Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Bike, ped and transit facilities in Cleveland, OH

By John Greenfield

There’s only one major bike lane in Cleveland, but it’s a really good one.

I recently spent a long weekend in this city of about 500,000 (roughly three million metro) located on the south shore of Lake Erie at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River. It’s a highly underrated town. With its lakeshore to the north, rather than the east, it’s basically a miniature Chicago flipped 90 degrees to the left. But Cleveland also boasts some pleasantly rolling terrain; lush green spaces; really cool old architecture and super-friendly people.

I was also pleasantly surprised to hear about some exciting transportation developments in the Forest City, as it’s called. I got the skinny from Ryan McKenzie, who used to work on walking, bicycling and transit projects for the nonprofit EcoCity Cleveland and now runs the local car sharing service CityWheels.

Ryan and his wife started the car service with their own money and no help from government funds or charitable donations. “It’s pretty idealistic and naïve and we’ve suffered for it,” he says. “But I think we’ll persevere and get our pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”

Currently, City Wheels has 200 members and only four cars: two at University Circle near Case Western Reserve University and two at nearby Oberlin College. But six more cars will be placed in downtown Cleveland, Shaker Square and Cedar Fairmount in June. Ryan is also hoping a federal grant for $500,000 will come through this summer, allowing him to add 30 more vehicles to the fleet, which should allow them to break even.

Well, how is bringing a bunch of cars into the city going to help with congestion and air quality problems?

“In a mid-size, conservative, Midwestern city like Cleveland car sharing helps people have the courage to own fewer cars,” Ryan explains. “It’s like the patch for smoking. It helps you quit the addiction but still have some access to the nicotine.”

Ryan says that by eliminating the need to own a second or even first automobile, car sharing helps members embrace walking, biking and public transit and reduce their miles driven by over 50%. Some clients have sold their vehicle or avoided a planned purchase, and when they do drive it’s a hybrid or other “greener” car rather than a noisy, polluting beater, he says.

I originally met Ryan a few years ago when he came to town with City of Cleveland staff to study our bike facilities. “Seeing and riding on bike lanes in Chicago has helped a lot,” he says, adding that the visits also inspired Cleveland to install 500 Chicago-style inverted U bicycle racks over the past two years. Indoor bike parking was created at the local city hall and there’s a budget to build a bike station near the Cavaliers’ basketball arena.

Short stretches of bike lane were recently striped as part of improvements to the 2/3 mile-long Detroit-Superior bridge downtown. The rehab also included converting six travel lanes to four to make room for a wide sidewalk with sheltered benches and public art pieces that doubles as weather vanes and sun dials.

But the big transportation news in Cleveland is the construction of a bus rapid transit line along the east side’s Euclid Ave. Corridor. The system features dedicated bus lanes and futuristic-looking shelters on raised medians in the center of the street. Customers will be required to pay at the kiosks in advance, speeding boarding times.

Due to this forward-thinking plan, as well as quality existing bus and light rail service, last year the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority was rated North America’s best public transit system by the American Public Transportation Association. As a bonus, the new bus line is paralleled for several miles by that first-rate bike lane I mentioned.

But there seems to be a disconnect here: why is Cleveland getting a space-age rapid transit system when it has only a smidgen of bike lanes?

“The City is underfunded, understaffed and demoralized,” Ryan explains. “They barely have the resources to fill a pothole or stripe a street line.” Since the City is responsible for maintaining the roads and has trouble keeping up with routine maintenance, it’s hard to get support for new bike lanes, he says.

On the other hand, construction projects like the Euclid Corridor that are largely bankrolled by federal money are easier to push through, Ryan says. “But it was a tremendous struggle to get the bike racks, the bridge and the bus rapid transit,” he says. “The process took years and quarts of blood were spilled.”

Ryan says community activists have to be very vigilant in Cleveland and not declare victory when a project is planned but when it’s installed. “There’s not the commitment from government here for alternative transportation projects,” he says. “It’s not like Mayor Daley who says, ‘I’m a cyclist and I’m all for it.’”

I asked Ryan for a list of local bike landmarks to check out. That Sunday morning after a breakfast of frittata and espresso at Presti’s Bakery in Little Italy I took a spin downtown on Euclid. Parts of the avenue were still heavily under construction as all aspects of the streetscape are being improved: sidewalks, roadway, street trees, benches and lighting. But several of the Jetson-esque bus kiosks were already in use and for the most part the bike lane was a smooth ride.

I crossed over the Detroit-Superior Bridge into the Ohio City neighborhood and headed to Fridrich Bicycle, 3800 Lorraine Ave., a family-owned shop that’s been in business since 1883. It’s a big, utilitarian space that feels like a hardware store, in a good way. There’s lots of interesting old-fashioned accessories like wire and wicker baskets and large rubber mud flaps to screw onto your fenders.

I rolled on and crossed the Columbus Ave. Bridge to an industrial area within an oxbow of the Cuyahoga to check out the Ohio City Bike Co-op. Similar to Chicago’s West Town Bikes and Blackstone Bike Works, the co-op offers an earn-a-bike program for kids, bike safety and repair classes and more.

I didn’t have time to check out the city’s nine-mile lakefront trail or the Towpath Trail which winds more than 100 miles through the Ohio and Erie Canal Reservation. But downtown I got to speak with a couple of cyclists who were on their way home from cheering a friend in the Cleveland Marathon.

Jack Lavelle, an elementary school student told me he’s usually comfortable biking on local streets but always wears a helmet. David Postel actually goes to college at Loyola in Chicago but he grew up in Lakewood, a suburb of Cleveland. He says that while less people bike there, Cleveland is actually a very easy place to get around.

“Drivers are courteous to bikes and transit is really good,” David says. “There are free trolleys downtown. The transit workers are friendly and the buses are clean and they all have bike racks. And our train system has as many stops as Chicago’s El, but most people in Cleveland don’t know that.”


Bob said...

Good article, John. Cleveland is very similar to Chicago for biking: lots of bridges, and flat! Hard to get used to the idea of the lake on the north, however.

A couple of years ago I attend a convention in Cleveland, and rented a bike from Fridrich's bike shop, which you mentioned.

Pictures at http://family.webshots.com/album/554160828wsvaEK

Blog at http://ibew37th.blogspot.com/

T.C. O'Rourke said...

95%+ of Chicago's bike facilities are paid for from federal grants, awarded to cities with foul air.

Sounds like the problem in Cleveland isn't money for upkeep, but organizing how to get it.

So you missed the trails; don't tell me you missed the taverns too?

Or is that on your binge drinking across America blog?