Stuck in First Gear

Bike-friendly cities attract young people, create jobs and are healthier places to live. So why are Cleveland's efforts to develop more bike-friendly streets stuck in granny gear?

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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."

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