Cleveland’s Active Transit Awakening

by Peter Salamon, Associate ASLA

The Cleveland Group Plan by Charles Burnham / Image: The Cleveland Memory Project

In our April 2018 Urban Design PPN Field post, we learned about Detroit’s approach to urban transit. Continuing with this theme of rust belt cities, we’ll now explore Cleveland’s challenges and achievements in connecting people to place.

Whereas Detroit’s Woodward plan launched a framework extending far from the city center, Charles Burnham’s Group Plan for the City of Cleveland established only an immediate civic core. This was due mainly to the downtown’s unique geography, as the Cuyahoga River Valley isolated it from the more residential areas pushed to neighboring bluffs. Development in these areas loosely followed what translated in Iroquois to “the crooked river,” and could be best characterized as piecemeal; not following any distinct pattern, and often, the law.

Cuyahoga River and early development patterns / Image: Rails and Trails

Despite these challenges, Cleveland managed to create an urban “rapid transit” train system, with the Terminal Tower as the central station hub. This was originally quite functional, taking riders from residential areas to their jobs downtown and to factories in what was now the “Industrial Valley.” As these areas declined throughout 20th century sprawl, the rapid system saw decreased ridership, and the train was mistakenly not extended to the suburban employment centers. Today, the trains mostly don’t run through the neighborhoods where urban rejuvenation has seen success. As jobs and people have moved back downtown, there are plans for additions to the bus lines and a minor extension of the blue train line, but unlike Detroit’s huge swaths of abandoned land, Cleveland’s foreclosure crisis was more spotty, although similarly devastating.

RTA master plan / Image: Regional Transit Authority

These limitations forced a new planning approach to a city that had previously been car and train-dependent. Active transit (sharrows, bike lanes, trails, etc) has come alive in Cleveland in just the past decade. Bike lanes on Detroit-Superior Bridge (yes it’s called that) and other main thoroughfares have become the norm.

Towpath Innerbelt Entry / Images: Crosby Schlessinger Smallridge Boston

One particular project, the final leg of the Towpath Trail, which spans the entire state of Ohio, is the culmination of a 40-year effort coordinated by many firms. Perhaps the most stunning connection to the Towpath is under the Innerbelt Bridge, with huge chunks of caged rock walls and plantings on 100 foot cliffs. This leads to the low-lying Scranton Flats and future lake link trails. The newfound connection to the river valley has even inspired grandiose land art mounds which reimagined leftover soil.

Scranton Flats / Images: Behnke Associates Cleveland

Towpath Mounds / Images: Environmental Design Group (EDG Akron)

What the Midwest lacks in coastal and big city amenities, it has the clear advantage in cheap, vacant land rife with potential for active use.  If you’re now rushing to plan a biking vacation to the Midwest don’t fret, most of these projects are just now coming online and will be the new normal in Midwest cities in the future.

Peter Salamon, Associate ASLA, is an officer of the ASLA Urban Design PPN

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