The sun’s morning gaze provided clear visibility as Wes Crout navigated his bicycle across the Clay Wade Bailey Bridge on March 6, a route he often takes to work in Covington.
Crout hugged the right boundary of the road to give cars room to pass by, and several did, some veering slightly into the center lane reserved for traffic heading the other way — toward Cincinnati during morning rush hour.
Then an audible blast of air rushed past, followed by the body of a bus passing so close Crout could have punched it. Crout let the expletives fly, then took note of the bus number and time: Bus 2185; 7:20 a.m.
The entire scene was caught on video by a GoPro video camera Crout installed on his helmet to document such incidents with automobiles on the road.
“Had I actually gotten hit, there’s a fairly good chance I would have been in the river,” Crout says.
The incident demonstrates one of the more dramatic examples of the bike-car dynamic playing out in Cincinnati’s streets every day, as the city moves forward with relatively ambitious plans to become more bike friendly, but at a pace slower than many would like to see.
Cincinnati adopted a new bike plan in 2010 that recommended bringing the city’s infrastructure to a total of 445 miles by 2025. At the time of implimentation, the city had around 50 total miles of on- and off-street accomodations. The new plan was scheduled to roll out in three phases, with the first one — involving 103 miles — to be completed next year.
The plan is behind schedule, however, with just 17 miles of bike lanes and sharrows (shared lane marking) installed from 2010 to 2013. But this is considerably more progress than the 7 miles the city installed from 1994 to 2009.
The plan is stalled by a lack of funding, and progress majorly relies upon grants and bird-dogging street construction projects to join. Because the city can’t pay for cycling infrastructure on its own, it factors biking network needs into future road improvement projects.
“We try to work with the street rehabilitation program because it’s so cost effective for us,” says Melissa McVay, a senior city planner for the Cincinnati Department of Transportation and Engineering. Joining projects underway cuts overall costs but results in a more piecemeal approach to building a city-wide system.
Despite the financial realities facing implementation of bike-safety infrastructure, several projects are lined up for this coming year and the near future, according to McVay.
Construction for a Central Parkway project will begin in May lasting until September.
The plan is to have a biking corridor run all the way to Ludlow Avenue, but a lack of federal grant money limits the first phase to run from Elm Street to Marshall Avenue. Bike lanes will be widened in some areas, three feet of buffer space between bike lanes and vehicle lanes added and plastic bollards will be installed to provide a safer biking lane. Where the flow of traffic intersects bike lanes, a strip of green thermoplastic will run several feet to alert drivers they are crossing over a bike lane.
“It’s a really family-friendly infrastructure,” McVay says. “Central Parkway is one of the major connectors for many neighborhoods.”
It’s also providing a route for neighborhoods that have a denser population of cyclists.
By April, new bike lanes will be constructed on Delta Avenue in Hyde Park from the Columbia Parkway through Mount Lookout, ending at Erie Avenue.
“It’s very rare we get to do that much,” says McVay, adding that the lane will provide a safe passage for cyclists to pedal at their own pace on a steep hill the street crosses.
The Department of Transportation used a grant to rehabilitate Delta Avenue and the engineers realized it would be prudent to add the bike lanes as a way to slow down traffic in an area that has received several complaints about speeding.
Bike lanes aren’t just installed at the instruction of DOT, though. The city’s planning process includes community input, which has the ability to naysay any project if it sees fit.
Becoming a bike-friendly city is a multifaceted endeavor in which providing infrastructure is only one key component. Another aspect involves accustoming drivers to bike traffic, something Cincinnati wasn’t quite ready for several years ago.
Crout, a Walnut Hills resident, says in his 10 years of riding in the area he has had a few incidents with TANK busses passing too quickly, but the one on the Clay Wade Bailey Bridge was “really nasty.”
Crout says the bus brushed his elbow as it passed, but Gina Douthat, a Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky (TANK) spokesperson disputes the claim, citing angles of video captured from the bus’ cameras. Douthat says the driver drove below the speed limit and shifted the bus to the left as far as he could considering there was a car approaching in the middle lane as the pass occurred. The driver, however, did not follow the city’s 3-feet-to-pass law intended to provide a safe buffer space between vehicles and cyclists.
Douthat says she can’t recall an incident with a bicyclist in the 15 years she’s worked at TANK. Cincinnati Metro spokesperson Jill Dunne says there were fewer than five complaints filed last year and only one so far in 2014. Dunne adds that the complaints were “more on the minor side” and none involved a collision. If a cyclist wants to share an experience with Metro, they can do so by visiting the website, highlighting the “Riding Metro” tab and then clicking on “Bike & Ride.”
Nern Ostendorf, executive director for local cycling advocacy group Queen City Bike, says she hasn’t heard of any other incidents involving TANK, but has heard minor incidents with Metro.
Queen City Bike works with TANK and Metro, along with communities around Cincinnati, to raise awareness as well as lobbying to have bike lanes implemented in new road construction plans, which happened recently in a Licking River Greenway project.
Ostendorf lived in Chicago, a noted bike-friendly city, from 2005-11 and says the Cincinnati she came back to was noticeably more bikeable.
“I noticed almost immediately how much more friendlier it was than five years prior,” Ostendorf says.
Every source interviewed for this story agrees that part of getting drivers used to the notion of bikes on the street is increasing the amount of cyclers travelling everyday. But that won’t happen until new riders feel safe on the roads.
“The biggest problem I have is, I am a seasoned veteran,” Crout says. “To a new rider an incident like this would make them never ride again.”
McVay says the city is actively trying to become more bike-friendly.
“I think our community as a whole is shifting,” McVay says. “As we build momentum, motorists will get used to us being on the road.”
McVay attributes the shift not only to be in Cincinnati, but national, as more Americans are letting sustainable and healthy living into their lifestyle and conscious.
“We’re starting to look more and more
like Chicago and New York City,” McVay says. “We’re starting to look
like a bicycling city.” ©
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