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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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.

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