Why transportation should be more ‘Ease his pain. Go the distance’ than ‘If you build it, they will come’

Chris Horne lives in Akron, Ohio and serves as publisher of The Devil Strip, an online news source covering arts and culture in Akron. Today he's sharing a guest article about transportation issues in the city as part of our ongoing conversation on Akron. Follow our coverage, join the discussion and get information about how you can connect here.

Source: Jason Segedy

Source: Jason Segedy

“Field of Dreams” seems like a baseball movie, but it should be a morality play for urban and regional planners. For almost 30 years, headlines about large-scale transportation projects have been littered with references to the flick’s most quotable line: “If you build it, they will come.” That mindset has justified plenty of regressive ideas, which too often follow Ray’s lead, eating up perfectly good farmland for a destination that draws a line of cars sitting bumper to bumper.

Sometimes, it gets built and they don’t come.

That’s the story in Akron, OH, where a ghost town of concrete that was SR-59 sits between the urban core and the West Hill neighborhood. The Innerbelt, as it’s better known, was once supposed to be “a savior to a downtown struggling to stay afloat in the burgeoning age of the automobile”. Instead, it’s been decommissioned and may become a forest. However, it’s hard for officials to get specific because it’ll be a year before the city has full control over the land, and in the meantime, they’re developing a master plan with short, medium and long range plans for the site with input from the Mayors’ Institute for City Design.

The project was first announced in 1962, the boom days when the Akron’s population was pushing 300,000. Ten years later, the population beginning to decline, land purchases were beset by problems both financial — the state was cash poor — and ethical — mostly black families and businesses were being displaced. By 1987, the Innerbelt finally opened, its price tag $22 million more than originally projected and its purpose undercut by population loss in the neighborhood of 65,000 people. Twelve years later, then-Mayor Don Plusquellic first proposed getting rid of it.

Alex Morrison can quote “Field of Dreams” with the best of them, but he takes a different lesson from the movie: “Ease his pain. Go the distance.” That’s why, as the Executive Director of Urban Development Authority and Assistant Manager for Economic Development of Macon-Bibb County in Georgia, he believes there are better ways to save a downtown. For instance, instead of catering to more cars to fight auto-enabled flight to the suburbs, he thinks you spur prosperity by peddling to pedestrians, investing in sidewalks that are freshly and uniformly paved.

“Build a place where people want to live and the rest will follow,” Morrison says.

That’s his “Field of Dream” theory. One part — “Ease his pain.” — emphasizes first understanding what residents actually want and need instead of simply building things because building is what you do. The other — “Go the distance.” — means thinking long-term, not reacting to the moment.

Nice sidewalks are one thing in Macon, Georgia, but bike lanes are a harder sell. So Macon Connects, a consortium of engaged locals in the consolidated municipality of nearly 155,000 people, created the “World’s Largest Pop-Up Bike Lane Network,” in partnership with area civic groups, the Knight Foundation, 8 80 Cities and Better Block. The effort wooed the county engineer. Now, permanent bike lanes are being installed and officials are pushing for a Complete Streets Policy.

The city of Akron has 25 miles of bike lanes and has experimented with more through a couple of Better Block pop-ups and the Open Streets events. This has led to permanent bike lanes around town, but it’s been sporadic — a few installed merely out of convenience as part of other road projects. Some of these are protected. Some are just strange: 100-feet on Merriman Rd. at the intersection of Memorial Parkway, then another 100- to 150-feet on E. Tallmadge Ave. at the turn on Main St. heading towards the Y-Bridge...

A couple summers ago, the sharrows on a downtown portion of Main St. were replaced with protected bike lanes as part of the iTowpath plan to connect with and enhance use of the Towpath Trail, which runs alongside the historic Ohio and Erie Canal. These are among the best in the city, but they aren’t without critics. Some downtown businesses, ironically, think existing bike lanes look a little too much like a build-it-and-they-will-come plan. Since downtown Akron has relatively few full-time residents, these storefronts, restaurants and entertainment venues still rely heavily on commuters. So the protected lanes look like lost parking spaces for customers to them instead of a spark for economic growth.

What makes Akron an interesting test case is that it, in ways unlike most others, has been so thoroughly shaped by shifts in transportation.

In his essay, “The Highway and the City,” Dan Albert notes that the Erie Canal was the country’s “first important artificial highway.” Akron was born because Gen. Simon Perkins made speculative land purchases after he learned a canal would connect from the Ohio River through the area to Cleveland, donating enough of his land to the state as right-of-way to encourage them to plot the route in his favor. Several smaller cities had already started in the area, but as Akron grew prosperous, they were annexed.

The 1850s brought passenger rail to Akron, followed in the early 1880s by horse-drawn public transit that soon gave way to street cars. The city was home, in 1899, to the nation’s first police car — an electric one at that. In 1910, the Goodyear Tire Co. opened their own bus service, including the city’s first double-deckers. Fifteen years later, Goodyear would launch their first blimp, the Pilgrim, which was originally conceived as a “land yacht.” In between, Goodyear built an entire neighborhood — Goodyear Heights — to provide, as founder F.A. Seiberling said, “nice homes within the reach of our employees.” A couple years later, Firestone Tires built Firestone Park, a tree-lined neighborhood for its workers that features a center park that forms the outline of the company’s original shield logo when viewed from above.

This — being the Rubber Capital of the World — is the most obvious way transportation left its mark on Akron. For a while, no city other than Detroit could rightly claim the automobile brought more people than it took away. At least for a while. This sibling relationship between the Rubber City and Motor City, coupled with its location between major American cities, helped Akron birth the trucking industry when Roadway Express was established in 1930.

Those developments brought rapid growth, which created a strange geography and a big footprint. For leaders in Akron today, that’s the challenge, having to deal with what old city fathers left behind. They built it. What will come next?

(Top photo source: Shane Wynn via Akronstock)

This essay is part of an ongoing engagement with Akron, Ohio, supported by the Knight Foundation. Learn more about it here.