Cincinnati’s quest to become a bike-friendly city has long been riddled with social and political realities progressive cities moved past decades ago. Drivers here generally believe bikes don’t belong on the road, business owners often view the removal of parking spaces for bike lanes as akin to overturning the Second Amendment and the current City Hall administration believes suburban bike trails are a better investment than on-street infrastructure.
Dedicated cyclists in Cincinnati, like progressives in general, realize they’re in for a long, hard fight to catch up to even regional competitors like Columbus and Louisville when it comes to seeing city leaders and businesses making real sacrifices to improve the quality of the cycling experience in Cincinnati. The economic, health and safety benefits that follow such investments will have to wait for another time.
Luckily, the city of Cincinnati has a solid bike plan, though it’s only four years old and its recommendations are not mandatory. The Cincinnati Bicycle Transportation Plan outlines a series of additional bike lanes and sharrows that, while piecemeal, would gradually build a recognizable starting point for a comprehensive bike plan. The seriousness with which city leaders will adhere to the plan remains to be seen.
In the meantime, many cycling activists are doing what they can to increase awareness for cycling initiatives. On March 19, Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists, performed an assessment of the Bicycle Transportation Plan, which was completed and approved in June 2010 and recommends 445 miles of on- and off-street biking networks to be implemented in three phases over 15 years. Clarke was a keynote speaker at the second Greater Cincinnati Cycling Conference, which brought area leadership representing different facets of cycling together to discuss major cycling initiatives for 2014 and beyond. Mayor John Cranley also spoke at the event, along with several other leaders, advocates and store owners within the bicycling community, including senior city planner Mel McVay, Queen City Bike president Frank Henson and Ohio’s bike lawyer Steve Magas.
Clarke, originally from England, expressed his passion for increasing ridership after taking a rainy, 14-mile tour of Cincinnati by bike.
“I saw the beginnings of a great bike network,” Clarke said. “The overwhelming impression is one of hope — and I’m looking forward to seeing this develop quickly.”
The League of American Bicyclists hands out bronze, silver, gold and platinum awards to cities all over the U.S. dictating their level of bike-friendliness. Cities like Boston, Chicago and Denver are all silver-level communities, while Seattle and Portland have reached gold and platinum levels, respectively. The 20-page packet to apply for a bike-friendly rating is filled with questionnaires and fill-in-the-blank prompts about what the league calls the five “Es”: Engineering, referencing the city’s physical bike-supportive infrastructure; Education, regarding programs that ensure the safety, comfort and convenience of cyclists and fellow road users; Encouragement, via incentives and promotions to get people to ride; Enforcement, meaning equitable laws and programs to ensure both cyclists and motorists are held accountable; and Evaluation, a process to demonstrate commitment to measuring bikability results and planning for the future.
Cincinnati’s current status is bronze — which means there’s still plenty of work to be done — but the city is only a few years removed from the League of American Bicyclists’ dubious list of “bike-unfriendly” cities.
Despite various pieces of progress — recommendations in the city’s bike plan are typically constructed as part of new projects — the new mayor, along with Vice Mayor David Mann, recently disrupted the plan by pausing the Central Parkway Bikeway Project just before construction was set to commence.
After considerable debate over removing on-street parking, an amended plan passed that will still begin a cycling corridor running from Elm Street downtown to Ludlow Avenue in Clifton, but it will cost more than $100,000 in additional funding in order to save a couple dozen parking spaces at the expense of trees currently lining the street.
As part of the ordinance restarting construction, City Council passed Mayor Cranley’s plan to invest $1.9 million into various bike trails and the Cincy Bike Share program. The apparent shift in focus from the on-street infrastructure outlined in the bike plan to trails and recreational infrastructure Cranley is pushing caused Queen City Bike to schedule a private meeting to regroup.
“It is also very clear that our new administration and council will have a very different approach to bicycling than in years past,” read an email from the Queen City Bike board of trustees on April 30 to supporters. “We need your help to help us plan for making Cincinnati the most bike and pedestrian friendly it can be in the future.”
The Cincy Bike Share initiative Cranley is pushing forward could help get more bikes on the road. Jason Barron, executive director for Cincy Bike Share, is working on a convenient, low-cost, green transportation system that provides durable bikes and automated docking stations, allowing users to make point-to-point trips through the city. According to Barron, using the bike share is easy: Residents, commuters and visitors can simply sign in by getting an annual membership online or a day pass at the station.
“This kind of transportation will complement existing transit options while making it easier to get around the city,” Barron says.
The bike share will be installed in phases: Phase 1 will cover downtown and Over-the-Rhine with 21 bike share stations and 210 bikes. Phase 2 will cover uptown and the University of Cincinnati with 14 bike share stations and 140 bikes. Phase 3 targets Northern Kentucky and could launch as early as next year.
Clarke believes getting Cincinnati’s bronze level status upgraded to silver involves increasing the amount of people actually riding bikes.
“I’m guessing that at some point our decision on whether Cincinnati has done enough is going to come down to how many people are riding bikes,” Clarke said at the cycling conference. “I think for the next couple of years there is going to be a lot of opportunity for some infrastructure changes and educational programs and encouragement activities. The kind of infrastructure that’s put in has got to be the kind of stuff that’s really going to make people wake up in the morning and think, ‘You know what, I can ride a bike here, I can do this on a bike.’ And the League of American Bicyclists is going to want to see that translated into ridership. The bike share will certainly help with that.”
Clarke said he was particularly happy to be talking to local bike retailers, who aren’t typically involved in advocacy nationwide, at the conference.
Jason Reser of the Cincinnati Bicycle Dealers Association and owner of Reser Bicycle Outfitters in Newport, Ky., was also vocal about participating with advocates to raise the money and influence to make moves inside City Hall.
“We’re not afraid to stick our neck out or lend a hand,” Reser said of closing the gap between retailers and advocacy groups.
“That’s what’s going to be necessary to win the hearts and minds of the business community, political community and neighborhoods,” added Clark.
From a development standpoint, Clarke was very impressed with neighborhoods like Northside and Over-the-Rhine.
“In Northside, there’s clearly a great little mini-downtown that can and will be thriving,” he said, “and Over-the-Rhine is a freaking goldmine. … That neighborhood is going to be the talk of the region in five years. The more we can get people to ride, the more growth we will see in cycling. There are more pieces to the puzzle here than there are in other cities. There’s obviously a long way to go, but while other cities may have two or three pieces, Cincinnati has five or six.”