On a recent Friday evening, nearly 1,000 cyclists gathered on Public Square for Critical Mass, a monthly ride where bikers normally relegated to the side of the road take over the streets en masse, triumphantly streaming through red lights with a police escort.
The festive ride feels a little like a gay pride parade for the biking community, with riders ranging from Rocky River dads in lycra shorts to hipsters with ironic mustaches to eastside cyclists with low-rider bikes, with every size and shape in between.
It wasn't always this way. Just a few years ago, the ragged band of cyclists who started Critical Mass was ticketed by the Cleveland police for riding in the middle of the street. Yet recently, the cops began holding up traffic to make sure the cyclists get through.
By all accounts, Cleveland has become significantly more bike-friendly in recent years. From the shipping-containers-cum-bike-parking-corrals in Gordon Square to monthly "Wheels and Heels" rides that draw 150-plus women cyclists to the new Bike Rack parking facility downtown, bikes are everywhere.
As a result, more cyclists are hitting the roads. Advocacy group Bike Cleveland says the number of people commuting to work by bicycle in Cleveland has gone up 280 percent over the past 10 years. That doesn't even include the hipsters who bike to the bars or the diehard treehuggers who pedal organic groceries home from the farmers market.
Cleveland's growing biking culture even has its own sense of style, from tattooed dudes in rolled-up pants to hot chicks who bike in skirts. What will the kids think of next?
The people who rank cities for bike-friendliness – yes, these are actual jobs – are taking note. This year for the first time ever, Cleveland was awarded a Bronze-level designation as a bicycle-friendly community from the League of American Bicyclists. "Cleveland exhibits a sustained commitment to cycling," reviewers said in the League's report.
The report lauded the Towpath Trail project, programs and services of Bike Cleveland, Crank Set Rides and the Ohio City Bike Co-op, the new velodrome in Slavic Village, and critical new infrastructure like the bikeway on the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge.
"The reviewers felt that there is still 'room to grow,' but that notable steps are being made in the right direction," it continued. "Reviewers were very pleased to see the current efforts and dedication to make Cleveland a great place for cyclists."
Ramping up progress
So what can Cleveland do to become a more bike-friendly community and potentially earn a Gold rating like the cities of Minneapolis, San Francisco, Seattle and Palo Alto?
The report recommends updating the city's bike plan, adding more bike infrastructure, reducing traffic speeds, adding a way-finding system, promoting more bike-friendly businesses, and educating drivers, cyclists and police about bike safety issues.
"Update the comprehensive bike plan in close collaboration with Bike Cleveland," the League urged. "Focus on developing a seamless cycling network that creates short distances between residential areas and popular destinations such as schools, commercial areas, recreational facilities, cultural resources and transit stops."
City of Cleveland officials acknowledge that there is more work to do, yet they say that the Bronze designation is evidence that the city is indeed becoming more bike-friendly.
"We're on the right track," says Jenita McGowan, chief of sustainability for the City of Cleveland. "We're committed to creating a network of cycling infrastructure in the city."
Still, local advocates say that city leaders must step up their efforts to go for the gold. They say that while we're making progress, bolder steps are needed to hasten change.
Bike infrastructure is essential. Although the city has made noticeable strides in recent years under Mayor Frank Jackson, including the passage of a Complete and Green Streets law that requires the city to spend 20 percent of roadway dollars on streets that are designed for all transportation modes, critics say it's not happening fast enough.
"A lot has been done in terms of planning and policy, but we're definitely behind the ball in terms of miles of bike lanes and bike infrastructure," says Jacob VanSickle, director of Bike Cleveland, which was formed in 2011 to help create a more bike-friendly city. "Cleveland is just not moving forward quickly enough on the implementation side." (Bike Cleveland is on the city's Complete and Green task force.)
Without adding additional facilities for cyclists, Cleveland will remain in the slow lane. "Studies show that the more bike infrastructure you install, the more bike-friendly a city becomes and the more people that you see biking," VanSickle says. "Dedicated bicycle facilities create a comfort level and encourage people to ride their bikes."
With other cities moving much more quickly to add bike infrastructure, Cleveland could fall behind, VanSickle says. "If Cleveland wants to keep up with peer cities, we need to prioritize the installation of bike infrastructure. It starts with a commitment from the mayor to say this is a priority and identifying the resources to make it happen."
Build it, they will come
Yet McGowan maintains that the city is committed to creating a robust network of bike infrastructure. So far, the city has completed 47 of 180 miles in its bike master plan, or 26 percent. This puts Cleveland ahead of peer cities such as Detroit, she says. By the end of 2013, the city will have completed six miles of new bike lanes, including Detroit Avenue, Ontario Avenue, Edgehill Road, West 41st Street and West 44th Street.
"The city is continuously expanding our bikeway system," she says. "We haven't done a street in 2012 or 2013 that hasn't been 'complete' or 'green.' When we resurface a street, we can restripe for cycling. We've also made some additional efforts outside the Capital Improvement Plan, such as Detroit Avenue, which will have bike infrastructure installed."
Over the past weekend, "guerilla striping" showed up on Detroit between West 29th and West 32nd—makeshift, illegal bike lanes that, despite their illegality, were used by bicyclists and observed by motorists.
VanSickle said in a statement on Bike Cleveland's website that the organization does not condone the practice.
"It's a liability issue if it's not done right," VanSickle told the Plain Dealer.
Still, the City of Cleveland only has about 10 miles of actual bike lanes, and delays for legal bike lanes feed the frustrations of cyclists who take matters into their own hands.
The remaining 37 miles in the city are either sharrows (signs painted on roadways telling cars to share the road), signed roadways (Lakefront Bikeway) or paved multi-purpose paths (Rockefeller Park). VanSickle says the city needs a lot more bike lanes to make streets friendlier to bikes.
Sharrows are helpful in many instances, but VanSickle says more ambitious efforts are needed to make Cleveland's streets safer for cyclists. "We apply the '8 to 80' principle, which means that we want to design roads to accommodate cyclists from 8 to 80," he says. "Things like sharrows don't encourage beginning cyclists. Sharrows don't cut it."
McGowan counters that bike lanes aren't possible on some narrow Cleveland streets, and says the traffic engineer's office carefully weighs each decision. In some cases, creating bike lanes would mean having to remove on-street parking. "Many of our neighborhoods rely on street parking [for residents and businesses]," she says.
Cleveland's 10 miles of bike lanes are negligible compared to the 100-plus miles in New York City, Washington, D.C. and many other cities. Cleveland is at risk of falling behind other cities, including peers, advocates say, putting us at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to attracting new residents and new businesses to invest in the city.
By way of comparison, Detroit will add 80 miles of bike lanes in 2013, while Memphis had added more than 50 miles since 2011, including 15 miles of protected bike lanes.
Bike-friendly cities help attract economic development. "It's about talent attraction and business attraction," Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, who has added 75 miles of bike lanes since 2007, told Bicycling Magazine. "When you look at what young people are looking for, and who businesses want to hire, you have to create that kind of city."
Dave Connor is an avid cyclist who is stationed in Cleveland with the U.S. Coast Guard. He has lived in three other major U.S. cities—St. Petersburg, Fla.; San Diego; and Washington, D.C.—and he says that Cleveland is lagging behind these other metros. "Cleveland is the least developed in terms of our bike infrastructure," he complains.
Ward 15 Councilman Matt Zone says Cleveland must be more aggressive if it wants to catch up to peer cities and attract more residents and businesses. "If we're going to retain younger people and attract people to move here, if we don't create the amenities, they're going to choose cities other than Cleveland."
Can't get there from here
The problem with Cleveland's network of bike infrastructure, bike advocates argue, is that it is patchy, and the city hasn't done a good job of prioritizing high-impact projects.
The City of Cleveland's bike master plan was adopted in 2007, and the target completion date was originally 2020. With only 26 percent of the plan complete, Cleveland still lacks a seamless network of bike-friendly streets, and unless the city dramatically picks up the pace of construction, it likely won't be completed by the 2020 target date.
At the 2013 rate of adding six miles per year, it could take until 2030 to finish the plan. Obviously, if the city speeds up construction, it could be done much sooner.
The city's slow pace isn't the only problem. Bike advocates argue that Cleveland could get more bang for its buck by making strategic investments in high-profile road projects.
The city spends $50 million per year out of its capital budget to resurface streets. In recent years, the city has added new bike lanes as part of these roadway projects. Yet the result, VanSickle argues, is a disconnected network of bike infrastructure in the city. He complains that some investments, such as the 1.5 miles of bike lanes on South Waterloo Road, haven't made the area bike-friendly because they're isolated.
"To be successful, capital projects need to be reworked around creating complete and green streets," he says. "Instead of doing a block here and block there, lump them together for impact. Instead of 10 short blocks, let's see key corridors repaved."
McGowan says that the city is doing an effective job given its fiscal constraints, and that it has shown willingness to add bike infrastructure to roads even when they're not slated to be redone. She also cites upcoming projects that will help to tie together the network of bike infrastructure in the city, including Superior Avenue, Fleet Avenue and Triskett Road.
"We are going to make significant progress this year and next," she says. "It will take a couple construction seasons to be recognized as the bike-friendly city we already are."
VanSickle agrees that planned infrastructure projects will help tie together the network, but says that the city does not have a good system for ranking and prioritizing projects.
Bike commuters say that the city's dearth of bike lane networks contributes to its mixed reviews as a bike-friendly city. "My perception is that there are some good initiatives to make it more bike-friendly, but they're so patchy as to be almost counterproductive," says Connor, who rides to his downtown office from his home in Gordon Square.
"There's a bike lane going over the Detroit-Superior bridge, but it literally ends in the middle of a five-point intersection. It seems like with every bike lane that's being put in, they're not connected enough to form a network that provides for continuous safety."
Connor recently witnessed an accident on the bridge: A cyclist was struck by a taxi driver. Without making the streets safer, he says, it's hard to encourage cycling.
"To convince more people to take up cycling, it needs to seem like a reasonable thing. And as long as there's a perception that it's unsafe, it's not going to seem reasonable."
Incomplete and not very green
As the city rolls out its Complete and Green Streets law, which was designed to make sure that roadway projects are complete (serving all users, including pedestrians and cyclists) and green (environmentally friendly), are bikes getting short shrift? That's what bike advocates say, and they're hopping mad the city is violating the law's spirit.
VanSickle says some Cleveland streets are being given a "bikewashing" treatment: The city adds important elements such as treelawns, new landscaping and other pedestrian-friendly amenities, but then somehow forgets to prioritize bike infrastructure in the mix.
Cedar Avenue on the city's eastside is one example, he says. "When we asked the city why the street wouldn't receive bike lanes, [they said] they would monitor bike usage. Yet the more bike infrastructure you add, the more people you're going to see biking."
The city's interpretation of Complete and Green Streets is that they're accessible to all modes of transportation and contain green infrastructure such as permeable pavers that absorb rainwater. "Complete and green doesn't necessarily mean it has a bike lane," says McGowan, but "connectivity, a dense enough network to support cycling."
Zone isn't buying it. "It's supposed to be complete and green," he quips. "I don't think we're doing as good a job as we could be [implementing Complete and Green Streets]."
In Zone's ward, Madison Avenue is slated for reconstruction, yet the traffic engineering department has said that adding bike lanes would be unsafe because of the pitch of the storm drains along the new street. Bike Cleveland and Zone are reviewing alternatives.
Zone says that he's had to advocate for bike lanes on other streets throughout his ward, because the traffic engineering department doesn't always make them a priority. "More people are traveling from Lakewood to the westside of Cleveland by bike, and we have a wonderful opportunity to create another east-west artery for cycling traffic."
Advocates also disagree with the city about the type of bike infrastructure needed for Cleveland's streets. Bike Cleveland believes that the city should place a much greater emphasis on bike lanes and protected bike infrastructure—off-road paths or lanes protected by bollards—and much less emphasis on sharrows or shared roads.
McGowan maintains that every street redone in 2012 and 2013 is complete and green, and that engineers weigh a number of factors when deciding whether to add bike lanes.
Yet it's hard to see the city's cycling culture making a dramatic shift unless exciting, new infrastructure is put into place. That's why Bike Cleveland is pushing for more on-road facilities. A bold plan by two cycling advocates, John McGovern and Barb Clint, even calls for turning the city's old streetcar rights-of-way into protected bike facilities.
Movin' on up
Pittsburgh has had a strong bike advocacy organization in place for 10 years, and the results are beginning to show. The city has added more than 50 miles of bike lanes and 1,000 bike racks in the past few years. Bike Pittsburgh hosts an annual BikeFest that spans 17 days, offering a range of fun, free bike-related activities across the city.
Scott Bricker, executive director of Bike Pittsburgh, says that although the advocacy group always has had to push the city engineer's office to make bike infrastructure a priority, the situation has gotten better. "It takes a little while for city engineers to start thinking differently about streets," he says. "Now the city is taking more responsibility."
The example of Pittsburgh and other cities offers hope for Bike Cleveland, which is a new organization but has already shown its grassroots influence in transportation decisions. VanSickle is hoping to partner with the city in the next few years to dramatically accelerate the process for engineering bike infrastructure.
VanSickle hopes that such a partnership can break the logjam in the traffic engineering department, which he says needs additional resources to ensure that the Complete and Green Streets law is implemented effectively. "There is one traffic engineer who reviews the striping plans in the city, and he's overworked. They need to be equipped with staff."
McGowan refutes the argument, saying the city has staff to do the job and doesn't need help from the outside. "We have not identified lack of capacity in our traffic engineering department as a barrier to implementing bike infrastructure," she says, adding that the city already partners with Bike Cleveland on a range of projects and this will continue.
Zone also believes that the city could do a better job monitoring the implementation of Complete and Green Streets. Currently, Cleveland employs one full-time bicycle and pedestrian planner. Zone says that Mayor Jackson should consider creating a higher profile position—a "bike czar," he muses—to monitor the law's implementation.
Other game-changing projects are also in the works. For example, the city is working closely with Bike Cleveland on a study of bike sharing. Although the final study is not yet available, McGowan says that it reveals that bike sharing is feasible here and offers recommendations for how it might be carried out across the city.
Responding to an open call by Steve Litt, the Plain Dealer's art and architecture critic, VanSickle and other bike advocates are also putting together a bike summit to rank and prioritize bike infrastructure projects across the city—and jumpstart fundraising.
McGowan also says the city is in the final throes of creating a typology of complete and green streets that will serve as a roadmap for new infrastructure. The typology should make it easier for the city to prioritize and select infrastructure projects in the future.
McGowan maintains that cyclists will see much better cycling networks as projects are completed. "We know creating sustainable transportation options is an important part of sustainable economic development," she says. "We're committed to complete and green streets and creating a network that gets cyclists where they need to go."