Cleveland: City Hall's Poverty of Ambition

The city of Cleveland’s City Hall’s reputation is, well, not too positive. But the truth is that city residents, Cleveland boosters–as we are all more or less–try to give them the benefit of the doubt most of the time. They’re generally well-meaning: we’ll give them that. They don’t have a lot of money, we all understand.

But, wow–sometimes you read something like this in the Plain Dealer and you really have to marvel at exactly how low expectations are, even at City Hall.

This weekend the PD published an article about how bicycling advocates are frustrated with the pace of progress in the city of Cleveland. The city has made some strides recently, implementing complete streets and passing a 3-foot passing law. But Cleveland is the last major city in Ohio to earn a bronze-level bike friendly community award from the League of American bicyclists. Cities like Columbus and Dayton, and Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, are whizzing by, relatively speaking.

Anyway, the article was great. But the city of Cleveland’s response was, shall we say, frustrating.

So, ok. I am just going to write out how in my fantasy world my city would respond to complaints.

#1. They would acknowledge residents’ concerns.

#2. They would say they will try to do better.

So, here’s how city officials responded.

#1. Being very defensive: “Top staffers for Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson bristle at the suggestion that City Hall isn’t doing enough.” Developer Director Chris Warren goes on to question the accuracy of a Bicycling Magazine ranking of top cycling cities, which this year left Cleveland out of the top 50.

#2. Telling cycling advocates how wrong they are, with not very convincing evidence: “The city will have added 2.65 miles of bike paths by year’s end.” Never mind that a good portion is being installed by ODOT, a group the city of Cleveland has been quick to chastise for not sufficiently supporting biking and walking.

#3. Telling cyclists they can’t do what they want. The city’s sustainability director Jenita McGowan goes on to say “we can’t just run out and do 10 to 15 miles [of bike lanes] a year.”

Why? “Biking investment is limited by the city’s s five-year capital budget, city officials said.”

Here’s the reality: five year capital budgets are theoretical planning tools written in pencil. They are not binding documents. That is because sometimes capital projects come up that are urgent–pipes burst, roofs leak–and those projects have a way of coming to the front of the list.

So what they’re really saying here is that cyclists potentially getting killed is not an urgent enough priority to merit reshuffling some projects they thought were important one to five years ago.

The city had promised and budgeted us just under two miles of bike lanes this year at a cost of $75,000. But now, as they’ve stated in the Plain Dealer article, that time frame has been pushed back to next year. Because we have a full time bike planner at the city of Cleveland but planning 1.75 miles of bike lanes in a year is too hard.

By my calculations, building 10 miles of city bike paths would cost $441,000, or roughly 0.09% of the city’s 2012 revenues.

Jay Williams, the former mayor of Youngstown whom I admire very much, used to say, and I’m paraphrasing a little, that even though the city was poor, they had an $XX million budget, and the way they spent it was a matter of priorities.

Memphis Mayor AC Wharton boldly called for 55 miles of bike lanes in two years.

In other cities, cities not unlike Cleveland, mayors say things like “we want our city to be a leader [or the leader] in bike friendliness.” Here’s an example. Mayor AC Wharton in the city of Memphis recently pledged to add 55 miles of bike lanes in two years. The city of Pittsburgh’s mayor is pushing for the city to earn a “silver” ranking from the bike league because they’re not satisfied with just bronze.

But you won’t hear any high-flying rhetoric from Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, although he assures us through a spokesperson he cares a lot about cycling–just not enough to comment personally.

Cleveland has $500 million to spend this year and a staff of thousands. It could set to work reshaping the city to be whatever way it wanted. It might not succeed entirely. But dammit, no city is guaranteed success when they set out to do something.

City Sustainability Director Jenita McGowan (whom I love) says that bike advocates should stop comparing Cleveland to other cities. Sorry, but I find that idea completely unacceptable.

This is bigger than bicycling, which is what these other mayors understand. This is about rising to meet the challenges of the 21st century. This is a race that all cities are a part of, whether they choose to compete or not, and if they choose not to compete, they will surely lose. This is about energy efficiency and equity. It is about winning jobs and talent. Right now Cleveland is losing and, as a resident home owner and taxpayer, I’d like to see that stop.

The city of Montreal hosted one of North America’s first bike sharing systems. What spun off that was Bixi Bikes, a bike sharing company that is now one of two competing for contracts in at least a dozen American cities. Innovation–being at the edge of the curve–is the thing that builds strong economies. Memphis, for its ambition, recently received a sought-after grant from Bikes Belong, joining cities like Chicago and New York. In the meantime, Memphis, for its commitment, is helping change its image as a declining Rust Belt metro.

If Cleveland could do that for $441,000, it would be a bargain. It would pay for itself 50 times over. Instead of bold leadership and commitment, city leaders busy themselves offering excuses.

Until the people at City Hall at least start saying the right things, Cleveland will never be a great bicycling city. No one ever became great at anything without first aspiring to it. And it’s pretty clear we haven’t quite taken that important first step yet.


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