Ride Along with Brian Zimmerman: Cleveland Metroparks Director talks pavement and sharrows
Brian Zimmerman on the temporary Jennings Road section of the Towpath Trail
After two-and-a-half years at the helm, Cleveland Metroparks director Brian Zimmerman is no longer the “new” director of the region's big park system. But since he's following in the footsteps of one who held the job for 22 years, it might take some time to shake the description. Zimmerman kindly agreed to go on a Great Lakes Courier ride-along, to talk about cycling related projects in the Cleveland Metroparks.
Our rendezvous was at the Steel Heritage Center, a small brick building along the Steelyard Commons section of the trail. Zimmerman arrived first and worked in his car until the reporter srolled up. He pulled his blue Schwinn mountain bike out of the trunk.
Zimmerman is a casual cyclist, in a tee shirt, loose shorts, and athletic shoes. He wears sunglasses and a helmet. He says he likes to ride with his nine year-old son Carter, and credits cycling with helping him lose 20 pounds and lower his blood pressure from 138 over 90 to 118 over 80 during his time in Cleveland.
Zimmerman grew up on a Wisconsin farm, raising corn and sorghum in addition to cows. He studied soil in college, and says he came to parks system management by an unconventional path, having managed golf courses before taking a position with the Milwaukee parks system.
Before we even began to pedal, the Steel Heritage Center became the first stop on our tour. The building once housed the time clock for steel workers to punch in and out. Initial plans included a $130,000 interpretive exhibit to be installed there, but in a stroke of cost savings, the Metroparks cooperated with the Western Reserve Historical Society and others to create an exhibit for just $5,000. It includes eight large, illuminated photographs and the display with video, “How Steel is Made,” on loan from ArcelorMittal. The center is open and staffed by volunteers from 11 a.m. To 4 p.m. Sundays.
We ride at a leisurely pace south from the Steelyard parking lot. Our route is a short trip along minor improvements that have made significant impact on the continuity of the trail. The Steelyard section is no longer a disconnected fragment, separated from the rest of the trail by the contaminated Harshaw plant. The plant is still there, and the route around it is just temporary, but in the last seven months, a series of small concrete pours, curb cuts, signage, and painted lanes have smoothed and clarified the route from the Steelyard to the southern sections of the trail.
The first of the improvement comes almost immediately, where, until last December, the trail almost met Jennings Road. The Metroparks poured a mere 30 feet of new concrete, and by that small effort made a smooth, ridable connection to the pavement. Zimmerman is proud that the work was done entirely in-house.
It's partly about the smooth surface, but the improvements also make the connection between the sections visible, so riders can find their way. The stretch from there to the completed towpath trail section south of Harvard Road is less than half a mile long, but a lack of road markings, signs, or any indication that bikes are welcome made it discouraging to cyclists who didn't know the way or weren't confident sharing the road with cars and trucks.
The Metroparks has cooperated with the cities of Cleveland and Cuyahoga Heights to mark the route with painted lines and signs, and also to remove curbs and add pavement for a smooth ride along the Harvard Ave. sidewalk--which leads to the completed sections of trail to the south. The Metroparks has begun to count cyclists using that section of trail, gathering data about use as improvements continue.
At the Harvard entrance to the completed trail, we dismount to walk into the overgrowth around the radioactively contaminated Harshaw plant, which has vexed trail planners for years. The currently favored option to get around it is to build a bridge that would arc north and west from there across the river to connect to the path to the North. Zimmerman says he hopes construction of that stretch will be underway by Fall of 2014.
As we pedaled back to the Steelyard, Zimmerman talked about other Metroparks improvements –some recently completed, like the Royalview mountain bike trail, and some under discussion. There's a planned trail that would connect Brookside Reservation and the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo with the Towpath Trail’s Harvard Avenue trailhead. The system would have to acquire or get a right of way across privately held land.
Other bike friendly improvements, though, could come at a much faster pace. Within the next month, Zimmerman says, cyclists could see the addition of “sharrows” to the Valley Parkway. Metroparks planners are considering the stenciled “share the road” markings on the road all along the Valley Parkway, which would clarify that cyclists have the right to use the roadway, and that motorists need to share.
The narrow and winding roadway has long been a point of friction between cyclists and motorists. People in cars often believe cyclists belong only on the Metroparks All Purpose Trails. They often have to wait for safe opportunities to pass cyclists on the narrow, shoulder-less road. But its also dangerous for racers and other fast riders to use the trails, where they'll mingle with leashed dogs, parents pushing strollers, roller bladers, and other slow and unpredictable traffic. Sharrows would make cyclists more comfortable on the Parkway.
Ultimately, though, Zimmerman has much more in mind than that. Cyclists who use Metroparks roads are well familiar with what Zimmerman describes –using his own made-up word--as the “knerbled” edge of the asphalt. The edges crumble because the road's base is not wide enough to support the pavement. It's a problem for cyclists because they're often crowded into the bumpy “knerbling” by passing cars. The Valley Parkway has no shoulder. Zimmerman says the eventual solution would be to slightly widen the road, all the way down to its base—not to add lanes, but enough to make road-sharing a bit more comfortable for everyone. Much of the roadway could use repaving anyway, or will need it eventually.
We roll back up to the Steel Heritage Center while the morning is still young, and Zimmerman puts his bike back in the trunk. For the director of a 22,000 acre park system, it's just the beginning of another busy day.