The first phase of the construction of seven traffic circles along a busy west side boulevard recently finished. Franklin Boulevard residents have been concerned for over a decade about speeding and reckless driving on the street, particularly the portion which runs from W. 25th St. to W. 85th St. through the Ohio City and Detroit Shoreway neighborhoods. The city of Cleveland’s new design for the street, with traffic circles and other changes, is aimed at slowing down traffic and making it safer for pedestrians. The first phase addressed Franklin Blvd. from W. 85th to W. 50th, and the second phase will address the W. 50th to W. 25th section. Community input has been a driving force spurring and shaping these changes, starting before the Franklin Boulevard Rehabilitation Project began in 2018 and remaining strong even as the project approaches its 2023 completion.
“Harrowing” conditions along Franklin Boulevard
In 2010, a 3-year-old child was hit by a driver at the intersection of Franklin and West 38th Street and later died from their injuries. Franklin Boulevard’s injury/fatal crash rate was “higher than most similar roadways in the surrounding neighborhoods, and certain segments of Franklin Blvd. have experienced particularly high overall crash rates and injury/fatal crash rates,” according to research prepared by the Northeast Ohio Area Coordinating Agency (NOACA), a multimodal transportation planning agency that serves five counties in Northeast Ohio. Between 2012 and 2016, 75 out of 258 vehicle crashes along Franklin Boulevard resulted in injuries.
“To get out of our driveway was harrowing,” recalled Jamye Jamison, who was one of the residents on the stakeholder committee for the project. Jamison said that the speed and poor visibility of Franklin made getting out of her driveway dangerous. “I had so many near misses,” she said.
The speed limit on Franklin – 35 miles per hour – is too high, residents said. Nearby roads, like Madison Avenue and Detroit Avenue, each have a lower speed limit of 25 miles per hour and more traffic lights. As a result, Franklin Boulevard is used as a “thoroughfare,” former resident Michael Hudecek said in an interview. Complaints climaxed in 2017, when one vigilante resident put up homemade signs that set the speed limit along Franklin Boulevard at 25 miles per hour.
ODOT rules create challenges
The speed limit could not be changed along Franklin because of rules set at the state level. Speed limits, per the Ohio Revised Code, are set by the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT), said city of Cleveland engineer Eva Vargas, who had a secondary engineering role on the project.
The rules set by ODOT said that traffic first had to be slowed along Franklin before the speed limit could be lowered, Vargas further explained. “The city reached out to ODOT about lowering the speeds. And at that time [ODOT] had a system in place where you set the speeds, they do a speed study, and based on the results they set the speed. And the results of the study at that time didn’t justify lowering the speed limit,” Vargas said.
In other words, speed studies showed that most people were driving at or above the speed limit on Franklin Boulevard. Thus, residents who wanted the speed limit lowered were stuck: because people drove above the speed limit on Franklin, the speed limit couldn’t be lowered.
Proposed solution: Traffic calming and NOACA study
The solution, Vargas said, was to slow traffic on Franklin through physical roadway changes such as traffic circles and curb bump outs that caused drivers to slow down. “The strategy is to achieve the first level of traffic calming with this project, and then we’ll really have the ammunition to go back to ODOT and ask for [the speed limit] to be lowered,” Vargas explained.
Hudecek, who was part of the stakeholder committee for the project, explained that it was necessary to create “a built environment that forces people to drive safer.” He continued, “The reality is that people go 50 [mph] down Franklin all the time, and the only way to force them to not go 50 is to build it so that they physically can’t go 50.”
NOACA agreed to do a detailed study of the traffic conditions on Franklin and proposed traffic calming solutions as part of their Transportation for Livable Communities Initiative. Residents provided feedback on potential road changes over three meetings with NOACA between 2017 and 2018 and were also part of a stakeholder committee for the report.
“The first public meeting, we were really focused on listening to the residents and making sure that we understood their experiences traveling along and across Franklin Boulevard,” said Andrew Stahlke, one of the transportation planners at NOACA who worked on the report. “The second meeting, we were able to come back with some ideas and some potential improvements and present them to the public…We took all of that, and at the third public meeting [we] proposed specific recommendations at specific locations up and down the corridor.”
NOACA published their recommendations for Franklin Boulevard in 2019. In the report, the agency recommended replacing stop lights at five intersections along Franklin Boulevard with traffic circles and installing traffic circles at two additional intersections. Their report said that residents strongly supported road changes like traffic circles, curb extensions (extending the curb and narrowing the road near intersections to slow traffic), and speed tables (making the crosswalk a “gentle” speed bump a few inches off the ground, also called a raised crosswalk).
The traffic circles “will encourage drivers to maintain a slower average speed throughout the corridor,” Stahlke explained. “The hope is that vehicular traffic will slow down, and it will also make it a more comfortable environment for people to cycle up and down Franklin… and for people to walk across and walk along as well,” he said.
“These circles are not optional. You cannot avoid them,” Jamison said.
Initial roadway design and adjustments
When the city presented their design for Franklin based on the NOACA study, residents had serious concerns about the traffic circles. Jamison said that the initial city design showed the traffic circles painted on the ground, while the NOACA study showed sturdier traffic circles with plants in the middle.
“Paint is not going to cut it. People are just going to be flying right through these things,” Jamison said. “My initial reaction was not good. But to the city’s credit, they took a lot of the criticism.”
The city redesigned the traffic circles to be four inches tall. Vargas explained that the traffic circle still had to permit the passage of larger vehicles, like emergency vehicles or school buses. “If you make [it] too big, then it creates a hazard for larger vehicles,” Vargas said.
The angles of Franklin’s intersections created additional challenges. “What we found…is that because of the geometry of the streets, some of them have skews and things like that, just putting something round in the middle isn’t going to slow people down because they can get around it,” Vargas said.
The design was a “balance,” Vargas concluded, and the end result was the innovative, “oval-shaped” roundabouts being installed today.
“I was not thrilled about the traffic circles…because I didn’t think they were robust enough,” Hudecek said. “But seeing them live as they’re coming together, I think [it will be] interesting to talk to my family on Franklin and friends to see how it drives in practice.”
Residents also noted that the speed tables recommended by the NOACA study were missing in the final street design. At the time, the city said that they had no policy for the speed tables, so they were excluded from the design. The city is now piloting speed tables throughout the city and developing a comprehensive policy.
The second phase of construction along Franklin will occur next summer. The city will assess the effectiveness of the traffic interventions after construction is finished, Calley Mersmann, senior strategist for transit and mobility for the city, said at the final preconstruction meeting. That assessment will provide the evidence needed to lower the speed limit along Franklin.
Jamison and Hudecek expressed frustration about the ODOT regulations that made lowering the speed limit unnecessarily complex. “We spent so much money on that study and so much money re-doing the road, and going back to the initial complaint – we were asking for a speed limit reduction from the start. That shouldn’t have been that complicated,” Hudecek said.
The changes to Franklin could be a model for traffic calming initiatives in other parts of the city, Stahlke said. Jamison and Hudecek expressed hopes that projects like this could be implemented in an equitable way.
“The bigger part is again figuring out how you give voices to people who need it the most … How do we create voices for people in Mt. Pleasant, Buckeye, Kinsman, and Slavic Village,” Hudecek said, in the same way that “well-connected” people on the west side were able to do so.
Jamison added, “Are we the most worthy street to have all this energy and time and money spent on our street? Why us?”
What’s clear is that engagement from residents was key to achieving the street’s rehabilitation and safety upgrades. If those changes are as successful as anticipated, say advocates, the next step is ensuring that other neighborhoods experience the same improvements.
Xavier Yozwiak was a participant in The Land’s community journalism program.