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With street narrowing and speed tables, Cleveland works to slow down car traffic

 A pickup truck drives past rows of white pylons known as delineators on Lorain Avenue.
Nick Castele
Ideastream Public Media
A pickup truck drives past rows of white pylons known as delineators on Lorain Avenue. The city installed the pylons this year after a driver hit a student who was crossing the street near Urban Community School.

Urban Community School sits on busy Lorain Avenue in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood.

The campus is growing. Next door is a new MetroHealth building that offers care to students, their families and neighbors.

All kinds of vehicles pass by the West Side pre-K-through-8 school on a recent morning: cars, trucks, a cyclist. In early May, a driver hit a sixth-grade student who was walking to school.

“MetroHealth is right here. She had immediate attention,” Tom Gill, the private school’s president, told Ideastream Public Media. “Took her to main campus, she checked out just fine, thank God. And we knew we had a challenge on our hands for a long time. That event felt inevitable.”

Mayor Justin Bibb’s administration is looking for new ways to calm traffic and make streets safer for bicyclists and pedestrians. When Gill advocated for changes on Lorain after the collision, City Hall reacted quickly. At the end of May, Cleveland installed delineators on Lorain.

They look like big white bowling pins, arrayed up on either side of the street. The pylons narrow Lorain from two lanes in each direction to one. That forces drivers to slow down as they approach the school’s crosswalks and gives students a shorter distance to travel.

A speed bump on West 50th Street in Cleveland. Behind is a memorial to a child who was fatally struck by a motorist.
Nick Castele
Ideastream Public Media
A memorial to a child who was fatally struck by a motorist on West 50th Street in Cleveland. After the collision, an unknown person or group took it upon themselves to install do-it-yourself speed bumps on the street. When photographed on Tuesday, one of the two bumps was missing.

“The true test will be once August comes … and we’re at 780 kids on campus every day and all those things,” Gill said. “But yeah, absolutely, squeezing this down into one lane for this stretch has been very effective, and I hope it continues.”

More than two dozen people have died in traffic collisions in Cleveland this year, according to police data compiled by Vision Zero, the city’s traffic safety initiative. Some were children. A 5-year-old and a 9-year-old died in April after being struck by motorists. Recently a driver hit three people riding bikes, killing a 3-year-old.

Traffic fatalities have increased across Cuyahoga County over the last several years, rising from 79 in 2019 to 121 last year, according to Ohio Department of Public safety data.

Changes to people’s daily routines during the coronavirus pandemic could play a role in that increase in crashes, according to Matt Moss, a Cleveland city planner.

“But also, with certain roads that have had less traffic, it’s easier for drivers to either lose track of how fast they’re going or intentionally speed,” Moss said. “It’s a phenomenon that we don’t fully understand.”

Chuck Sullivan, Byright Auto Sales
Nick Castele
Ideastream Public Media
Chuck Sullivan, whose family owns Byright Auto Sales across the street from Urban Community School, said the city's original delineator layout eliminated street-side parking spaces nearby

Across the street from Urban Community School is Byright Auto Sales, a small car lot on the corner of Lorain and West 48th Street. Chuck Sullivan’s family owns the company, and he’s not pleased with the way things played out.

“They put all these things up and took our parking for our customers,” he said. “And it’s just kind of irritating. They never considered us, never asked our opinion.”

After hearing local business complaints, Cleveland restored some street-side parking by removing delineators. The city also shifted another pylon over so it wasn’t in the way of Sullivan’s garage, he said.

Sullivan said he understands that the city and the school want to protect kids crossing the street.

“I can see that side of things,” he said. “But what they should have done is had a police officer here every day, or somebody who knew what they were doing, helping the kids cross the street.”

These are the interests that the new Bibb administration has to balance, or decide between, as it tries to make Cleveland streets more hospitable to people who aren’t driving cars.

This year, the mayor and council rewrote Cleveland’s “complete and green streets” policy, which is aimed at making roads better for pedestrians, cyclists or transit riders. Now, when a street is due for road work, the city will consider design changes early in the process — rather than when it’s already underway.

“I think that’s contributed to a lot of frustration in the past between the city and residents and advocates and other stakeholders,” said Calley Mersmann, whom Bibb recently elevated to a new role as senior strategist for transit and mobility. “So this moves all of that conversation to the front.”

Mersmann said it doesn’t necessarily take a big, expensive capital project to make a road safer.

“We look at what we call low-cost safety countermeasures, things that the city can come in and do quickly with delineators, with striping,” she said. “Very low-cost things that don’t require pouring new concrete.”

For example, the city is installing 10 speed tables on residential streets in August. The tables are longer, flatter versions of speed bumps. The city picked side streets where people are driving too fast, including two roads where drivers fatally struck children.

Overall, the street segments with the most crashes tend to be the longest, widest roads, according to Moss, the city planner. He said the city knows it can't eliminate all crashes. The hope instead is to reduce their severity.

“As long as we’re still driving cars, there will be crashes,” he said. “And the goal is that these crashes don’t result in a death or someone having to go to the hospital or have a life-altering injury for the rest of their lives. That’s the goal.”

Even though cities have been designed around the personal automobile for many decades, Moss said, they don’t have to be in the future.

Nick Castele is a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media.