The story as it appears in Boneshaker: A Bicycling Almanac.
Issue 42-500. Published May 2010.
Photos by Nikolas Wright.
Artist’s rendition of a multi-modal path on the I-90 Inner Belt Bridge in Cleveland. Dec. 4, 2009.
Amidst the grey, post-industrial malaise that comes to mind when most of the country thinks of Cleveland, there stands the Interstate 90 Inner Belt Bridge: a truss arch span over 50 years old, about as old as my dad, and a first cousin of Minneapolis’ I-35 bridge. Yeah, that bridge.
In the last couple years, the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) has closed and reopened lanes on the Inner Belt Bridge, a crucial feeder onramp from the burgeoning Tremont neighborhood, and a key southbound onramp just caddy-corner from Progressive Field. Trucks have been rerouted because of their weight. Commuters’ nerves have taken on ballast. ODOT crews have made repairs, effectively putting the bridge on life support.
All this bridge-blamed anxiety put the lighter under ODOT to design a new one, as if the prospect of a major U.S. east-west transportation corridor collapsing into the Cuyahoga River below wasn’t enough. Thanks to a little cheddar coming from Obama’s stimulus plan, two new spans are going up in the next few years, and the old will come down.
On a deceptively sunny December Sunday afternoon, Lake Erie sighs a lake-effect gust ashore—between the silos at Cargill Salt, through the shattered glass-speckled streets of The Flats, and whistles in the cracks of the West Side Market doors, before slowing for a moment under the trusses of the I-90 bridge. Coming out the other side under the bridge, the wind whips up again and pirouettes around the steel arches before cascading as a gust of grit down West 14th Street and into Lincoln Park, where a clot of cyclists group around a gazebo, like spokes on a hub.
Everyone’s here, ostensibly, for one reason: to rally in support of a cycling and pedestrian path on the proposed replacement I-90 Inner Belt Bridge. Most of the riders here live in the surrounding areas of Cleveland: Tremont, Ohio City, Brooklyn, and others. You can pick out the bunch from the suburbs because they’re the ones who pull up in cars with bikes mounted on the top or back. I am one of them.
Several advocates from ClevelandBikes and the Ohio City Bike Co-op speak before the rally, which swells. Handfuls of cyclists huff over hot coffee by the minute. A few photographers bumble around and snap shots, while a TV news cameraman pans the mass. Cleveland’s U.S. Representative Dennis Kucinich makes an appearance, announcing that he’s written a letter to Governor Ted Strickland, imploring ODOT to accommodate bikers and hikers. “There is no reason not to provide a separate roadway for pedestrians and cyclists within the architecture of the bridge,” a handout of his letter reads.
Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood. Dec. 4, 2009.
Stuart Survance, a rider in the group on a Raleigh Hybrid, tells me that the bridge would be a huge link in the city’s master bikeway plan. “My take on the cost objection,” he says, “only goes in hand with the fear that it won’t get used, thus the money wasted, thinking that the money is no problem if it is going to be used. Human nature alone,” Survance goes on, “gives me a definition that this bridge will most definitely be utilized. I know it’d increase my frequency to downtown for sure. It’d level out two uphill battles: [keeping cyclists] away from traffic, and providing a smoother ride. Plus it’d give a great view.”
ODOT has bristled at the bike path citing safety hazards and claiming it’s cheaper to establish bike routes on existing streets to other bridges (some of which have only brief slips of bike lanes). The projected cost for the bridge is a cool $450 million.
Dan Lake and Allison Hurley, who together run Simple Yard Care, a bike-based landscape business, live in the shadow of the Inner Belt Bridge in Tremont. “If you’re going to build something new,” Lake tells me, “you need to bear in mind alternative transportation. The bridge?” he asks. “Hell, build it for $449 mil without the path, pay me the million, and I’ll drive every biker across.” Lake’s statements don’t shock me. A lot of residents around here feel snubbed already, since ODOT closed the convenient Abbey Avenue onramp for about a year, cutting them off from downtown and the east side. The ramp reopened in 2009 after some repairs were made.
The speeches and nuggets of information that the cycling advocates give last perhaps a breath too long under the auspices of giving others more time to show up. But riders start clipping helmets and lunging forward to touch their toes right quick. Empty coffee cups accumulate in one intrepid garbage can. And then we know it’s time to ride. Riders begin to retrieve their rigs from kickstands, trees, and the ground. En masse, our attention is focused on Jim Sheehan, who choreographs us through a three-point safety check: brakes, headsets, and tire pressure.
Cyclists and a handful of pedestrians eventually divide into groups to trailblaze alternative routes to get from Tremont to downtown. I ride with dozens of cyclists down Scranton Road into The Flats: the low-lying, buckled snarl of roads along the Cuyahoga River underneath the bridges. It’s a delicate ballet, as we avoid potholes and each other while brake-tapping and staying right. I later hear that two riders got flats on that stretch of Scranton.
It’s then that Jim Sheehan, who I’m later told is the Ohio City Bike Co-op director, who is at the head of the pack, shouts, “File up!” Jim stops about halfway through the four-mile ride to tell us that it’s along this warehouse-flanked strip of riverbank where the last gap between Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga Valley Towpath lies. The path, regularly used by cyclists and joggers, picks up in Cleveland’s industrial valley several miles south of here, then runs toward Akron, and beyond. This is one of ODOT’s suggested alternatives. That the river path doesn’t exist yet makes it bafflingly moot.
Cyclists brave the rutted pavement of The Flats, with Tower City in the background. Dec. 4, 2009.
After crossing the Cuyahoga and cutting through a parking lot ramp à la critical mass, we regroup at a grassy no man’s land at Carnegie Avenue and Ontario Street. This is where the I-90 bridge bike path’s northern terminus would be. At this point a few signs bloom among the group, one reading, “Let us cross the bridge,” another, “ODOT: Manifest Combustion.” Other riders raise their rides overhead, in a sort of tentative triumph, as signs of their own. This is their protest—to be allowed to safely cross a publically [sic] funded bridge in or on something other than a car.
Some two-wheeled due diligence on Cleveland will confirm the obvious. Compared to your Portlands, Austins, and Chicagos, it’s not very cycle-friendly: potholes range from jarring to life threatening; bike lanes are scant, if existent at all; and drivers would rather you ride on the sidewalk. Perhaps a new path won’t cure all of Cleveland’s cycling woes, though it does seem in not providing equal access to the new bridge, ODOT is sacrificing alternative transportation accommodations for the motor vehicle’s gain.
As the group at the bridge breaks up, downtown traffic on a Sunday is light, despite a Browns’ home game. A mass of cyclists whose attire appears more suited for sledding than riding a bicycle, next to a wide main intersection generates only a few honks, yet a gritty solidarity prevails. The diehards and bicycle commuters of this city, and others perhaps, will persevere. They will, I’m guessing, ride no matter what—ODOT, potholes, and lake-effect snow be damned.
And ride they will, even though two months later in early February, ODOT will put the official kibosh on plans to carry us across the bridge.