Is Our Love for Cars Hurting Our City?

It’s no secret that Cleveland has been a shrinking city for a number of decades. Once home to nearly 1 million people, Cleveland’s population now sits at around 390,000. The weird thing is that our regional population has been relatively stable for the last 50 years. In short, we’ve been spreading out. Sprawl without growth is incredibly costly because we build and maintain more with relatively fewer resources. There are a number of reasons for this spreading out, but one undeniable factor has been our approach to transportation. As a society we fell in love with the car, and for a long time automobile level of service and peak flow have been the lens through which we view our transportation network.

No longer inconvenient to live far away from our central cities, as a society we moved outward to bigger and newer settlements, much to the detriment of our older neighborhoods. Transportation options like biking, walking, and transit suffered as we prioritized the car over all else, and spent massive sums of money on highways and roads that sliced and diced our cities into pieces. Not everyone agrees, but you could argue the huge expense on what is now an aging network has been a losing proposition. Eroded by inflation and (good) regulations mandating higher MPG cars, the insolvency of the highway trust fund has highlighted the need to rethink our preferences towards freeways and large scale road projects. It doesn’t look like the path we’ve been on for the last 60 years is the path to sustainability. Even the passage of the first long term transportation bill in the last decade, the FAST Act, which was heralded as a victory for bikes and pedestrians comes with concerns about long term funding beyond 2020.

I’ve been accused of being “anti-car” in the past, and maybe that’s true, but I think it’s born from pragmatism. The cost structure of our surface transportation just isn’t working.

User fees make up roughly half of all funds we spend on our roads and their upkeep is a serious challenge. My hope is that we can talk about how can use them differently in the future. I think this is a conversation that all cities, particularly legacy cities like Cleveland and Akron need to have. With the rise of millennials as the most populous generation demanding greater transportation choices from the places they wish to live, it’s important that our leaders examine ways to feed this demand, and how we can improve our multimodal choices moving forward. Ohio currently has some of the lowest levels of transit funding in the nation, and our regional transit authority is feeling the pinch as they prepare to hike fares and cut bus service in 2016.

If we’re serious about attracting and retaining people, and building on the momentum our region has been gathering in recent years, then this is the kind of policy that needs to change.

It makes the upcoming City Club discussion on January 8 with Grace Gallucci of NOACA and Jason Segedy of AMATS really exciting. For a small non-profit like Bike Cleveland staffed by new urbanists interested in sustainable and equitable transportation, it’s encouraging to know our MPOs are headed by people willing to examine where we have been, how we got here, and a better way forward. 

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  • Mark Cassell

    Great post. Cleveland is so covered in concrete and asphalt in order to cater to cars. The beautiful lakefront on the east side is unlivable because of a giant eight lane freeway that separates people from the lake. One of the largest swaths of green space on the east side is a beautiful park connecting university circle to the lakefront. Yet, it's a park that largely caters to the thousands of automobiles that cut through it everyday. Kids can't play ball in the park for fear of getting hit by a car, and bikers and joggers are forced to inhale the fumes from cars. And downtown, we succeeded in taking a beautiful space on the lake and putting up a giant asphalt stadium and accompanying parking that gets used ten times a year, mostly by suburbanites who live outside the city. Unlike New York, Chicago, Toronto or San Francisco, Cleveland has no major central public green space where citizens can gather without worrying about getting hit by an SUV. And while the changes to public square are welcomed change, they are unlikely to alter our automoble-centric planning. Urban renewal projects of the 1960s and 70s replaced neighborhoods with giant thoroughfares and parking lots. Economic development reigned supreme and the key to success was making it as easy as possible for white suburbanites to drive into the city and get out as quickly as possible. And as the outlying suburbs grew in population the regional power and influence of the Medinas, Avon Lakes, and Chagrin Falls also increased and urban competition became the only game in town. Not satisfied with all the asphalt and concrete that have been wasted over the past three decades, the city of Cleveland recently joined forces with the state to fund another giant auto project - the (missed) opportunity corridor. It's a project that will likely cost north of $400 million, create a three miles stretch of city highway linking a another freeway to University Circle, and shave five minutes off the commute time for the employees at the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospital. While I'm hopeful Jason Sagedy can make a difference in Akron, I feel as if Cleveland city planners and policymakers have learned nothing over the past thirty years.