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OurStreets helping Cleveland commuters, advocacy groups track dangerous traffic violations

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Posted at 7:30 AM, Feb 26, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-26 18:23:34-05

CLEVELAND — A relatively new app, OurStreets, is already catching on among Cleveland commuters and advocates as a new way to help the city, Bike Cleveland, and Clevelanders for Public Transit better track traffic violations.

In a quick drive across downtown, it's pretty easy to find blocked bike lanes and a small army of cars parked where they shouldn't be.

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Two vehicles block the bus lane on Euclid Avenue near Public Square. Both drivers appeared to be across the street picking up food.

"I saw a guy pull right behind a bus in a van and it says, 'Bus only," said Benjamin Wright, who walks to work from Ohio City into downtown. "So things like that are hazardous, man."

"One of the key safety items we always push for cyclists is to be predictable," said Bike Cleveland's Communications & Events Manager Jason Kuhn.

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Kuhn points out where he often sees tour buses park, blocking a bike land and pedestrian crosswalk, while letting people off at the Cleveland script sign near Tremont.

But when bike lanes are blocked, cyclists are forced to swerve into the road to get by. Kuhn says it happens a lot in tourist destinations like the Cleveland script sign near Tremont, despite the fact that there is a free parking lot just across the street.

"This puts you blocking a pedestrian crosswalk and a bike lane at the same time," Kuhn said, pointing to a spot where he says he often sees tour buses park.

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A large truck blocks a bike lake near Duck Island and Ohio City.

Cities often track information like crashes and traffic deaths after they happen, but no one is tracking the tickets that never get written, or the violations that are never caught, until OurStreets.

"This isn't about direct enforcement," said OurStreets co-founder and CEO Mark Sussman. "That vehicle is going to be gone in a minute, but it's about adding up all those minutes to understand the real problems on our streets."

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OurStreets allows users to quickly report one of a wide range of violations or dangerous conditions.

The app lets anyone report an illegally-parked car, blocked bike lane, or other potential hazard directly from their cell phones.

A simple version of the data goes to partner organizations Bike Cleveland and Clevelanders for Public Transit so they can see where the most violations are being reported.

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A truck blocks a bike lane in Ohio City, forcing any passing cyclist to move into car lanes to get by.

The ultimate goal for OurStreets is to partner directly with cities. For a fee, cities will be able to get more detailed information about what is being reported, if they're willing to pay. So far, there is no such arrangement with the city of Cleveland.

For now, Bike Cleveland and Clevelanders for Public Transit can use the data to help Cleveland's Vision Zero Enforcement Committee with the work it is already doing.

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While advocacy groups try to expand Cleveland's bike network, apps like OurStreets will allow the groups to determine which areas need to be prioritized, and where enforcement might need to increase.

"This app will supplement the crash data that we collect to make users feel safer as they're getting around our city," said Ohio City Incorporated Director of Neighborhood Planning and Economic Development Ashley Shaw. She also co-chairs the city's Vision Zero Enforcement Committee.

Shaw helped bring OurStreets to Cleveland, setting up a conference call between OurStreets, Bike Cleveland, Ohio City Incorporated and the City of Cleveland's City Planning representatives.

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The driver of a truck left in the bus lane returns after an RTA HealthLine bus started honking its horn when it couldn't continue in the bus lane.

"It's about keeping the public right of way clear for our most vulnerable road users," said Sussman.

Sussman says OurStreets is trying to provide more data about how people interact with traffic patterns, parking availability, and bike infrastructure when advocacy groups talk work with cities.

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A private truck and Cleveland Police Car sit in the car lane along Euclid. Occupants of both cars appeared to walk into a nearby restaurant.

"Those are very contentious conversations and usually both advocacy organizations and the cities themselves are ill-equipped to have a data-driven conversation about why those safety infrastructure measures need to take place," said Sussman.

Part of reporting violations allows users to enter a vehicle's license plate number. Sussman says it's not for any nefarious use and that it's already helped increase violation enforcement in Washington D.C. where earlier versions of the app have been working for longer.

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A RTA HealthLine bus picks up passengers next to two cars parked in the car lane, temporarily blocking Euclid Avenue for any vehicles traveling east from Public Square.

"We want to understand the pattern of behavior so a license plate is a unique identifier for a vehicle that we can use to understand if it's the same vehicle that's constantly blocking the same right of way," said Sussman.

Wright says he thinks apps like OurStreets could help make the streets and sidewalks look the way they should.

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Advocates say unprotected bike lanes like the one along Abbey Avenue between Tremont and Ohio City aren't as effective as bike lanes protected with some kind of barrier.

"If everything is open like how it is now, it'd be cool," said Wright.

You can still report close calls to Bike Cleveland here.

This story is part of A Better Land, an ongoing series that investigates Northeast Ohio's deep-seated systemic problems. Additionally, it puts a spotlight on the community heroes fighting for positive change in Cleveland and throughout the region. If you have an idea for A Better Land story, tell us here.