Public right of way?
In a recent Cleveland Heights court case, a middle-aged doctor who was caught roller-blading to a dinner date has been accused by police of "operating a toy vehicle in the street." On downtown Cleveland streets, drivers of pedal-powered "pedicabs" have been arrested for disrupting the flow of traffic. After the deaths-by-motor-vehicle of several pedestrians in downtown last year, the city responded with a barrage of tickets for those on foot who were caught jaywalking.
These government actions against people using non-motorized transportation are focusing attention on the lack of respect for lower-speed mobility choices in car-dominated Greater Cleveland. Are these non-polluting, pedestrian-friendly modes of travel nothing more than a nuisance to be discouraged by our public servants?
In Reclaiming Our Cities and Towns, David Engwicht writes, "For over 10,000 years, streets in cities belonged to the people for social interaction, recreation and to provide access to people, goods and places. Beasts of burden were allowed on the streets provided they did not bite or constitute a danger to life or limb of other road users." He goes on to say that today we grant freedom to beasts of burden - motor vehicles - that not only kill and maim millions, but that have eroded or eliminated the community-building functions of our public right of way.
Bicycle commuters are especially vulnerable. They share stories of close calls from careless motorists and even intentional intimidation. Far from protecting the well-being of these responsible citizens, many municipalities actually discourage and harass cyclists. From outright bicycle bans to mandatory use of dangerous sidewalks, many local ordinances are completely at odds with federal and state laws that ensure cyclists equal rights to the public way. Local cycling advocates have already nominated policies in Broadview Heights, North Olmsted, Bay Village, Strongsville and Brook Park for their bicycling "Hall of Shame."
Even when communities have not enacted laws to discriminate against slower-speed transportation, city officials around the region have done little to provide for safe and comfortable non-motorized travel choices. Fearing legal liability, they're unwilling to create policies favoring walking and bicycling, or to even endorse them as legitimate transportation choices.
The road ahead
New technologies are arriving, however, that will challenge our thinking about the public way. Low-speed vehicles (LSV) have been legal on Ohio roads with speed limits of 35 mph or less since 1998. These clean, quiet, battery-powered electric cars, motorcycles, scooters and bicycles operate at a maximum speed of 25 mph. They're ideal for running errands on local streets. But if these lower-speed technologies are to be safely welcomed into our existing transportation system, we must aggressively pursue traffic calming and other innovative road designs.
With continued work, our future streets could be populated with a far greater diversity of vehicles than today.