There’s a transportation revolution happening all over the world. Like most things in the disruptive economy, the pace of change is moving fast. Cleveland has the opportunity to “jump on the bus” — or the bus rapid transit, the high-speed train, electric assist bikes and scooters, and the self-driving autonomous vehicle — or it might just be left in the dust. The wide range of transportation alternatives just mentioned are products in various stages of design and implementation that are aimed at enhancing personal mobility choices and are being tested or already in use in nearby metros like Pittsburgh, Columbus, Indianapolis and Detroit.
From the state of Michigan, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation launched “Planet M,” a self-described “partnership of mobility organizations, communities, educational institutions, research and development and government agencies working together to develop and deploy the mobility technologies of the future.” It's impressive forward thinking coming out of the automobile capital of the world. It’s also survival instinct from a regional economy that has woken up and realized that new mobility choices could do to the car what the Model T did to the horse and buggy.
In Pittsburgh, the roots of robotics born out of Carnegie Mellon have made the steel city a logical development market for Google’s Autonomous Vehicles. Columbus is pushing toward the future of transportation, as well, and was awarded a $40 million competitive grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation for a smart city strategy anchored by a transportation vision.
Recently a team of Clevelanders visited with transportation solution providers in Indianapolis including IndyBus, BlueIndy electric car share and Lime electric scooters. At first pass, one might think these companies are in dogged competition for the downtown Indy transportation market share, but to the contrary, they are in collaboration to connect as a system that provides “final mile” solutions for commuters. This is why the city of Cleveland should prioritize a conversation about adding electric scooters into the system of mobility choices in our city rather than just say no. Our Regional Transit Authority got on board with Bird Scooters, realizing the potential to fill gaps in linear transit systems where every trip isn’t a straight transit line. Electric scooters along with bike share and shared short-trip electric vehicle technology stand to connect the “final mile” for residents, commuters and visitors.
Another recent trip to Detroit revealed a corral of Lime electric scooters outside of the world’s automobile hub at General Motors Renaissance Center. While workers in the world’s spire of automotive innovation may be thinking about advanced automotive design at their desks they’re also thinking of the fastest way to get to lunch, and they’re now choosing electric scooters. It’s no wonder that their companies are choosing to expand their product line and launch new divisions for mobility solutions.
Although Cleveland has a proud past in the last great transportation revolution, the world is again undergoing a rapid transportation transformation and our city is standing on the sidelines. Cleveland would do well to bring an alliance of designers, engineers, manufacturers and entrepreneurs together to collaborate on how to get back into the transportation game. A century ago, the region was a leading player in transportation. Transportation innovation runs deep in our civic DNA with transportation pioneers like Alexander Winton and Walter C. Baker, who developed electric vehicles out of Cleveland a century ago. We have a hub of technology and design capabilities already in place in longstanding institutions like Case Western Reserve University, NASA and the Cleveland Institute of Art.
Cities are once again at the leading edge of a transportation revolution that will change the way we live, work and travel. City streets as we knew them need to be redesigned for greater modal choice and greater equity. Personal automobiles are not a financially viable choice for many Americans, nor do they need to be. Big-city mayors are expanding transportation choices to improve the quality of life for their residents. New York City just cut the cost of its MTA MetroCard in half for low-income workers. Los Angeles just passed Measure M, expanding transit choices for residents historically bound to single occupancy vehicles.
Mid-sized Midwestern cities have become test markets for transportation products that connect riders in a system of choices from bus to bike, scooters and car share. Cleveland was one of the leaders when the transportation race began in the early 20th century. Now, other peer cities are revolutionizing our future, attracting and retaining talented workforce and providing greater transportation equity for all residents. It’s time we “get back to the future” through collaboration, leveraging our engineering and design capability, and leading by example. By allowing for more transportation choices, Cleveland could again be a leader in the future of the transportation economy like we were a century ago.
CHRIS RONAYNE is president of University Circle Inc. and chairman of the Port of Cleveland. He is the former Cleveland planning director.