When Jacob VanSickle looks along Cleveland's St. Clair Avenue, he doesn't just see the present: the East Side thoroughfare's seven lanes of asphalt, the light, quiet traffic.
He also sees the past: the sidewalks that once bustled with people and the streetcars that plied the center of the avenue. And he sees a future: a calmer street with bicyclists pedaling down a median in the lane where the trolleys ran.
VanSickle and others want to remake St. Clair with room for alternatives to cars. And they don't want to stop there; they hope to give several of Cleveland's lightest-traveled boulevards new streetscapes that welcome bikes and pedestrians, like in Portland, Oregon. A budget version, like on Washington, D.C.'s Pennsylvania Avenue, could be pulled off with planters, bollards and painted lanes. VanSickle calls the idea the Midway.
"The benefit goes beyond the cyclist," says VanSickle, the head of the nonprofit Bike Cleveland. "It's really about placemaking in neighborhoods."
City councilman Kevin Conwell sees St. Clair as unsafe for his constituents who bike, walk and don't have cars. He likes how the Midway project would narrow the street, slow car traffic and promote bike riding.
"St. Clair is too wide," Conwell says. "If we narrow the street and put a bicycle route there, that's a good thing, because then you could calm the street."
Decades ago, prosperity followed the car to the outer suburbs. But today, in Cleveland and nationwide, younger people want to live in tightly knit, lively, walkable neighborhoods — places with people on the street, where you don't need a car to get around. Car-optional cities can also extend prosperity. Today, many Clevelanders too poor to own a car live in isolation, far from jobs, schools and stores; better alternatives to cars mean opportunity, a chance to rise out of poverty.
Until the 1950s, Cleveland was built around public transit, with houses close to streetcar lines that bound neighborhoods together. So were Shaker Heights, Cleveland Heights, East Cleveland and Lakewood.
Walkable cities have the brightest futures. As downtown and University Circle fill with residents, and the near West Side resurges, the trend is already visible. The demand for walkable living in Greater Cleveland is clear. After 60 years of suburban flight and population decline, the surging popularity of car-optional neighborhoods is the biggest opportunity for a reversal that Cleveland has ever seen.
Today, however, funding is tight for alternatives to cars. A gridlocked Congress can't pass a long-term transportation bill. Ohio ranks a sorry 38th in the nation in mass-transit spending: only 63 cents per person in 2012. With the re-election of transit-phobic Gov. John Kasich, big transit expansions aren't coming anytime soon.
The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority looked at extending the Red Line or HealthLine into Euclid last year, but estimates came in at $900 million and $350 million respectively. "I don't think expansion in the short term is realistic," says Joe Calabrese, RTA's general manager and CEO.
Yet, despite the obstacles, plenty of smart, creative Clevelanders are proposing budget-minded, innovative ways to build a car-optional city. Even as we push Washington and Columbus to fund these projects, much of the money and support will have to come from Northeast Ohio itself. Our civic leaders have driven energy and cash into the Flats East Bank, Public Square, the Republican National Convention and the Opportunity Corridor. Now they should turn their attention to one of our most neglected assets: our century-old, resurgent tradition of building walkable neighborhoods and alternatives to cars. Here are some of the best ideas.
Bike lanes and road diets. Nearly every street in Cleveland has excess capacity. So our widest roads should go on "road diets," with fewer and narrower lanes for car traffic and more space for center medians, on-street parking and protected bike lanes. Road diets have proven to reduce crashes and pedestrian deaths. Bike Cleveland has a great proposal for protected lanes on Lorain Avenue in Ohio City. It's pushing Cleveland City Hall to accelerate its Complete and Green Streets program. The city created only 6.2 miles of bike lanes between 2011 and 2013, and 8.4 more miles in 2014, says VanSickle. But the city's plan calls for 70-plus new miles by 2017.
Bike sharing. Zagster, a bike-sharing system funded by several businesses and groups, debuted in September in Ohio City. It then added one station each in Tremont, the Warehouse District and University Circle. Zagster supporters say they'll expand throughout the city this year.
Mayor Frank Jackson's administration is studying (and studying) a citywide bike-share program. City Hall is better equipped to make bike-sharing successful in poorer neighborhoods, but Zagster could be the pilot program that nudges the city to act — or a substitute if the city won't.
The Red Line Greenway. Cleveland could have a bike freeway, a cycling and walking path along the Rapid's Red Line from West 65th Street to downtown. The Rapid bridge over the Cuyahoga River includes an unused, grassy strip next to the tracks. The Rotary Club of Cleveland and others think the fenced off path could become Cleveland's version of the High Line, the famously successful New York City park on an old elevated railway.
Connecting to downtown will be pricey, because the strip narrows as the bridge approaches Tower City. Keeping people safe on the path's more isolated stretches is key. The Metroparks has shown an interest in taking charge of the path.
More, better bus rapid transit. The HealthLine is an international model of bus rapid transit, a dedicated bus line that provides much of the speed and comfort of rail at a fraction of the cost. But the HealthLine could be better, with faster speeds and more buses at night. Readouts that tell when the next bus is coming are unreliable.
The Cleveland State Line, a second bus rapid transit line that debuted in December, connects west shore suburbs to downtown and CSU via Lakewood's Clifton Boulevard. Transit fans call this kind of line "BRT lite" — built for express service but without all of the HealthLine's rail-like elements. With funding tight, BRT lite on old streetcar routes is a more likely next step for Cleveland than heavy bus rapid transit.
More transit-oriented development. If a new road can spark development, so can a train station. Throughout Greater Cleveland, neighborhood planners and developers want to place homes and businesses near Rapid stations. RTA has encouraged the owner of the shopping center across from the West Side Market to replace it with hundreds of apartments and condominiums. Shaker Heights wants to redevelop the Van Aken district, at the end of the Rapid's Blue Line, with new housing, shopping and office space. The Buckeye Shaker Square Development Corp. is working to assemble land for high-density housing around Cleveland's Buckeye-Woodhill Rapid Station. Such developments should see the same high-powered team effort and multilayered financing that Cleveland musters for downtown projects.
Keeping and upgrading East Side Rapid stations. Recently, RTA studied whether to upgrade or close the East 79th Red Line station and the East 34th station. Both are primitive and must be upgraded to be disability-accessible. But because of the terrain, building a disability-accessible station at East 79th would cost about $12 million.
RTA is likely to improve the East 34th station. But an upgrade to the East 79th station — near the future path of the Opportunity Corridor, the $331 million boulevard that'll connect Interstate 490 to University Circle — isn't funded yet. So now is not the time to judge the station by its current traffic. If we're building a road to attract development, we should build better rail for the same reason.
RTA shouldn't give up on the station, but it can't revive it alone. For the sake of the new residents and workers to come, and those who live there now, even the Opportunity Corridor area needs to be a car-optional neighborhood.
How we get around matters. It changes the places we're traveling to. "Cities that have done these types of things have helped boost the quality of life in neighborhoods," VanSickle says. "It helped boost economic development."
The demand for walkable neighborhoods is an opportunity that could help revive Cleveland. It's time to embrace it.