I’m standing over my bike, breathing hard, just a few hundred feet from where the Beechmont Levee crosses the Little Miami River. I’ve ridden here with Wade Johnston, director of Tri-State Trails. With his soccer player’s build, he set a pace around the Lunken Airport bike path to this spot that my desk-set physique struggled to match.
We’re here to see construction on a new bike and pedestrian bridge, dubbed the Beechmont Connector, which broke ground in early March and is slated for completion by fall 2022. It will connect the 78-mile Little Miami Scenic Trail with a growing network of urban bike trails around Cincinnati.
It’s been an exciting year of progress on bike trails across the region, which is serendipitous given the surge in interest in bicycling and walking generated by the pandemic.
The city’s first ever two-way protected bike lane was installed in March along Clifton Avenue near the University of Cincinnati. The temporary pilot lane is expected to become permanent. The Ohio River Trail was extended both up and down river, with a half-mile section opening in Price Hill in August 2020 and a two-mile extension from Lunken Airport out to the California neighborhood this spring. To the north, crucial segments of trail in Hamilton and Metroparks that will link the Great Miami Bikeway with the Little Miami Scenic Trail were also announced. And progress on the much-lauded Wasson Way project continues full steam ahead.
But the biggest local bike trail news this spring was Mayor John Cranley’s March 30 announcement that the city has come to an agreement with the owners of the “Oasis Line” railway along the Ohio River, allowing the city to use American Rescue Plan Act funds to build a dedicated bike/hike path from downtown to Lunken Airport.
This leg of bike trail along the river has been in urban planners’ sights for over a decade. The Beechmont Connector, Wasson Way, and the new rail trail along the river are all part of a grand vision for a truly connected system of trails around Cincinnati, dubbed the CROWN—Cincinnati Riding or Walking Network. The CROWN loop will touch 54 communities, running from Northside to Madisonville, down to Lunken, then west along the Ohio River to downtown and on to Lower Price Hill. The loop would then be closed by the forthcoming north-south Mill Creek Greenway trail.
This environmentally friendly dynamo will attract billions in development dollars and make our city healthier, safer, more fun, and more attractive as a destination or a place to live. And there are more hopes hidden in the CROWN. Some see it as a way to reconnect neighborhoods and residents who have been cut off by a century of car-centric urban planning and design.
Both Wade Johnston and I live in Mt. Washington, just across the river from where we’re watching a bulldozer push dirt down a former access road. As cyclists, we’ve used the access road as a somewhat perilous shortcut. If you bombed down Beechmont Avenue past ramps to and from State Route 32 and across the narrow levee road bridge, then played Frogger across four lanes of traffic, this access road got you to peaceful, green miles of bike trail.
I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was 30, so bikes have always been part of my life. That includes bike commuting when possible for the better part of several decades. I’ve watched the slow growth of Cincinnati’s cycling infrastructure and benefited from using it. But progress can seem fragmented. Johnston and I talk about the relative merits of on-road vs. off-road riding, “protected” bike trails like the CROWN, and Cincinnati’s recent progress on bike infrastructure.
In many cases, on-road bike infrastructure has been laid down where road rehabs are happening, he says, because that’s the cheapest time to do it. “And you can get a little piece, but maybe it doesn’t connect. So people are confused, Why doesn’t it connect? What the CROWN is doing is building the network.” Johnston nods to where the new Beechmont Connector trail bridge will be built beside the levee. “And connections like this in particular are going to be a huge catalyst.”
So what? you ask. Trails are great for a Saturday walk or ride where you’re occasionally passed by a peloton of Lycra-clad dudes racing to the next trail-side brewery. What’s the big deal?
First of all, even if you never set foot or tire on the CROWN, urban bike infrastructure makes everyone safer on roads. A 2019 study published in Journal of Transport & Health analyzed traffic crash data over a 13-year period in cities that added “protected” bike lanes to streets. It found that these separate lanes resulted in 44 percent fewer deaths and 50 percent fewer serious injuries. The reason? In the parlance of planners, protected bike paths “calmed” traffic. Cars travelled slightly more slowly, and more cyclists and walkers meant more bikes everywhere, plus drivers who themselves enjoyed those activities, which encourages alertness.
Bike infrastructure also drives development and economic growth and raises real estate values. Johnston cites the Indianapolis Cultural Trail as an example. A 2015 economic impact report found that property values within one block of the 8.1-mile multi-use trail increased just over $1 billion. The CROWN will be more than four times longer.
Leaning against his black Surly Cross-Check with a rear rack kiddie-seat adaptor, Johnston outlines the complicated ballet of getting bike infrastructure built in this region. Bicycle infrastructure groups and advocates have shown up at thousands of meetings to push for bike lanes over parking lanes. Great Parks of Hamilton County, Anderson Township, and the city of Cincinnati have all been big leaders, Johnston says, in pushing for trail infrastructure and pedestrian connectivity. “But having an independent third party like Tri-State Trails and Green Umbrella coordinating behind the scenes for these collaborations is the encouragement that communities need to connect,” he says.
Johnston is one of only two full-time employees at Tri-State Trails, the brainchild of local sustainability nonprofit Green Umbrella. With financial support from the Haile Foundation and the Good Devou Foundation, it works to connect the dots of a regional trail network. A nine-county Regional Trails Plan was completed in 2014, and from that the CROWN emerged.
Tri-State Trails helps communities navigate the complexities of funding, including grants through OKI (Ohio- Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments) and ODNR (Ohio Department of Natural Resources). For example, when the city of Cincinnati couldn’t afford the local match on a transportation grant for an extension of the Ohio River Trail in 2017, city planners almost returned the money. Tri-State Trails sought a total of $500,000 from Anderson Township, Hamilton County, and Interact for Health, Johnston says, which allowed the city to find the remaining funds to extend the path. It’s a public-private partnership, he says, for which he’s able to act as quarterback.
Safety, economic value, and good clean fun; what’s not to love? When I Zoom-chat with Jan and Wym Portman, the CROWN’s most prominent supporters and fund-raisers, they bring home what makes this project even more vital to the here and now.
Since 2006 Wym has served on the board of the Ohio River Way, one of the CROWN’s partner organizations. It’s long pushed for a trail linking Lunken Airport and downtown, but, he says, “As a nonprofit, it’s difficult to get the railroad’s attention.” He credits Cranley’s leadership with closing the deal to acquire the riverfront right of way.
The Portmans enjoy walking, running, and cycling and are passionate about the outdoors and conservation causes. One of the first boards Wym served on locally was Camp Joy, where he saw that many city kids lacked outdoor experience and confidence. That’s still in the back of his mind, he says, when he speaks with people from neighborhoods like Avondale about the CROWN. He hears from parents, he says, “about the importance of this trail for their kids, to be able to get on a bike and ride from Avondale to Hyde Park or Avondale to downtown.”
Jan’s training as a geologist and a geography teacher influences her thinking about a project woven from the landscape. “When we mobilize ourselves in the world, cycle, or connect with terra firma rather than drive a car, our experience is very different,” she says. “One of my favorite things is walking on the trail with people who have not been there, maybe walking from Hyde Park through a park to Red Bank Road. And there’s just an amazing sense of discovery that those two places are close by. They’re surprised and delighted to make that connection between places and to each other.”
Side-by-side neighborhoods often contrast sharply—and quite literally—with “the other side of the tracks,” so it feels elegant to turn railroad tracks back into a means of human connection. “We have the geography, a great river, and the best park system of any U.S. city our size,” says Wym. “The CROWN takes advantage of all that. And we need this more than ever in our civilization today, too, because of all the divisions in our society.”
To get a sense of when you might expect to ride the CROWN’s entire 34-mile loop, I speak with John Brazina, director of Cincinnati’s department of transportation and engineering. He used to commute on his Trek road bike from Blue Ash to City Hall and back, so he gets how bike infrastructure can transform the urban cycling experience. “Where there’s a sharrow or a bike lane or just a simple pavement marking to delineate between a driving lane and a bicycle-use lane,” he says, “it helps both me as a rider and me as a driver know where I’m supposed to be.”
Brazina can’t say exactly when the CROWN will be complete, but he points to the rate of progress on Wasson Way as a good indicator that we won’t have to wait long. Wasson Way currently runs from Evanston to Oakley, and ongoing work will take it to Ault Park later this year, with final phases funded through OKI. “So we’re talking maybe three years,” he says, “and you have a complete trail that gets you from the University of Cincinnati all the way to Ault Park.”
So three years could be the time frame for nearing completion of the CROWN’s northern and eastern sides. Cranley’s agreement on the rail trail linking Lunken to downtown allows two years for parties to work out the legalities, gain regulatory approval, and raise funds, but also underscores the intent to move quickly. That said, City Hall leadership will change this fall, so getting the work done soon will depend on whether the next mayor prioritizes this project. But if he does, we could see completion of the riverside corridor in just a few years. That leaves the north-south Mill Creek Greenway to complete the CROWN.
While the Greenway is still in planning stages, you can already ride from downtown to Northside on a mixture of on-road bike lanes and small sections of protected bike path.
I sit in on an online meeting, organized by Johnston, to gather local cyclists’ input for a new “low stress” Cincinnati bike map modeled on a similar project in Denver. So often, biking really is lower stress than driving—until it isn’t.
Johnston opens the meeting by explaining that the map is meant to get more people out on bikes because “if you equip a human with a bicycle, they are the most efficient mode of travel on the planet by energy consumed. So if we want to convince people not to drive a car for every trip, we think a bike is a great way to do it.”
Johnston listens to local riders on the Zoom call and displays their favorite routes in real time with Geographic Information System mapping software. The meeting is a show-and-tell of shortcuts, tree-shaded scenic routes, and potential trouble areas to warn new cyclists about. It shows how bicycles fit into the larger fabric of transportation options, where infrastructure is—but mostly isn’t—used. The Central Parkway bike lane, a key route for heading out of Over-the-Rhine, is much appreciated by local cyclists, but when busy it can be dangerous as cars pull into and out of Findlay Market from behind a row of parked vehicles. There’s also discussion of areas of downtown near highway on- and off-ramps where cyclists can get caught off-guard by motorists still moving at highway speeds.
That last point is raised by Joe Humpert, president of Queen City Bike, a nonprofit dedicated to making Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky “a great bicycling region.” He organizes group rides that explore the area by bike and stop to socialize, brew up coffee outdoors, and take in the landscape as part of his local #coffeeoutside movement.
Bike infrastructure is all about providing options “for people who either can’t afford a car or choose to not operate an automobile,” says Humpert when I reach him later by telephone. While on-road infrastructure can occasionally act as a lightning rod in the sometimes fraught relationship between drivers and cyclists, he says, it’s an important part of a larger functional network.
He sees access to good infrastructure two ways. First, can everyone get from their personal point A to point B easily and safely? “We want people of all economic statuses and colors and abilities to be able to get from wherever they are to wherever they need to go,” he says. That’s why Queen City Bike, Tri-State Trails, RedBike, and Cincinnati Off-Road Alliance all maintain ties with the Metro and TANK bus systems, he says, “because multimodal transportation is so important to folks.” Multimodal, in this case, includes using a bike for a piece of their trip—tossing a bike on the front of a bus to get up a hill, for example.
Humpert’s second goal is the idea of comfort, by which he means safety. “You have this perception, sometimes quite real, that you’re putting your life at risk when riding a bike in the city,” he says. “Some folks can be drawn into the sport and can come to a better understanding of cyclists as a group if they’re given the opportunity to participate on things like the Little Miami Trail and Wasson Way, where you almost never encounter an automobile or, if you do, it’s in a very controlled setting. That enables everyone to utilize their bikes for recreation and exercise.”
Beyond planning meetings and mapping software, local bike organizations are also trying to spread the gospel of multimodal transportation on a person-to-person level. They want to make the network work for everyone in the region, especially those who’ve gotten so used to being left out that when they see a new trailhead or RedBike station they automatically think Not for me.
The nonprofit bike share Cincy RedBike is working to change that perception. It recently won a $200,000 Living Lab Grant from the Better Bike Share Partnership to build inclusivity into its fleet of 442 bikes and 100 e-bikes parked at 57 stations throughout the urban basin, suburbs, and Northern Kentucky.
RedBike’s education and outreach manager, Elese Daniel, plays bike polo, writes poetry, and even owns a bike with a typewriter attached to it, the “Story Bike.” She also manages RedBike’s “Go” program, which offers $5 monthly passes to households at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines.
Her role at RedBike is to encourage more lower income individuals and people of color to feel inclined to use the service. Some of that’s just getting out in communities and talking to people or holding pop-up events where they can try bikes and e-bikes to “remind people that bikes are fun, that they’re potentially a tool, that they can be a fun date night,” Daniel says. The national grant supports RedBike’s reach into new neighborhoods with “single-serve” bike docks.
“We have our different roles to play in advocacy and in supporting more bicycling for all the benefits that it can offer people,” she says. “But the question is who’s going to use this infrastructure and how will people feel about it. So it feels really important to make sure people are given opportunities to try biking on different trails and deciding where bike infrastructure goes themselves.”
Bellevue resident Caitlin Sparks calls herself a “vehicular cyclist” and encourages other cyclists to ride in the road and take the entire lane to increase visibility both for themselves and for cyclists as a group. Which, she admits, can be a big ask. Sparks is on the board of the Northside-based MoBo Bicycle Co-op and volunteers in their “open shop,” where participants learn how to repair their own bikes or even build one. MoBo recently partnered with RedBike to create a shared Youth Programs Coordinator position.
Sparks also puts in shop time at Newport-based Reser Outfitters, where she often gets to ask people where they’re going to ride their brand new bike. A lot of people—armed with stimulus checks and going stir crazy under lockdown—bought new bikes during the pandemic, and many tell her, I’m going to stick with the trails for now. “And that’s an entryway, the first step,” she says. “Because once they get out there and the wind blows in their face and they’re having an awesome time, they’ll want to keep doing it. And they’ll go a little further each time.”
Do you remember when you got your first bike? If that never happened for you, it still can. For me, because I’m a new parent and grew up being ridden around on my dad’s bike, making our city bike-friendly is really about making our city a fun place to be a kid. Or to be a kid again.
There’s that other cycle the CROWN is hoping to support: our life cycle. As Wym and Jan Portman say, a biking and hiking trail is for every kid to ride and explore and for old friends to walk. Above all, it’s a shared path where you get to know your neighbors and where communities can connect.