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Ohio's Transportation Town Hall Focuses on Bikes, Peds and Public Transit
Alison Grant |


Public transit and the bike- and pedestrian-friendliness of Greater Cleveland dominated the discussion of Northeast Ohio's transportation infrastructure at a town hall meeting Monday night. The Greater Cleveland RTA's E Line trolley and the bus-rapid transit HealthLine are shown here near Cleveland State University. (Jerry Masek, Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority)

The transportation experience in America is changing, but the way we build transportation is stuck somewhere back in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, when the country was creating a massive interstate highway system.


That's according to the keynote speaker at a town hall Monday night in Cleveland that examined Northeast Ohio's transportation networks and how they might be shaped to create more livable communities.


"If you want your kids to stay in the area, you are going to build neighborhoods where people can get around both inside and outside of their cars," said Beth Osborne, former acting U.S. assistant secretary of transportation and now a vice president of the advocacy group Transportation for America.


That means building transit in more places. It means sidewalks and bikeways in most places. And it means more space for car- and bike-sharing and café seating and less for parking, Osborne said.


Top local transportation leaders who joined Osborne at a live broadcast at the Idea Center at PlayhouseSquare were in agreement.


"There's a lot of commonality in thinking," RTA General Manager Joe Calabrese said at the "Getting Around" forum. "There's great support for biking, walking and public transit."


The townhall panel also had Freddy Collier Jr., director of the Cleveland Planning Commission; Robert Jaquay, associate director of the George Gund Foundation; and Grace Gallucci, executive director of the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency. Plain Dealer columnist and host of WCPN/90.3's Sound of Ideas Michael K. McIntyre moderated the event.


Osborne said many transportation policies are built around the needs of households with kids. But those are not in the majority any more. They make up 43 percent of households today, and the share continues to shrink.

"We can't build only for this demographic," she said.


The country will have more and more one-person households and empty nesters, and they are looking for less space and more community – a neighborhood that is connected to schools, parks, restaurants and shops. 


They're willing to pay more for such neighborhoods, and the neighborhoods in turn enrich the local economy. Osborne said:

-- A 5 to 10 percent reduction in traffic speeds translates into an 18 to 20 percent increase in property values.

-- Homes in walkable areas command 12 percent more than homes in areas that aren't very walkable, and commercial properties have values 5 to 8 percent higher.

-- Pedestrian-friendly, transit-served, mixed-use communities generate 10 times more tax revenue per acre than suburban development. 


The Gund Foundation's Jaquay said the notion of retaining and attracting Millennials to Cleveland -- people 18 to 33 or so -- is not lost on local civic leaders.


Collier said a "culture shift" to change the funding model, attitudes and perceptions has to happen at the federal and state level, where most transportation funding dollars are doled out. "We should be able to spend more money on public transit," he said.


Much of Monday night's discussion centered on that theme -- how to make Greater Cleveland more transit-diverse and less auto-centric.


NOACA's Gallucci said Northeast Ohio has lots of excess road capacity because its network of highways and streets was built for a larger population.


In some ways that's great, because there's not a lot of congestion, she said. But it comes with a punishing cost of upkeep.

Nationwide, according to Osborne, we would have to spend $30 billion a year more on transportation than we do today to bring our roads, bridges and transit up to a state of good repair while maintaining existing traffic conditions.


Choices about where to spend scarce transportation dollars are not an either-or proposition, Gallucci said. "We have to get beyond thinking it's auto, or bicycle, or public transit. It's all of the above. We have to have a system that's really multimodal."

Participants offered some ideas about how to chop away at the monumental problem of infrastructure costs.


When it comes to building more bike-friendliness into cities, using existing, excess-capacity roads and reconfiguring them to add bike lanes is the most cost-effective move to build biking capacity, Gallucci said.


Hunter Morrison, director of Vibrant Northeast Ohio, said the HealthLine bus-rapid transit on Euclid Avenue – which planners say spawned hundreds of millions of dollars in commercial, residential and institutional projects – holds lessons that could spur other transit-oriented development in Northeast Ohio.


Osborne called for transportation planning to be done "with the people you want to attract in mind." And she said it's critical to make transportation and development decisions in tandem.


"It is not as useful to have a sidewalk, if it takes you nowhere," she said.


We also have to get more out of what is already built and make sure we can afford to take care of it, she said.


Jaquay said the town hall captured a robust discussion about access and mobility in Cleveland. But with the topic of transportation so broad and complex, he added, there were a host of topics that weren't even touched on, such as urban sprawl.


"We could have talked for hours more," Calabrese said.