, in the days before complete streets, Cleveland built what we in transportation circles like to call a “traffic sewer,” right outside its ballpark, a publicly funded project which is meant to spur development in the city. Instead of making the area around the ballpark a comfortable and fun place to be, Cleveland instead chose to bring the nearby highway right into the city.
Here’s a closer-up view of Ontario. This has always DRIVEN ME CRAZY, because Ontario is this big gateway into the city and it couldn’t by uglier and more off-putting. There’s no landscaping. It’s wide enough to land a jumbo jet in. There’s no businesses around. It’s a horrible public space. AND it’s right next to this big public amenity, paid for with tax money, with the ostensible purpose of making the city a fun place to be. #FAIL
Somehow you can visit Chicago and right next to Wrigley Field is a bunch of bars and a bunch of drunk people staggering around. A much larger city has managed to have a successful ballpark without turning the area around it into a car-clogged hellhole. Not so in Cleveland.
Anyway, the city recently resurfaced Ontario. Now that the city has a “complete streets policy,” you’d think it’d be an excellent opportunity to repair some of the mistakes we’ve made in the past. Again, not so. The city of Cleveland’s proposal is to add sharrows to this terrifying road. Do you know what sharrows are? It’s a painted symbol in the street that looks like this:
So they are going to take the worst street/intersection in the city and leave it essentially the same, but add these symbols and call it a “complete street.” And guess what? No one is going to bike on it, except for the handful of extremely hardy cyclists that did before.
It’s hard to get around the fact that the city of Cleveland doesn’t really care whether more cyclists use the road — at least the folks that were in charge of this decision, traffic engineering. What these guys care about is level of service — car level of service that is — peak level of service, to be more precise. What that means is, their priority for this road is that there isn’t any congestion at rush hour. That’s why it’s wide and unsightly — and strangely empty in this picture even in daylight hours. The city of Cleveland is still not ok with congestion in its urban areas at rush hour. But the city is ok with dangerous conditions for cyclists. We have a pretty clear indication of that in the way this project was handled.
Now I don’t mean to be too hard on the city. It’s complete streets policy is still fairly new. They are in the process of developing a “streets typology” guide that will have some power to dictate road design and hopefully prevent some repeats of this Ontario decision. But there’s not “streets typology” report yet and this is the way the city’s complete streets policy is being implemented, all over the city. Because the basic values haven’t changed — at least at traffic engineering, the department that has basically been given the power to implement this (perhaps that was the city’s mistake). Traffic engineering still sees its primary mission as moving cars, preventing congestion. That mission is incompatible with healthy, complete streets. So we are still getting the former and not the latter.
What we see around the city, isn’t new walkable pedestrian spaces emerging across the city, boosting the economy. What we see instead is marginal bike infrastructure, like on Ontario. In the few places where there is “room” to add bike facilities, after assuming bike facilities are a lot less important than cars, we add it. That’s not very many places and that’s not very good bike infrastructure.
Someone told me recently, the city of Cleveland is on track to add 5.5 miles of bike lanes this year. Perhaps it’s just me, but I think it’s reasonable to expect a city with a complete streets policy and a full-time bike planner to do more than 5.5 miles per year. The city of Detroit is planning to add 100 miles this year. Memphis is on track to add 50 over the last three years.
5.5 miles per year is the kind of progress cities can make if they have no real, abiding interest in improving their built environment, no real interest in changing the way they do business. Of all the effort that went in to developing this complete streets policy, we need an equal effort around implementation. In my opinion, that should have started with putting different people in charge of implementing these improvements than the same people who designed our streets the opposite way — traffic engineering.
In a city that was really committed to complete streets, there might be an internal official that was motivated to see these policies enacted, and empowered to do so. That’s what we are lacking in the city of Cleveland. That’s why we see results like we are going to see on Ontario. And we will see the same kind of mediocre thing all over the city, unless something changes.