University Circle began to take shape in the 1880s before the advent of the automobile. The square-mile neighborhood developed as an educational, medical and cultural hub where institutions were built within close proximity of one another, according to Chris Ronayne, president of University Circle Inc. (UCI), a community service corporation.
“We were a walking district, a horse-and-carriage district. … We had early bicycling enthusiasts like Alexander Winton, who, before inventing the automobile invented a wonderful bike line,” he says. “Then, we had the era of streetcars from the 1880s through the early ’50s.”
Today, the Circle is home to three hospitals, three institutions of higher learning and a dozen cultural institutions, including Cleveland Museum of Art and Cleveland Botanical Garden, which, together, attract more than 3 million visitors in a typical year. Ronayne calls it Cleveland’s “second downtown,” where 50,000 employees work, 10,000 students study and 10,000 residents live.
It’s a place where traffic can be a problem. UCI is addressing that with uGO, a transportation-demand management program developed with the assistance of the Gund Foundation. According to Ronayne, its goal is to ease congestion by promoting multiple transportation alternatives that cut the cost of commuting, decrease the use of fossil-fuel-burning automobiles and create a better quality of life for the community.
“The idea here is just to create this smart city of mode choice where not every trip begins and ends in a parking garage,” he says.
A good portion of the program’s website, ugointhecircle.com, is devoted to detailing the private-car alternatives available to get to and around the Circle, including traditional public transit to CircleLink, the area’s free public shuttle, to biking and walking. There are maps and links to maps highlighting various routes and locations of bike-share racks, bike-fix-it stations and car-share stations, as well as links to apps supporting those transportation modes.
“We’re moving into the dockless [bike] system, where the bike can just be picked up at any front door,” Ronayne says. He uses the shared dockless scooters now available to travel between meetings, a cheaper and quicker alternative to navigating traffic in his car and searching for a parking spot near his destination — one that may cost him $5 to $10.
“I’m there in five minutes, door to door,” he says.
The website also lists benefits offered by Circle institutions to employees who commute by public transit, bike, carpool or vanpool. For example, a number of employers are enrolled in Commuter Advantage, a Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority program in which employees purchase monthly RTA transit passes pretax. Case Western Reserve University staffers earning less than $50,000 a year can purchase those passes at a 55 percent reduced rate, while Cleveland Clinic offers parking discounts to carpools of two or more people. (Carpools of four or more park free on the clinic’s main campus.) UCI even installed a second shower at its Magnolia Drive offices for employees who bike to work throughout the year.
“Even in the four-season-with-winter cities that they are, cycling is a major percentage of transportation mode in the cities of Amsterdam and Copenhagen… we’re trying to see through bike infrastructure and trails that better meet commuter demand,” Ronayne says.
Circle employees also are encouraged to live where they work through Greater Circle Living. The program offers up to $30,000 in forgivable home-purchase loans, up to $1,400 in one month’s rental assistance and up to $8,000 in exterior-repair matching funds in University Circle and eligible surrounding neighborhoods via funds provided by the Cleveland Foundation and Circle
“Since about 2005, we’ve seen about 2,000 units of housing built or renovated in the Circle, most of that built. That’s a big, big number for Cleveland,” Ronayne reports. “There’s many more in the adjacent neighborhoods of greater University Circle.”
Encouraging more people to live and work in the Circle, together with promoting walking and biking among employees and students and visitors hurrying from one place to another, demands an increased focus on transportation safety. To improve pedestrian safety, uGO has created what Ronayne calls “viewshed corridors” on Mayfield Road in neighboring Little Italy. He gives the example of replacing a parking spot abutting an intersection with a buffered setback.
“We had a pedestrian who was hit on Mayfield and very seriously injured,” he says of the impetus. “[They] couldn’t see past the vehicle that had parked right up to the intersection.”
When the switch back to Eastern Standard Time happens, UCI will implement Project Yield, a program that will decrease speed limits, increase intersection lighting and add signage notifying drivers that they are entering what Ronayne calls “essentially one big school district,” where streets are shared with multiple transportation modes.
Transportation safety is just one of the topics addressed in uGO’s Mobility in the Modern Era, a series of four one-hour Zoom sessions that explored best practices employed to help people get around. The first, on July 30, featured Angie Schmitt, former streetsblog.org writer and author of, “Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America.” The last, on Oct. 28, with former Capital Crossroads director Cleve Ricksecker, addressed efforts by the city of Columbus to ease its parking crunch through a public-private partnership that provides free transit passes to downtown employees. Ronayne believes that similar measures like the ones championed by uGO can make Cleveland a model of sustainable transportation management.
“We want to ideate with citizens and planning professionals all around Northeast Ohio and also get national best practices… so that someday somebody abroad is talking about Cleveland like I was talking about Amsterdam and Copenhagen as places on the move,” he says.