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Cleveland was ranked America's most equitably walkable city. Many residents disagree

Slavic Village, a Cleveland neighborhood that abutts the Cuyahoga River valley and the industry that is based there. As far back as the 1930s, the area was known for air pollution, HOLC maps show. Today, residents are more likely to suffer from asthma than people living in other areas, data from the University of Richmond show.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
Some residents of Slavic Village said it's not easy to get around there. The city says improved bus transit to the neighborhood is on the way.

Recently, a report from Smart Growth America ranked Cleveland the most equitably walkable city in the nation.

It said no matter how much money you make or what neighborhood you live in, chances are you can get your daily needs met within a 15-minute walk or transit ride — which shocked many people who live here.

Walkable neighborhoods have more people outside walking, which Dr. Prakash Ganesh, the medical director for Cuyahoga County's Board of Health, said is ideal for health.

“We do see walking linked to healthier populations based on lower rates of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease. I think also like I think that translates to lower body mass index, or BMI, lower blood pressure, lower sugars.”

Michael Rodriguez, a co-author of Foot Traffic Ahead, said he used several metrics to assess how “walkable” a community is, including an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) database that measures density and transit and a tool that tracked the locations of local businesses.

Sound of Ideas
Listen to a conversation about walkability in Cleveland.
A crosswalk sign is seen in the Playhouse Square district of Downtown Cleveland.

By those markers, he found most Cleveland residents, regardless of race or income, had access to a walkable area.

“Cleveland ranked very highly on that measure, especially. It ranked pretty fairly, frankly, in terms of its transit network and ranked very highly in terms of relative affordability," he said. "If you want walkability you can move to Cleveland, either the city or some of the other places in the suburbs, and actually get a pretty good deal.”

Part of why Cleveland ranks high is because of the era when it was built and because in other cities like Los Angeles, California and Portland, Oregon, it’s hard for people from marginalized communities to get around.

“The sort of post-industrial cities, you still have a lot of historic communities that remained in these areas that were still relatively dense and have yet to have a lot of socioeconomic turnover," Rodriguez said. "In other well-to-do cities, sometimes some of those demographic groups may have been pushed further away from what walkability there was.”

Of the transit riders Ideastream spoke to, most said they didn't think Cleveland was walkable. Many raised safety concerns. Others brought up issues like broken glass at bus stops and said that access was uneven depending what neighborhood a person was trying to navigate.

Ohio City resident Chris Martin says he'd like see more bike lanes and accessible bus stops, which he says would help make neighborhoods become more walkable.
Taylor Wizner
Ideastream Public Media
Ohio City resident Chris Martin said many neighborhoods lack grocery stores, banks and post offices, which mean residents can't run errands by foot.

Clevelanders for Public Transit chair Chris Martin said the 25% of Clevelanders who don’t have cars share many of those concerns. He takes issue with the idea that all of Cleveland is walkable.

“Tell that to the folks off Lakeshore Boulevard who just lost Dave's grocery store. Tell that to the folks in Asia Town that also lost a Dave's grocery store a few years ago," he said. "It is simply not the case that in every neighborhood in Cleveland you are able to walk to meet your daily needs.”

Martin lives in walkable Ohio City, but he used to live in Slavic Village. He said he can see why people say Cleveland has good bones, but he said those bones are broken.

“Having lived off [East] 55th and Broadway, while it may have been built for walkability and still has the remnants of it ... Slavic Village was not a walkable neighborhood," Martin said.

Cleveland is working to make many neighborhoods walkable not just trendy ones like Tremont and Ohio City, said Matt Moss, the manager of strategic initiatives for the city planning commission.

He said there are plans for better bus service in Slavic Village and zoning changes in Hough. Moss agrees walkability is uneven, but said Cleveland has a lot going for it.

He pointed to the dozen high-frequency transit corridors and three fixed rail lines, including one that goes directly to the airport. Roughly 80% of the jobs in the city are within a five-minute walk of transit, he said.

Moss said the problem is most people currently live too far from the bus stop. Zoning changes that give flexibility to builders and doing away with requirements to build parking will help, he said.

"Our goal is to move ambitiously on these code reforms because they're really fundamental in terms of our ability to build the kind of neighborhoods that Cleveland used to have — and does still have in a lot of ways — and that people want to live in," he said.

But Martin, the transit advocate, said it will take a lot of time and money to undo decades of car-oriented development.

“You can't just walk from one building to another," he said. "You walk from a building to a parking lot to a building to a parking lot to a building to a parking lot. Nobody has all that much time to spare.”

Martin said he’ll wait to celebrate a walkable Cleveland until more of his neighbors can experience it.

Taylor Wizner is a health reporter with Ideastream Public Media.