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The great highway transformation

By David Beach

It’s hard to imagine how much our transportation lives have changed in Northeast Ohio during the past 50 years (and even harder to imagine the changes in transportation modes over the past 200 years).

Development used to follow the geometry of streetcar lines

I can remember growing up in Bay Village in the 1960s. This was before the highways—before I-90 and I-480 were completed through the western suburbs. All of the east-west traffic funneled along city streets such as Lake Road, Detroit Road, and Lorain Road. (You don’t think about it now, but Detroit Road actually used to be the road you took from Cleveland to Detroit.)

Around five o'clock on summer evenings I would ride my bike down to the end of our residential street to wait for my dad to come home from work. I waited along Lake Road at the boundary of Bay Village and Rocky River. This was where the road narrowed from four lanes to two. During rush hour a bumper-to-bumper clot of traffic—everything from the cars of local residents to long-haul semi-trucks—squeezed slowly through this bottleneck. Impatient drivers honked their horns, and diesel fumes filled the air.

There were many places like that in the region. It was hard to travel far across the metropolitan area. From Bay Village, downtown Cleveland seemed far away, even though the actual distance was just 10 miles. It was a big deal to go downtown. Going to places like University Circle on the east side was a once-a-year adventure. Mostly, we stayed close to home. We shopped locally in Bay or Rocky River. Recreation happened at local playgrounds and baseball diamonds. Our personal geographies were relatively small.

Bay Village itself hasn’t changed much since the ‘60s. But my mental map of its place in the region is totally different now thanks to I-90, which was completed through the western suburbs in the '70s. Now Bay Village is a series of exits off the highway. Although I live on the east side of town in Cleveland, I still go to Bay Village often to visit my parents, and I don’t think of it as being very far away. For me, and for most other people, the geography of travel has exploded. We don’t think twice about getting in our cars and driving across the county, or out to another county.

The great transformation

Development used to follow the geometry of streetcar lines This is a profound transformation. In the past 50 years we have spent billions of dollars to build a regional highway system that has changed the landscape of Northeast Ohio by greatly increasing people’s mobility by one mode of transportation—the automobile. This has been a major reason why the developed land area of the region has ballooned outward, as people have followed new highways from compact communities designed around streetcar corridors (click on the map at right to see the original streetcar geometry of Greater Cleveland) to sprawling suburbs designed around cars. It has changed where people live, work, shop, and play. The need to accommodate increasing number of automobiles moving at faster speeds has even changed the design of streets and buildings—the whole visual appearance of our communities. It has changed our perception of land and space.

I would like to argue that we haven’t come to grips with this transformation. We haven’t appreciated fully the magnitude of the changes—what the new transportation landscape has done to our communities and to us as human beings. Most of us go about our daily lives and don’t notice this new landscape, much less think about how different it is from human settlements throughout history. It’s just the way things are today. Like fish swimming in water, we don’t think much about the water or whether there could be a different way to live.

As a society, we should be thinking more deeply about our transportation landscape. We need to ask what’s happened (good and bad), why it happened, and where we want to go from here. This is one of the most important things we can do for the future of our region because so much of our capital resources—hundreds of millions of dollars a year—are spent on transportation projects. This is the funding that can reshape our communities, and the money will be spent, year after year after year. If we don’t rethink the present system, we will keep building more of the same.

Time to take stock

Now is a good time to take stock of the situation. The Interstate Highway System, which unleashed the biggest changes, is essentially complete in Northeast Ohio. The last major pieces were the Jennings Freeway, completed in 1998, and the high-speed lanes on I-271, completed in 1995. There are no more plans for large-scale highway expansion projects, except perhaps if you count the reconfiguration of the Innerbelt in downtown Cleveland or the upgrading of a section of SR 8 in Summit County. Future projects will be isolated interchanges (such as a controversial new I-90 interchange in Avon) or lane additions on existing highways. Increasingly, attention is turning to maintenance of current highway system, including big projects like the Cleveland Innerbelt reconstruction.

So maybe now we can take a breath, figure out what this massive transformation of our landscape has wrought, and decide whether it’s time to do something different. We can ask: what’s next?

It’s also a good time to take stock because powerful, global forces beyond our control could make it difficult to sustain our present transportation system. The combination of carbon pricing to prevent climate change and the end of cheap oil supplies could make the American, automobile-dependent, hyper-mobile lifestyle unaffordable for many more people (already about a third of households in the city of Cleveland can’t afford a car). Thus, we may be compelled to redesign cities and transportation.

I should emphasize this is not intended to be a one-sided diatribe against the automobile (although they should be far more efficient, cleaner, and safer; to see what is possible, go here for information about the Hypercar concept). Indeed, cars are great for many purposes, and I do enjoy driving mine. I also appreciate being able to drive easily across Cuyahoga County to visit my parents.

Rather my argument is that there are serious problems with our near-total dependence on cars and that many people (as well as our cities and the environment) would benefit from having more choices for getting around. In order to provide such choices, we will have to start applying different principles for planning metropolitan regions and investing in transportation. Most importantly, we will have to develop convenient places where more of what we need is close by and doesn't require a lot of expensive transportation to access.

We can do this in Northeast Ohio. I sense that there is an opening for a new vision of transportation. I say this because over the years I have sat in countless transportation planning meetings, and in most of the meetings I have felt like I was speaking a different language from most of the others in the room. In recent years, however, the dominant language has begun to change. Now, when I suggest that maybe a particular transportation project should accommodate bicyclists and pedestrians as well as cars, I don’t just get a roomful highway engineers rolling their eyes. I get a lot of people nodding in agreement.

Now is the time to rethink the transportation future of the region.

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