If you want to make a walkable city, you need to do the little things well

saddest crosswalk sign

The saddest crosswalk sign in Cleveland.

Last week, while riding my bike to work, I stumbled across a sight that was both frightening both for its content and for how commonplace it seems to have become recently.

As I came to a stop at the corner of West 25th and Chatham Avenue, I saw a person lying in the street, surrounded by concerned onlookers. A bus idled parallel to the crowd, and a car with obvious front-end damage was stopped in the middle of the street.

It was at this point that the light changed, and I had to resume my commute. I only saw the scene for a minute or two, but it was enough for me to piece together some semblance of a narrative. It appeared as though the pedestrian – I never actually saw the person from the waist up – had attempted to cross West 25th to catch the waiting bus. At that point, this person was struck by the car, which bore the telltale signs of damage around the driver’s side headlight. I have no way of knowing whether or not the person had the right of way, but the fact that the car was damaged suggests the collision was violent.

This was not the first time that I came across the aftermath of a car-on-pedestrian collision. Back in 2011, again while biking, I happened upon a 17-year old young man lying dead in a pool of his own blood on Ontario Street, just south of Public Square. The driver who struck him was standing outside his car, speaking to police. He was visibly shaken. I later learned that the 17-year old had run into the street after his skateboard, and the driver was unable to stop in time. It’s a scene that haunts me to this day. While the driver was found not to be at fault, this was a visceral reminder of the stark imbalance between drivers and pedestrians. If a teenager makes one bad decision, he may never make another.

It’s through this lens that I read the glowing coverage on the proposed updates to the City of Cleveland’s downtown zoning regulations. The City Planning Commission seems committed to moving towards form-based zoning, at least in limited areas, in an attempt to make our city more walkable and pedestrian friendly. Unfortunately, this pilot “urban core overlay” would only occur in the area of downtown near the proposed Weston-Citymark development. While this is welcome, it risks reinforcing one of the complaints that a number of us have made over the past few years – namely, the City seems preoccupied with big, shiny, expensive projects, rather than the types of small changes that can immediately improve peoples’ lives.

If you know me or have read things that I’ve written here in the past, you probably realize that I’m a proponent of incremental progress. It’s great to push for the Big Things that can help shift paradigms, but we shouldn’t ignore the types of small, tangible changes that help people at the margins. It’s just as important to do the little things well.

With this in mind, I’ve been wanting to explore how well the City of Cleveland addresses the small details that can go a long way towards improving pedestrians’ quality of life. Vibrant NEO 2040, the landmark report produced by the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium, laid out a few of the important things that cities can do to enhance their walkability (see “Pedestrian Orientation” section). The City of Cleveland was an active participant in this process, and this document is supposed to inform planning in the region going forward. Using these criteria, let’s consider Cleveland’s progress – or lack thereof.

1.) Do all intersections include crosswalks and pedestrian signals?

One of the simplest and most important things a city can do is to ensure that every intersection is equipped with crosswalks and pedestrian signals. This simple addition of some painted lines and signals carves out a small part of the street where pedestrians have a legally enforceable right to space. It is only in these crosswalks during these designated periods when a pedestrian can reasonably expect to have his/her rights protected from the 2,000 pound metal boxes that dominate our roads. Surely Cleveland is succeeding in this most fundamental of areas, right?

Not exactly. Consider the intersection where I came across that injured pedestrian last week. The collision occurred roughly parralel to that red marker. As you can see in the satellite image below, there are only crosswalks at three of the four points at this busy intersection. Keep in mind that this is just south of the corner of Lorain Avenue, home to the West Side Market and an array of bars, restaurants, and shops.

west 25th chatham

The intersection of West 25th Street and Chatham Avenue in the Ohio City neighborhood (courtesy of Google Maps).

If you head just about a block northwest of this intersection, you will come across another heavily trafficked area – the West 25th Street rapid station on Lorain Avenue. Again, this is one of the busiest stations in RTA’s rail network, and it lies just across the street from the West Side Market. Surely pedestrians should be able to head out of the station and immediately cross Lorain to get to the Market? Well, as you can see, that’s not possible. Instead, they have to first cross West 24th Street/Gehring Avenue, then wait to cross Lorain. It’s all the more galling when you consider that this intersection is located on the edge of one of Cleveland’s pedestrian retail overlay districts.

west 25th rapid station

An aerial view of the streets around the West 25th rapid station in Cleveland (courtesy of Google Maps).

2.) Are all pedestrian signals set to actuate at all times (i.e. not pedestrian actuated)?

Once again, this seems like a small thing. It makes a pedestrian’s life a lot easier if she knows that regardless of when she gets to the intersection during the cycle, the walk signal is going to trigger when it’s supposed to. If that’s not the case, you may either have to wait through multiple cycles of the light to cross safely or take the risk of crossing when the walk sign is not activated.

Let’s head just two blocks east from our last intersection, down Lorain Avenue, to corner of West 20th Street. This is a very popular cut through point for commuters who want to avoid traffic on I-71 as they enter downtown via the Lorain-Carnegie (Hope Memorial) Bridge. Likewise, I frequently bike down Abbey to West 20th in order to access the multi-use path on the bridge more safely.

But, alas, the signals at West 20th and Lorain are pedestrian actuated. If I fail to trigger the signal before the light on West 20th turns green – which, I would estimate, happens roughly half of the time – I either have to wait another cycle or risk crossing the street without the signal in the face of drivers making aggressive right-hand turns onto the bridge. I cannot count the number of times that I have nearly been run down in that intersection, even when I had the signal.

west 20th lorain

Intersection of West 20th Street and Lorain Avenue, just west of the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge (courtesy of Google Maps).

3.) Has the city installed “leading pedestrian interval” signals, which allow pedestrians to start ahead of vehicular traffic?

To be honest, this one is more aspirational than anything. I came across these signals throughout Washington, DC, but I hold out little hope that they’ll be installed here soon. (Keep in mind that the State of Ohio passed a law in 2013 requiring pedestrians to yield to cars turning right.)

Realistically, I just want the City to ensure that every pedestrian signal is synced to the traffic light. That is, the walk sign should activate as soon as the light turns green for cars, and the signal should not switch from flashing don’t walk to sold don’t walk until that traffic light turns yellow. At the very least, pedestrians should be afforded the same legal rights as the cars, right?

fulton bridge west 32nd

The five-points intersection of Fulton Road (north-south), Bridge Avenue (east-west) and West 32nd Street in Ohio City (courtesy of Google Maps).

Once again, that’s not the case. Let’s consider the case of the five-points intersection of Fulton Road, Bridge Avenue, and West 32nd Street. If you are walking down Fulton, you will soon discover that the walk signal does not remain activated long enough for you to cross Bridge.

From crossing this intersection on a nearly daily basis, I have learned that from the moment that the solid don’t walk sign comes on, I have exactly 12 seconds to cross Bridge before the light turns yellow. In other words, the City affords drivers a full 12 extra seconds of legal authority that pedestrians cannot claim. If I was hit by a driver turning onto Bridge, it’s entirely possible that I could be found at fault for crossing without the signal.

This is far from the only example of the City further stacking the decks in the favor of drivers.

Let’s consider the curious case of West St. Clair Avenue. Say you are a visitor to Cleveland, attending an event at our $425 million, publicly financed Convention Center, and you wanted to head to the nearest Starbucks to get your overpriced caffeine fix. You would need to head west down West St. Clair, form West Mall Drive to West 6th Street. Along the way, you would need to go through three separate intersections – Ontario Avenue, West 3rd, and West 6th. The traffic lights at each of these intersections includes a left turn arrow so that drivers heading south down one of these cross streets can get a head start. But that shouldn’t affect you as you head west down the north side of the street, right? I mean, those cars can’t possibly hit you when they’re turning the exact opposite direction.

west st. clair

West St. Clair Avenue in downtown Cleveland (courtesy of Google Maps).

Yet, for a reason about as clear as asphalt, the pedestrian signals on the north side of St. Clair at each of these intersections are set such that the walk sign does not come on until the left turn arrow deactivates. That may make sense if there was a right turn arrow or if the left turn signal applied for cars heading in both directions on West St. Clair. But it doesn’t. Instead, someone in the City decided that it made sense to force pedestrians to wait so that cars three lanes south of then could turn farther south. Because logic.

There are a number of other criteria that we could use to judge Cleveland’s walkability. Are there mid-block crossings? (Yes.) Are they plentiful? (No.) Do they all have signs? (Some, but they aren’t maintained – see above.) Do drivers respect them? (Hell no.) Do all of the pedestrian signals have countdown timers? (Not even in downtown.) Do any of the pedestrian signals include verbal cues for the visually impaired? (No, given that I have had to escort a confused blind man across Superior Avenue.)

I certainly recognize that Cleveland is making very real progress in its effort to enhance bike and pedestrian infrastructure. But, all too often, we spend money on things that look nice or seem nice in theory, even as we overlook the little things that can make a tangible difference. I understand that elected officials don’t get to attend a ribbon-cutting ceremony when you sync a pedestrian signal to the traffic light, but these seemingly small things matter. Until officials commit to tackling these easy-to-fix problems, the focus on the Big projects will seem like little more than PR.

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  • I believe there are a few pedestrian leading intervals in the city. We need more though. 65th and Detroit need it badly. Walking is my primary form of transportation and I live in one of the city’s more pedestrian friendly areas, but a lot of times it definitely doesn’t seem like a lot of thought was put into the pedestrian experience.

  • I have some small scale suggestions — places to add crosswalks, etc — but it’s not clear where to refer them.