If Mark Twain was right about Cincinnati being 10 years behind the times nearly a century ago, it would be safe to expect the Industrial Revolution and Internet age by now to have dropped our fair city even further behind society’s advancements.
If the Oct. 8 Cincinnati Bike Plan open house at the McKie Recreation Center in Northside is an indication that Cincinnati is finally sincere about promoting bicycles as a legitimate transportation option, that would put us approximately 40 years behind the most progressive American cities in this regard. But it’s better late than never, according to the nearly 100 people who showed up to participate in the information-gathering session with city engineers and design groups currently working on the city’s first comprehensive bike plan since 1976.
“I think it’s a very big step,” says Gary Wright of Queen City Bike, a bicycle advocacy group. “I mean, it’s a very modest amount of money for this kind of plan and it’s going to depend on people in the community like Queen City Bike and MoBo (Bicycle Cooperative) and other people to actually make this work. Given the amount of money that’s being invested in this, it’s really going to depend on us.”
Jim Coppock, a senior engineer in Cincinnati’s transportation and engineering department, says the city’s $150,000 investment in a bicycle master plan and the hiring of consulting firm Toole Design Group — which has created similar plans in several major cities — is evidence of a changing culture at City Hall that could lead to advancements in planning philosophies that haven’t been seen here since the AMC Gremlin’s heyday.
“A lot of the political support has been for trail projects (in the past),” Coppock says. “So to have an opportunity to look at the big city picture with a national consultant — this is high caliber.
“There are two companies that are just at the top of the list, so that was a plumb to our credibility. If we had tried to do it in-house without the national expertise, I think it would have been an average bike plan, and now I think we’re gonna end up with something that’s got some cutting-edge stuff as well as some realistic things that fit more with the conservative part of Cincinnati.”
The meeting began with a slide show by Bob Patten, a senior planner with Toole, who explained the various options that planners and engineers have when considering retrofitting existing streets or adding bike-friendly infrastructure to new projects. The goal of the meeting was to get input directly from cyclists on specific streets and intersections in order to determine the most appropriate uses going forward.
Patten noted the sharrows (little bike guys with arrows painted on the right-half of a lane to remind motorists to share the road) recently added to Clifton Avenue and Madison Road and explained options for maximizing existing pavement by adding a climbing lane to the uphill side of a road but a sharrow in the lane going downhill.
Changing four-lane roads to three — with a turn lane in the middle and bike lanes on the outside of each — is called a “road diet” and often is better for vehicular traffic because it keeps cars from stopping in the left lane when turning.
The planners set up stations with maps of specific parts of town and asked cyclists to note things like improvement needs, typical origins and destinations, good cycling routes, dangerous intersections and big hills. This input will help planners complete an existing conditions analysis, which will be followed by a proposed network of routes sometime during winter or spring, with the goal of presenting the comprehensive plan to City Council in May or June.
From Patten’s perspective, Cincinnati’s initial investment in a plan is evidence of a serious interest in changing the way it approaches bike safety and transportation engineering. Toole Design Group recently completed a bike plan for Baltimore that's been noted for its innovation.
“I see a number of similarities between Cincinnati and Baltimore,” Patten says. “It’s hard for me to compare exactly how they might progress because we’ve just gotten started here, so I’m just getting to know the people who work in the transportation department and they’re the key to carrying it forward. But also the political leadership is key, and while I don’t know the politicians and whatnot I’ve learned enough in the first two months that there is some strong political support. And if that political support stays with the council and the mayor, that will ensure that the departments understand that it’s a priority.”
It’s yet to be proven just how dedicated City Hall as a whole is to the cycling movement. An informational meeting last October was attended by Councilwoman Roxanne Qualls but none of the three other members of the Transportation & Infrastructure Subcommittee at the time: Chris Bortz, Laketa Cole and John Cranley. Qualls and Councilman Jeff Berding attended last week's meeting.
Still, cycling advocates see City Hall’s most recent demonstration of interest as proof that the movement is going forward. The city’s planners and engineers say they’re being encouraged by Michael Moore, the city's interim director of the Department of Transportation and Engineering, to include bicycle infrastructure in more projects, and the 2011 master plan will include the comprehensive bike plan to guide future bicycle funding.
Whether the plan is funded and executed properly going forward will depend on budgetary issues and the personalities inside City Hall during the next few years. But cycling advocates believe they finally have a say in these issues, however late it might be.
Says Queen City Bike’s Wright: “Just to get to the point of having those routes brought to the attention of the city engineers the transportation department is exciting, and then to have the community hopefully get behind this and keep the momentum going to make sure that these changes we want to see are made. I think it's a very, very big step, but it’s a big step not just because of the technical part of it. It’s a big step because its an opportunity to take the momentum we’ve had the last couple years and get it focused. We know we have City Council’s attention. If we can show that there’s enough interest in the community we can make stuff happen.”
For more background, check out our 2008 cover story on the state of local bicycle planning here. Click here to participate in the city's current Bike Plan survey and here to view and comment on an interactive map of cycling conditions.
Image from bikeportland.org: A "bike box," one of Portland, Ore.'s latest pieces of bike-friendly infrastructure. If form holds true, Cincinnati won't expect to use these until around 2039.