The Cleveland Clinic Just Doesn't Get it

Disappointing but not entirely surprising news from the Cleveland Clinic. Cleveland’s largest employer recently announced that it is closing Lakewood Hospital, in the cozy inner ring suburb, as it expands operations in sprawling Avon. This seems to be fitting with the nonprofit’s model of building a new hospital at every interchange opened in the sprawling hinterlands while winding down its hospital locations in the more populous areas of the region. All these hospitals, despite being entirely inaccessible outside of a private vehicle, are LEED certified for their “green” building practices.

The Cleveland Clinic doesn’t seem to value being part of a connected, urban community a whole lot, although to its credit, it did sponsor the Healhline, Cleveland’s award winning BRT.

The latest news from the Clinic is that it will spend $36 million to construct a 3,000-space parking garage on the southwest edge of its campus. The structure is about what you would expect. Not much of a boon for the neighborhood for the steep pricetag, not much of an advance for healthcare either. The Plain Dealer notes that this garage will be fed by the new $331 million “Opportunity Corridor” highway that will direct commuters from the south and western suburbs to campus.

I wish the Cleveland Clinic was embracing sustainable transportation and trying to make its campus and attractive, livable place. But that doesn’t seem to be the hospital’s M.O. at all. My architect friends jokingly call the Cleveland Clinic campus “Little Dubai.” The campus basically consists of a bunch of monolithic institutional buildings with a lot of dead space in between. It’s not really a community. It’s not really walkable. It’s not really an inviting or fun place to be.

I mean, it’s a hospital, so on one hand it’s sort of understandable. On the other hand, it just doesn’t have to be that way. It could be so great. Just east of the Clinic, a private developer, working with some institutional partners built a really phenomenal transit oriented development called Uptown. The development is mixed-use retail, with very little parking. It’s nestled in between Case Western University and Little Itality and it’s quickly becoming one of the coolest most attractive parts of the city.

The Cleveland Clinic campus could be like that, or at the very least more like that. But it needs to have less parking garages and more reasons to make people linger — heck even want to live nearby. It needs sidewalk-facing restaurants. There’s got to be some Cleveland

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Clinic employees who would prefer not to eat all their meals in a hospital cafeteria.

Here are some alternatives the Cleveland Clinic could have tried before building a $36 million parking garage. These are part of a strategy called “transportation demand

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management” that can save both employees and institutions like the Cleveland Clinic money. Because guess what? Parking is very expensive. Garaged parking spaces run up to $30k a piece or higher. There are cheaper and healthier options that would help keep healthcare costs low, offer employees valuable alternatives and improve the area around the Clinic:

  • Offer employees free bus passes/refund bus pass expenses for patients. For the price of a $36 million parking garage, the Cleveland Clinic could have purchased free bus passes at full price for 40,000 employees for a year. (The Cleveland Clinic only has 35,000 employees worldwide.) CAVEAT: I don’t expect that every employee would take transit to the Cleveland Clinic, but offering that as an incentive would encourage SOME employees to take transit instead of driving. For every employee the Cleveland Clinic could convert from a daily driver to transit commuter, it could save at least $12,000 in up front parking costs immediately. Why isn’t the Clinic more motivated to do this? I can only guess lack of imagination or some sort of fatalism/bad attitude about transit and the people that ride it on the part of institutional leadership. That is unfortunate.
  • Offer employees cash incentives to carpool. It could be as little as free parking passes. Again, this wouldn’t work for everyone, but for every employee that could be encouraged to buddy up, $12,000 savings for the Clinic — i.e. healthcare consumers.
  • Offer employees flexibility in parking passes. It is my understanding that the Cleveland Clinic does not allow its employees to purchase part-time parking passes. This is a problem because folks who might be an occasional bike or transit commuters are essentially penalized, or discouraged from doing so, because they must pay the full monthly parking rate. The Clinic should change this immediately.
  • Cash incentives to not drive to campus. Some institutions that run transportation demand management programs have found that offering commuters as little as $90 a year not to commute by car can have a surprising effect on solo car commuting.
  • Another thing the Cleveland could do is get more involved with incentivizing living near work for its employees. I know the Clinic has tried this in the past and it hasn’t been super successful. But it should not give up. Urban areas are becoming increasingly attractive across the county as household sizes become smaller and attitudes about urban living evolve. Probably many of their employees who are recruited from cities like Philadelphia and Chicago and Seattle where urban living is attractive. Their recruitment would benefit if they could offer high-quality living near work. Imagine if each of the Cleveland Clinic’s enormous parking garages were just one-third apartment housing how much more alive and active the campus would feel. The problem is, people won’t move to be closer to the hospital if living near the hospital offers no real advantage over living far away. And right now the Clinic’s transportation policies make driving in from far away as easy as possible and living close to the campus not that pleasant.

All of these alternatives would be cheaper than the way the Cleveland Clinic is doing it right now. And they would all promote something the Cleveland Clinic claims to be very committed to: promoting healthy lifestyles among its workers. It’s failing to do that if it doesn’t encourage its employees to bike and walk to work and to use low-emissions forms of transportation that lower asthma and obesity rates. It’s also negatively impacting the communities around it, which hurts the hospital as well.

-Angie Schmitt



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