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Wait. What? Already? Cleveland Takes Step Backward on Complete Streets

11:14 AM EDT on September 26, 2011

"Change comes hard, but things do change." When I saw that quote in a news article last week, it got me thinking about Cleveland, Ohio, the city where I live.

When I'm not writing for Streetsblog, I help run a new group in Cleveland that's pushing the city to become more bike-friendly. And we have a lot of momentum on our side. Critical Mass has seen growth that can only be described as phenomenal. There are more cyclists on the streets than ever. Plus, the national movement is helping to sweep us along.

Still, I had a strange feeling of disbelief last week when the city passed a complete streets ordinance, and it didn't take long for City Hall to validate that instinct. First, a little background...

Resistance to change runs deep here, like chemical compounds at the bottom of the Cuyahoga River. Maybe it's because so much of the change this place has experienced has been for the worse, the result of global trends the average person couldn't control, but which were tied perilously to their own fortunes. I guess it's understandable that progress would be difficult if you aspire to be the city you were 50 years ago.

But Cleveland has had an active cycling advocacy movement for more than a decade. We just don't have a whole lot to show for it. Despite our flat terrain. Despite the excess capacity on our roads. Despite having had a full-time bike planner at City Hall for ages.

I often wonder what Cleveland's bike planner does all day. But I have a pretty good idea. He makes great plans that include bike infrastructure, and somewhere along the line those plans get X-ed out. He's just one man up against a powerful and intransigent bureaucracy.

I heard once that Cleveland has 18 miles of bike lanes. Which sounds okay, but we might as well have none: All the bike lanes, with the exception of one, are on out-of-the-way roads. They're completely disjointed. They end without warning. Sometimes I think that they were designed specifically to antagonize cyclists. Like the one that ends in the middle of a bridge.

When I talk to city officials, I tell them: Just give me one separated bike lane on the west side, and I'll shut up. Which is why I was so disappointed, but not really surprised, to hear that just days after passing complete streets legislation, the city of Cleveland was setting aside plans for a multi-use, separated path next to the West Shoreway, a major east-west corridor that for decades has been planned as a highway-to-boulevard project.

We wrote last week about how hundreds of people came together to make the complete streets law possible. But all of that may not be enough to change City Hall, if this latest project is any indication. I wrote about it on my personal blog Rust Wire, a charter member of the Streetsblog Network, last night, and I had to share:

Cleveland was, of all things, busy celebrating its third annual “Sustainability Summit” when word came down that the city’s $70 million West Shoreway “highway-to-boulevard” project would be losing one of the last features that made it friendly to pedestrians and cyclists — namely, multi-use paths to the north of the highway.

This is just too perfect: Ken Silliman, chief of staff for Mayor Frank Jackson, is quoted in the Plain Dealer for saying this: “That is a convenience,” Silliman said last month of a western section of trail that was to link with Edgewater Park. “But we view it as not a necessity … That’s the way we’re looking at things now.” Someone should tell that guy about complete streets — or the whole of City Hall for that matter!

Pedestrian and cycling improvements will make the city nicer, more attractive. And rushing cars through the city as fast as possible, well, that has the opposite effect. Rushing cars through the city as fast as possible on limited-access highways was the beginning of the suburban flight that decimated Cleveland. Now is the city’s big chance to begin reversing that. And it can’t even see it. That’s what discourages me.

Elsewhere on the Network today: One Speed: Go! analyzes bike commuting rates in the 25 largest U.S. cities, comparing for density, and finds a pretty striking correlation. Baltimore Spokes shares a video of Strong Towns blogger Charles Marohn discussing the important distinction between roads and streets. And Twin Cities Streets for People pays homage to the under-appreciated inner-ring suburb.

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